The Japanese Shmup Scene, Interview with Arasaka

Japanese STG player interviewed: Arasaka

Interview conducted by: Mark MSX

(Arasaka 481 Mill Ura 2-All)

Yeah … this dude is legit.


Forward:

An article like this has been a long time in the making, I’ve reached out to Japanese players before, but have had no luck until Arasaka. Given his openness and willingness to indulge my questions, I think it’s really fortunate that there is someone like him in the Japanese scene, so massive thanks to him! The reason why I conducted this interview is that, over the past year, I have accumulated a bunch of questions about the Japanese STG scene, but have been unable to get them answered directly from the source. I’m really glad I was able to get in touch with Arasaka and I think the information provided will be interesting to my fellow non-Japanese players.

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Q1: How did you get into STG? What is your personal history with the genre? What about STG hooked you?

A1:
To make a long story short, my first STGs were Fantasy Zone (1986, SEGA) and Life Force (1987, KONAMI). Visuals, art, music, story, the overall experience of STG … everything was awesome. The music of these games hooked me. Since then, I have been playing numerous STGs on various platforms. Recently, I play CAVE’s Danmaku STGs mainly. My favorite game is Ketsui.

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Q2: When you first got into STG, what was the Japanese scene like? How has it changed over time? What do you think the future of the Japanese STG scene looks like? Is the genre becoming more or less popular in Japan?

A2:
In the 90’s, there were a lot of small arcades everywhere in Japan. Around the train station I often used were 7~8 arcades. I went there frequently on the way home from school. Unfortunately, most of them are already closed. The number of arcades in Japan is decreasing year by year, especially small and medium sized arcades. They are nearly extinct. For various reasons, I think it’s difficult to recover the population of the arcade to the previous level. However,  I don’t think it will disappear completely.

As for STG scene, in the past 10 years, Touhou has increased the population of STG players significantly. A lot of indie/doujin devs are creating quality shmups also. I think they will become the center of STGs in the future.

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Q3: What do you think about the current way world records are recorded and verified? Do you see this system having trouble in the future due to the diminishing arcade scene and original arcade hardware?

A3:
Yeah, as you said, I think this system already has some troubles due to diminishing arcades. The “in a real arcade, and within business hours” rule is a huge barrier for new players. However, this is a valuable culture with a long history, so I also think that we should preserve them as is as long as we can. JHA is doing a great job for that.

Aside from that, thanks to the internet technology, everyone can currently post a high-score with some evidence (photos, or videos) to the sea of the internet. We can treat the highest score available on the internet as the world record. I think this method will become mainstream in the future.

JHA has a long history, but it is not an official tracker or anything, it’s just one of the many community record keepers, same as western forum, etc. Having multiple ways of recording things is good for coverage. I think each site should keep on going their way.

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Q4: What do you think about video replays of high scores? Do you think having them be publicly available is beneficial for the shmup community, or do you feel that part of STG involves discovering strategies on your own?

A4:
Except for the limited situation (ex. during the limited period competitions, etc), I think sharing videos publicly is always beneficial to the future of the shmup community. Hiding something causes decreased popularity, obviously. It does nothing but harm.

I feel aiming for a high-score and taking the game apart are like scientific development. A lot of players have contributed to that in various ways, so I think we should keep in mind the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” thing.

Of course it’s just my opinion. There are a lot of players who don’t think so. I will also respect their decision.

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Q5: What are the challenges of sharing video replays publicly in Japan? Are sites like YouTube hard to access?

*This may seem like a dumb question, but I asked it because I am still confused why some Japanese players continue to use Nico, considering how awful it is. I was wondering if there was some type of problem with accessing YouTube or something. If you are a Japanese STG player and you are reading this … please do not use Nico!*

A5:
There are no challenges with using YouTube, even in Japan. You can see a lot of Japanese STG players on the various streaming sites like YouTube, Twitch, or Nicovideo nowadays.

However, it’s really difficult recording video from old JAMMA based PCB games set in candy cabinets in a real arcade environment. In most cases, this requires special apparatus such as video converter, recorder, and a DIY soldered JAMMA middle harness. Only a few arcades (ex. Ebicen, Acho, etc.) can provide such a service.

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Q6: In the past, has there been a lot of rivalry between Japanese players? If so, what was that like? Has that changed overtime?

A6:
In the age of ancient Gamest magazine, we could watch the battles of the top high scores on the magazine’s high-score pages. The winners were replaced every month and in some games, sometimes only two players won alternately. I’m not sure if they consider each other rivals, at least that was really impressive.

That’s old history. With the shrinking of the arcade scene, they have already faded away. But I have seen similar situations on the Touhou scoreboards, so I think newer generations still have the same potential for that.

