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Japanese Amusement Blastoff! (Part 1)

 
Nirin - Bandai Namco Games
Nirin - Bandai Namco Games
The first part this two part coverage of the All Nippon Amusement Machine Operator's Union event (AOU'09) - celebrating its 23rd year. The show during March did not disappoint, with some big names showing some big new releases. The important 'operator focused' trade event of the Asian amusement season is given the Stinger treatment, placed under the microscope - this first part looking at the big factories.

Main REPORT:

The 23rd All Nippon Amusement Machine Operator's Union event (AOU'09) represented the big guns of the whole National Association of Amusement Machine Operators of Japan. Taking its usual mid-February placement, the show demonstrated major changes in the structure of the Japanese - if not international - amusement business infrastructure. The Doom & Gloom that had greeted the 2008 event was not lessened for the 2009 show - but the opportunities for growth and new developments were not diminished. A realization of a need for change was now prevalent on the show floor with a large number of new launches from new corners of the industry.

SEGA

The dominant booth even during changing times; SEGA ensured that no one was left in any doubt that amusement was still a big part of their business. The surprise of the booth was that SEGA was bursting into the fighting robot genre with their own unique interpretation. 'BORDER BREAK' (RingEdge Hardware) represented a robot on robot combat simulator with up to 20 player (10-vs-10) -- the network robot game squarely targeting the popularity of the Namco / Banpresto GunDam franchise.

The SEGA developed by AM#2 adoption built on the back-bone of the ALL.NET network with 10 cabinets was on display at AOU. This new unit, utilizing a multi-function joystick and unique right-hand view and steerage control (a morph of mouse and controller) is a game that was tagged 'SEGA Network War'. All guns were used to promote this experience -- the first release on SEGA's brand new architecture. This new replacement hardware architecture was launched at AOU'09 as the 'RingEdge' (with a red swirl logo) and the 'RingWide' hardware (with a blue swirl logo). This two-stage strategy moves beyond a single platform (like the LindBergh) fitting a all-encompassing philosophy, but offers a cost-effective High and Low cost solution for changing times.

The 'RingEdge' hardware is the more powerful of the two, using nVidia GPU and bigger RAM - it is also the first hardware to be seen applied in a game. The 'RingWide' is an AMD GPU system with a slightly lower spec and so is expected to be the more cost-effective (a reduction of 30 per cent in LindBergh quoted by some sources). Obviously, as with the last few hardware platforms from SEGA, these are PC based systems, but favoring a different route than that proposed by SEGA Amusement Europe's Europa-R adaptation -- some sources are scornful of the Europa-R's higher performance.

SEGA marketing revealed that rather than just being cost-effective architecture solutions, these are major business strategies - this being hidden in the architecture's unique names. The 'Ring' name denotes the 'series' of new architecture - while the 'Edge' is for 'cutting edge' and so the most advanced -- while the 'Wide' is for 'widespread' seen as the network (satellite) variant - though all systems support the ALL.Net environment (including a new and yet fully described delivery and billing support [subscriptions?]).

SEGA is expected to place great resources behind this architecture range, with intensive marketing, with spanking new logo's (reminiscent of the days of DreamCast). All this is to defend their position in the newly launched hardware wars that have broken out, bringing back memories of the early 90's in the Japanese amusement scene (just around the time of the last down turn!). The Japanese power-house tried to keep abreast of the popularity of the brawler generation, with their own properties - the company had six cabs running 'Virtua Fighter 5: R' (LindBergh Hardware). Launched at JAMMA'08, the AM#2 developed updates for the brawler series; this latest version including new characters and items to collect within the game and new levels - all supported by the ALL.Net competitions.

The Satellite Terminal hardware sector was represented on the SEGA booth with 'World Cup Championship Football International Club 2007-2008' (LindBergh Hardware) - seen at last year's JAMMA'08 event. The card-based football player game is hoping to continue its market momentum though has no international plans as of yet. In another booth enclosure was 'Answer x Answer 2: Network Quiz Battle' (LindBergh Hardware), developed by AM#1 this latest release follows on from the Premium version of this quiz game experience.

