Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER

An Orwellian dystopia looking at the illegal hunting down and trading of long lost retro videogames – and an eerie reflection of what we’re becoming.

“I don’t play games outside of my business,” said the man. His name was Ryohei Takamizawa, and he was a game hunter. I knew my fair share of brokers tracking down the games, the consoles, the arcade boards for the sort of people that underground arcades needed to make their money, but they’re usually nowhere near this young.

“The Softmap #666 guy told me you got a history fan in your clientele.”


I have a fascination with the real-life underground of rare game collectors, because if you’ve got enough money to spend thousands of dollars on a single, unique example of human creativity, then more power to you. People do it with one-of-a-kind paintings, so why not games? Anyway, when Googling for Kevin Gifford’s Magweasel (an incredible blog focusing on really obscure Japanese gaming culture) column on GameSetWatch, I was quite excited to discover a Japanese novel set in the future and centred around such clandestine behaviour. Best of all, it’s been lovingly translated and made available for everyone.

I’ll let Kevin sum it up:

The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER is a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa and published in 2002-04 over eight issues of YuGe, a Japanese magazine devoted to games old and new (now called GameSide). Illustrations were provided by Aki Shimizu, a manga artist who I don’t think has done anything that’s attracted a Stateside fanbase yet but is still a pretty talented dude. This is almost certainly the only apocalyptic SF novel themed around used video games that has ever been written, and its mere existence shocks and enthrals me, and so I’m translatin’ it, starting with this first instalment. I’ve included a decent amount of links and footnotes so you’ll be able to understand all the Japan- (and Akihabara-) centric references.

The first-person prose are reasonably written, eliciting a fair few pauses at their eloquence in describing illicit games dealing and the state of the industry. Furthermore, Kevin’s doing this for free, so any criticism of minor mistakes would be grossly unfair. The joy here is in the setting and atmosphere. He has also added some rather handy footnotes for the more esoteric references.

The novel raises a lot of good questions and topical subjects, such as the nature and future of otaku and pro-gamers, Japan’s clamp-down on eroge, censorship in general, and the fact that unlike movies and books, few people know who it is that creates the games we play. Only occasionally do you see the name of the designers; more often it’s the publisher and maaaaaaybe the development house taking the spotlight. Gamers will attach themselves to a series’ name, even if different instalments are created by different people – which is a significant if seldom stated fact. The novel a depressingly frank look at the sorry state of things, right now.

Perhaps video games aren’t art after all, the way that novels or comics or movies are. As a form of media, they are remarkably inaccessible, requiring a 20K-30K yen machine and several thousand yen per game to experience. The publishers, meanwhile, throw millions into each project, the price of staying ahead in the industry. There is simply too much at stake for both creator and consumer to do anything creative. No. Games are not creative works of art. Deep down, both sides of the bargain know that games are products of precise engineering, like a car or your washing machine.

It also name-drops a lot of interesting games. Like the controversial, adults-only Amaranth: “an Ys-like RPG by Fuga System, which is largely unknown outside of Japan but proved popular enough to spawn a series of five games between 1990 and 1995.” Additionally, the novel contains nuggets of information I was previously unaware of – for example, apparently, the first print of the third game in the Uncharted Waters series featured slave trading, which was removed with later patches.

If you’ve just read your way through Policenauts, and are still hankering for more material set in a dystopian future – with a game related twist – then check it out. Sadly the Magweasel blog isn’t the easiest to navigate (I had to use to search for later instalments of this), so here are direct links to the 6 entries:


Actually, scratch that, if you have any interest in videogames at all, you should check it out. It’s an eye-opening odyssey, a valuable lesson dressed up as fiction which we should all learn. It is, in my opinion, George Orwell’s 1984 for the gaming generation. It’s not very long
you could read it in an afternoon and it's slightly reminiscent of the novella Welcome to the NHK if you enjoyed that (the book, not the "not-as-good" manga). I will probably do a post on it, someday.

Many thanks to Kevin Gifford for translating this
I hope he continues with the series.

I highly recommend you check out his Magweasel blog
the post on hidden messages in Japanese games is epic. Wow. Just, wow.

I always held the impression that game creators never felt any pride, or responsibility, toward their own work. That game publishers never realized that they were purveying culture through their releases. That gamers never realized the power of words, that they were more than the final, silent receiving point for the industry.


  1. Considering 1984 was one of my favorite books of all time, I'd be crazy not to give this a read. :)

  2. Great Find, thanks for sharing this :P

  3. Well, don't get your hopes too high - it's not quite as good as 1984, but the dystopian feel and kinda warning of how whe could end up, does parallel it.

    I loved 1984, despite my initial difficulty in trying to understand why Winston (and others) didn't simply adopt the easier life of a prole. The scary thing is, the world we live in today, in many ways, is darker and in a worse situation than the one Orwell was able to imagine.

    It should be mandatory reading for all kids at school.