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Q7: What do Japanese players think about emulation and console ports? Is emulation used frequently as a practice tool? Are console ports popular? Do players have interest in arranged modes, generally?

A7:
Practicing on the console ports is really popular even in Japan. Especially in case they are aiming for high-score, or aiming for TLB/2-ALL tier achievement. Of course, they use stage select mode on the console ports for practice. In fact, there are some players who don’t use any console ports for practice. For example, one of my Ketsui friend got Ura 2-ALL with totally PCB-only-play last year. But such a case is really rare.

Emulation is not popular in Japan for various reasons. Some players use that for practice, but perhaps most players have never touched emulation.
Setting up the emulation environment legally is really troublesome. I don’t want to be bothered by such a thing, so I’ll keep my distance from that.

*This information didn’t surprise me. From what I have gathered, being a follower of various emulation scenes, Japan copyright is much more strict about roms and all that and it seems more taboo among Japanese gamers, compared to the west. I am glad to hear that the Japanese scene seems to be warming up to console ports, because their online leader boards are a way the Japanese and western communities can interact with each other.*

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Q8: What are the Japanese players general thoughts on the western shmup community? Is there much interest in interaction? Could you see Japanese players being interested in submitting scores to our forums like the French one?

 (Link)

 

A8:
Unfortunately, except for a few exceptions, most of Japanese players are not interested in foreign communities. That French forum looks really nice! But as you know, Japanese players are not so outgoing. They will hesitate to post to foreign forums.

I think most of Japanese players tend to prefer loose connections, such as posting a score on Twitter casually, rather than actively committing to smaller communities.

Also, there are a lot of players who don’t say anything on the internet.

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Q9: Outside of Touhou, is there much interest in PC shmups among Japanese players? Do Japan players use Steam? Are titles like ZeroRanger or Blue Revolver on the radar in Japan?

A9:
Yes, Japanese players play PC shmups a lot. In the doujin shmups scene, there are a lot of masterpieces besides Touhou, such as Hellsinker, RefRain, etc. Steam is very popular even in Japan. Of course I know ZeroRanger and Blue Revolver. They are very famous among Japanese players and have really high reputations.

*I bet the devs will be happy to hear that! They deserve it, western indie devs are putting out really great games right now.*

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Q10: In the western shmup community, there is a divide between Touhou and arcade, is the situation similar in Japan? What types of shmups are younger/new shmup players interested in?

A10:
Yeah, more than 10 years ago, there was a divide between Touhou and arcade in Japan as well. So I think the situation was similar.
But nowadays, I’m feeling these dividers are fading away. When I meet young players at the real arcade, I always asked them, “What is your first STG?” Most of them say: “It’s Touhou.” They enjoy both of Touhou and arcade shmups, naturally.

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Q11: Just curious, is the Xbox 360 popular with Japanese shmup players? From what I’ve heard, Xbox in general is unpopular in Japan.

A11:
“Xbox is unpopular in Japan generally” is true. But Xbox 360 has a huge STG lineup, so it’s really popular among STG players — even in Japan. Most of my friends who are STG players have an Xbox 360.

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Q12: What are Japanese players’ thoughts on mobile shmups, most western players (myself included) are frustrated when new shmups, like AKA to BLUE, are only on mobile.

A12:
AKA to BLUE and GomaOtsu are very popular in Japan. A lot of arcade players also enjoy smartphone shmups. But yeah, to be honest, I’m not interested in smartphone shmups.

*Just saw a survey CAVE put out about which games of theirs they should port to mobile … ugh. How about Futari and SDOJ on PC?*

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Q13: What is your honest opinion on EXA Arcadia in Japan, do you think it really could bring arcades back to popularity, or is it too late?

A13:
As I said, I think it’s difficult to recover the population of arcade to the previous level, but I’m really looking forward to the EXA Arcadia games and I hope their business goes well.

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Q14: With CAVE’s inactivity, who do you think can step up to fill their shoes, as far as producing quality STG? In my opinion, it will be indie devs, but are there Japanese devs we should be paying attention to?

A14:
My opinion is the same as yours. Indie and doujin devs are creating quality shmups. Some of them are ported to other platforms, such as DS, Nesica, and EXA Arcadia. I think these methods will become mainstream in the future.

As for Japanese devs, my favorite games are:
Hellsinker. (RUMINANT’S WHIMPER)
RefRain (RebRank)
∀kashicverse (Endless Shirafu)

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Q15: How do Japanese players generally practice STG? If you guys are only practicing on arcade cabinets, are there some tricks you guys use (like rotating players) to optimize playtime, or are you guys actually restarting the credit each time?