The continuation of originality by SEGA was seen with 'Block People: Metallic Jack' (Proprietary Hardware). This is the Japanese name for the popular concept given a big presentation to the trade at AOU - including a new brick toy range based on the characters displayed. Software updates from the version seen internationally were revealed, along with more elements of the gameplay linking physical blocks to on- screen action.

On the rest of the SEGA booth were some aging Naomi Universal Cabinets running third party titles showing that while the SEGA R&D worked hard on the low-cost RingWide - hunger for the old Naomi architecture remained (no matter how hard SEGA tried to quench it); this hardware is celebrating its 10th anniversary and is still in use. On the AOU'09 booth was 'Project Cerberus' (Naomi Hardware) - developed by Hobibox/Tama-Soft (launched through Milestone); another 2D brawler with a strong gaming pedigree, presented on four cabinets. The other two Net City cabinets held 'Rajiruginoa' (Naomi Hardware) - the Milestone / Lucky Co., developed the unique graphical style vertical shooter.

The SEGA booth had a portion dedicated to the burgeoning Kid Vending scene. The new release 'Battle Strongest Fastest Racer' (Proprietary Hardware) incorporated simple game play, with two-player swappable driving position and collectible barcode smartcards. The casual family two-player element is a continuation of that seen in the 'BowWow' (Proprietary Hardware), a dog collection game in a kiddie car ride cabinet; though its low-scale graphic performance meant it felt like it was an arcade DS game! The SEGA Prize range to support their extensive UFO Catcher line was on display with an impressive hoard of new franchise merchandise.

Breaking Stinger News - February's announcement of SEGA redundancies and arcade closures had played a big part of the speculation leading up to AOU'09 - the decimation of 110 venues from the Japanese AM division was not the only manufacturer showing signs of difficulties but the 560 lay-offs took their toll. For many with any kind of memory - the news of the 100-venue closure was revealed in the Stingers 2008 AOU coverage - though the consumer media sector seemed to want to play up the news and not comment on the remaining re-investment announced in the remaining 300+ venues. However, the layoffs had increased from the 400 previously announced.

During this redevelopment, some executive restructuring has taking place. For some time SEGA Japan has avoided commenting on growing industry speculation that the legendary father of the AM divisions (Yu Suzuki) had left the company; fulled by a cryptic interview with a US executive, in 2008; though later refuted by a company spokesperson. However it was revealed in March that Suzuki-san had in fact been 'retired' from AM Plus, (no word was available on the status of the studio).

Having joined the then SEGA Enterprises, as a programmer, in 1983 - he became a legendary developer of classic titles such as 'OutRun' and 'HangOn'. His involvement in the embarkation into the 3D graphics sector created seminal titles such as 'Virtua Fighter' and 'Virtua Cop'. However since 1999 the winning streak had alluded him and a internal battle had waged regarding utilizing resources on Suzuki-san projects, marked by the cancellation of 'Psy-Phi' (he was Producer on) and the abandonment of his last amusement release 'Race-TV' (he was Director on). His attempts to break-out of the AM R&D structure in the 90's had only created a complicated mess that had to later be re-integrated.

Having been claimed in a recent interview to be not working for SEGA anymore, the news of his retirement would suggested that the new SEGA-Sammy executive structure have won full control of the AM R&D purse strings. All of these moves have also allowed greater reinvestment in the core focus of the corporation looking towards market domination. But it is important to remember that this 'retirement' is a restructuring move, and that Yu Suzuki at this time is still seen as a valuable resource for SEGA Amusement project development now under new control, one sourcing saying he will still have involvement in a "diminished capacity".

Part of this reinvestment included the revealing of news that the remaining Tokyo 'JOYPOLIS' amusement theme park (celebrating its 15th anniversary) would be seeing updated attraction development. The first of these was revealed as 'Storm-G' - a two-player rolling system, networked into an eight-player attraction - based on the same scope as the 1996 'Power Sled'. This is the latest of a number of Mid-Size attractions from SEGA that builds on previously developed hardware as their core ('OutRun 2 SP SA' (2007) >'HUMMER' and 'The Lost World Special' (1997) >'House of the Dead 4 SP'). The two-player 360 rotating attraction follows in the footsteps of the MaxFlight's 'FX2000', and EnTCo's 'XVector'.

NO SHOW - Bringing driver cabs to AOU seems to be against SEGA policy of late with a no-show of the already Loctest 'Initial D Arcade Stage 5' (LindBergh Hardware), the game was actually officially released after the show -- while those operators that had their appetite wetted by 'SEGA Rally 3' (Europa-R Hardware) were kept hungry with no space given over to this racer. But there was some racing action on the SEGA booth at the show!

SimuLine

Hidden away at the back of the SEGA booth, the largest game at the show was 'Aqua Race Extreme' (PC Hardware). The two-rider simulator uses that same swapping driving position as SEGA's 'OutRun 2 SP' or 'HUMMER'. The game, developed by the South Koreans is the third powerboat game in the market this year - but SimuLine have used their motion simulator experience to create a motion game sitting on the same base as their work for the previously mentioned SEGA releases. The appearance of the game in the international sector will be interesting -- directly competing with SEGA's own 'HUMMER'.

Breaking Stinger News - The 'HUMMER' deluxe motion attraction was in the news at the end of AOU'09 with the urgent circulation to all operators of the attraction of a Height Restriction notice to be posted next to the ride. The warning signage was excluded from the attractions initial release, and SEGA was actively attempting to redress the situation as the 140cm height restriction requirement negated major safety issues. It is proposed that all of the twin driving motion attractions in this range should include similar restriction warnings, though 'HUMMER' is the only SEGA product mentioned.

Konami Digital Entertainment

The Japanese powerhouse's only home island exhibition date is always an impressive affair - the culmination of the latest in the corporation's library of new releases. It was particularly important this year as the corporation celebrated its 40th anniversary. First up was the production release of 'Castlevania - The ARCADE' (Proprietary Hardware). Seen at ATEI'09, the completed version has e-AMUSEMENT PASS to support the consumer brand whip cracking extravaganza. The finished game offers a unique take on the original game franchise and has proved popular.

Marking a number of anniversaries for their BeMani music game genre, the company had a large presentation at AOU'09. 'Pop'n Music 17: The Movie' (Proprietary Hardware) was a game seen in prototype last year only to be released off the show floor at AOU. More music action and the final versions of 'Guitar Freaks V6 Blazing' (Proprietary Hardware) and the companion piece 'DrumMania V6: Blazing' (Proprietary Hardware) both expected for Spring release -- these were very popular titles, chances of KDE selling 'Guitar Hero Arcade' in competition in Asia seemed doubtful.

More BeMani action was provided by the latest showing with 'Dance Dance Revolution X' (Proprietary Hardware) -- while the originator title genre 'BeatMania IIDX 16 Empress' (Proprietary Hardware) received its own showing. Queues to play these games beat last years 140 minute waits from AOU'08 -- and were no shorter this year! This interest was supported by KDE holding the 'Top Ranking Finals' play-offs of a tournament competition during the event on BeatMania with a view to crowning a champion of champions - the game still pulling in the players. The last of the BeMani genre inspired titles was 'jubeat' (Proprietary Hardware), its unusual name derived from "jukebox-beat machine" (and changed to 'Ubeat' internationally) and already burning a trail on the Asian scene. Though not launched on the booth at AOU - a matter of days later KDE announced 'jubeat: Ripples', a sequel to the current version with new tunes, which started testing for a July release.