A15:
When a new game appears in the arcade, of course there is no console port yet. For example, imagine the first month after SDOJ was released. There was no practice method other than playing in the arcade at that time. In this case, we always insert 100 yen coin to the arcade cabinet then restart from the beginning each time. There is no trick or something like that.

If we already have a good console port, of course we use stage select mode for practice.
Aside from that, in case I’m aiming for casual 1-ALL, I will play only on the arcade cabinet because it’s more fun for me. So whether we use a port or not depends on the kind of game and situation. There is no fixed policy for that.

*There goes my theories on Japanese players coming up with creative ways to bypass having to repeat the same gameplay over and over.*

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Final question (for now): Why is Ketsui your favorite shmup?

A16:

Game systems, bullet patterns, bullet speed, music, story … all the elements in this game perfectly match my tastes, definitely all time best game for me.

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Follow up questions (5/15/19)

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Q1: It sounds like a number of Japanese players do have access to PC games and Steam. If that is the case, is there any demand for PC ports like the Steam CAVE ports? Western players, myself included, would strongly prefer the M2 ports on PC, is there any talk of that among the Japanese players?

A1:
Of course, I think it’s fantastic if M2 ports are also released on Steam. But most of us already have a PS4, and in most cases we can play more comfortably on the console port rather than on the PC. So I think that the demand for PC ports is a little weak among Japanese players.

There are unlimited kind of environments on the world of PCs. It means that more costs are required for user support. I can imagine it easily becoming a nightmare for small devs, such as M2. To be honest, I think that they shouldn’t consume limited resources for such an obscure work. I hope they use their resources only for making the games themselves.

*I could see this response being controversial. While I don’t agree that the PC ports would be more trouble than they are worth, you have to remember Arasaka’s perspective. PC shmups are very niche in Japan and the primary market for M2 are the Japanese players (Deathtiny hasn’t even been localized yet, for example). So, in that way of viewing things, I could see why M2 wouldn’t bother with PC ports (though I wish they would).*

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Q2: On a typical day at the arcade, how many players are there to play STG? What is the peak number of players and are there days where no one is at the arcade playing shmups at all?

A2:
It highly depends on the situation of each arcade so I can’t say anything generally. For example, HEY has 70 or more STG cabinets and most of them are occupied every weekend. Additionally, there are a lot of spectators in the aisles and sometimes their bags hit the player’s back. It’s slightly unsuitable for the players who play seriously.

Even in HEY, it’s deserted during daytime on the week days. Only less than 10 players are there. Most other arcades are not as crowded as HEY, but the situations are almost the same: good weekends and miserable daytime weekdays.

In any arcade, if no players are there, even on the weekends, all STG cabinets will be removed immediately from their lineups. “The day of completely no players” may exist, but it doesn’t last for a long time. As a result, the arcades which have large STG lineups are really rare in Japan.

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Q3: What do you think of the idea of JHA including a column next to the scores where players can add a link to a video of their run? Do you think this would encourage more players to include videos of their runs?

A3:
I think it is not a good idea. In fact, JHA is just a non-profit organization, but they are inheriting some kind of authority/fame from Gamest and Arcadia. If they want to keep this position, they have to keep strict legal requirements.

I think that uploading game replay videos is mostly harmless in the recent social situation. But, strictly speaking, it contains copyright infringement and asking for permission for each old game is impossible, so they won’t touch such a thing.

*Again, Japan is very serious about their copyright law, game play footage acting as an advertisement is a completely foreign concept to most Japanese video game companies, which is a shame.*

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Q4: Plasmo and I have been working on a video index cataloging publicly available STG replays, would something like this be of interest to Japanese players?

 (link)

A4:
I think that’s really awesome work. As I said, JHA can list only limited information due to their position. I think that it is a very good idea that someone complements it. Indexing the videos publicly available on the internet would be a very important work in this case.

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Q5: What do you think of the Ketsui Deathtiny arrange mode? Is this popular among Japanese players?

A5:

As for me, I don’t like too much bullet-canceling in my games, so I didn’t play that a lot. It’s simply not my cup of tea.

But Deathtiny arrange is really well made. It has a very high reputation, even among my Ketsui friends. Some of them are scoring the mode seriously and posting the unbelievably high scores to the leader board.

*After the DDP 2-all, I plan on digging into Ketsui more seriously, this will also include playing Deathtiny arrange, I personally really enjoy the mode.*

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End of Interview

 

HUGE thanks again to Arasaka for taking the time to answer my questions for the interview! 481 million homie points for being so open and informative.

 

Cheers!

Mark MSX

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