Within the more traditional video releases there was 'The BishiBashi' (Proprietary Hardware), a three player mini-game package; the cabinet developed for network play between 4-cabinets - playing a Japanese game narrative and planned for a summer release. After a period on the shelf, KDE launched 'GASHAN Kingdom' (Proprietary Hardware), the sequel to the 2006 release 'Gashaaaan' (Viper Hardware) -- players throw plastic balls at a touchscreen. Why KDE had picked now for launch was not revealed but the game has been given an official launch date for the end of March - sources say that the game was a kit update for the Japanese kits in the market.

How this game will fair in the crowded ball-throwing screen scene beyond updating previous KDE cabs, is another issue. Since Konami first showed the concept, Korean and Taiwanese companies InterPark Games with their 'Pang Pang Paradise' (PC Hardware) and Vogos with their 'Star Ball' (PC Hardware) have sold a number of systems based on the original premise.

Back to the KDE booth, and the company had their own satellite terminal releases, with -- 'Quiz Magical Academy VI' (Proprietary Hardware), a vast eight machine display of the mahjong game planned for a June release. In support was 'Mahjong Fight Club 7.77', offering more pedestrian mahjong action. The variety of the Konami range was seen at AOU in the Medal Game area with the large 'Infinity Rings' machines and their 'SpinFever' titles; the size of the medal gaming scene is not to be underestimated in Japan, nor should it be confused with gaming in other territories.

NO SHOW - The vast Music Game genre on the booth showed the focus of the lions share of KDE R&D - no appearance of the physical beat-em-up 'Action Deka' (Proprietary Hardware) at this years show seemed to prove that the game, in its current form, was on the shelf..

Bandai Namco Games

As was seen at the London show - the Japanese factory has reverted to the Bandai leading brand name (as leaked by the Stinger last year and refuted by executives at the time). This years' AOU show illustrated a continuing support for amusement from the corporation comprising Banpresto, Namco and Bandai.

The big new release of the booth was 'Mobile Suit GunDam: GunDam Vs. GunDam NEXT' (System 256 Hardware). The incredibly popular team battle robot series - marking the brands 30th anniversary (and the release of a new motion picture) - the new game is sporting a Banpresto badge even though it was heavily entrenched on the Bandai Namco booth. The game based on the mega-Japanese license had the market previously all to its self, but with the appearance of SEGA's own big robot team blaster the Banpresto game was looking slightly dated, officially launched at last years AM-Show. With eight of the Tekken cabinets populated with the robot blaster, these cabinets were the only scant reference to Tekken that could be found on the entire show floor.

Continuing the franchise license, 'Mobile Suit GunDam: BattleField: Ver2.03' (PC Hardware) represented the popular GunDam simulator PODS game - eight capsule systems were over-worked during the show with players enjoying the 360' display simulator action in its latest revision.

More conventional video amusement was represented by 'Razing Storm' (System 357 Hardware). The shooter was shown in a 90 per cent completed mix - questions were asked on the delay in completing the production, answered by the promise of release at the end of the show. The System 357 hardware is obviously being a hard monster to tame though the graphical results were very impressive.

One of the few drivers at the show was 'NIRIN' (System ES1 Hardware), another title from 2008 launch now completed and ready for fun - the high-speed street bike racer also offered impressive graphics on the new hardware and some fun competition. From new brands to established - 'Taiko no Tatsujin 12' (Proprietary Hardware) the drum music game system is still very strong with players in its latest rendition.

The remainder of the booth was filled with DATACARDDASS -- kid vending technology, with the latest range and with the 'BIG CLENA' new crane game, along with a smattering of medal prize game systems.

NO SHOW - At Namco games seen at last years AOU seemed to have vanish off the face of the planet no show for 'Ace Driver 3: Final Turn' (System N2 Hardware) or 'MotoGP DX' (System N2). No reason given for their removal or when replacements will come to fill the gap. Many feel that the old Namco centric thinking was being replaced by new Bandai AM initiatives.

Breaking Stinger News - Just as this report went to the wire, a source revealed that at least one of the Chinese developed games for Bandai Namco had been resurrected as a title for the Taiwanese amusement house Feiloli Electronics Co. The company had presented their new bike racing game 'Speed Rider' (PC Hardware) which seems to use most of the work created for MotoGP, though official confirmation was not available from either side. Sources seem to point to the abandonment of the Chinese projects by Namco forced the developers to find other routes - we hope to get more information on the fallout of this development.

Taito

The veteran amusement corporation showed a brand new image to the AM business with the Taito GM development group 'Team Frontline' (still no word on the status of GM4 division after the 2008 launch of this new division?)

The booth filled with new Mid-Size attraction cabinets offering big entertainment. 'Elevator Action: Death Parade' (Type-X Hardware), the unique two-player shooting cabinet had been previewed last year, but little had been seen of the game. Now the 60 per cent complete version was shown on a single cabinet at the show. The unusual element is the fact that the action is physically represented by the opening and closing of lift doors that reveal the big screen action. The cabinet uses two screens - one for narrative above the main screen representing the action. The cabinet also uses new audio system (Taito TX Surround Sound) and impressive recoil pistols.

The homage to the 1983 original bore little of the storyline - favoring a more 'Time Crisis IV' style game play, the graphics being the equal of the current genre. The action is split between frantic blasting and button pounding to avoid the enemy. Why only a few levels were available to play was a question raised by many - but what was available proved popular with the players at the show. Questions on how the sliding doors would hold up to player abuse was another matter.

The other big Taito cabinet presentation at the show was 'Haunted Museum' (Type-X2 Hardware). Taito had been rumored to be working on a number of new big cabinet games and AOU'09 did not disappoint - housed in a big enclosed cabinet (theater enclosure), this ghost-based blaster seemed to be Taito's answer to the KDE 'Silent Hill' title - in a cabinet reminiscent of the 'Castlevania' enclosure. Taito's new cabinet tech team has relented to place a view port on the curtain. The game narrative seemed to borrow from the 2006 film 'Night at the Museum' with ghostly exhibits coming to life. One observation about the 2009 AOU booth from Taito was the target that the R&D team at the corporation had set themselves now supported by Square-ENIX funding - at Konami, clearly a target that they want to beat.

More dedicated action on display included 'Oppopo Booom' (Type-X2 Hardware). A totally unexpected and off-the-wall game came from Team Frontline for the show - a two-player swiveling body game, the players twisting as if moving a giant tail in the game. The unique cabinet and style of the game pointed towards the intense physicality that is being represented in the post Wii amusement scene. The game was in a very early, unplayable prototype form with no information on release date, or final game application.

More dedicated action included 'Music GunGun' (Type-X2 Hardware). Another surprise game from Taito - but continuing a theme for super cute and cuddly titles; this time the two-player gun game offers cartoon musical characters to blast in set patterns to achieve points. A highly stylized cabinet and fun presentation, this and other 'no thinking' style titles propose a new extremely casual construction and simple play. One aspect of the new 2009 Taito line-up is the major change in design and development that is rocking the company - beyond the application of the Team Frontline development crew. There is the new 'Taitotech' cabinet design and manufacturer with all the cabinets sporting the name of this group.

Taking their space on the open floor plan of the Taito booth was 'Nippon Senorita!' (Type-X2 Hardware). The game that had been shown at JAMMA was a three player mini game experience, pounding buttons to match the unique Japanese style action on screen - a game offering mini-games representing modern-day employment in the country. Of all the games shown at AOU - this has the least possibility of ever seeing the inside of a shipping cabinet for international consideration. Another game that was seen last year in pre-production form - 'Hopping Urodo' (Type-X2 Hardware) is a unique pogo-stick style hopping game based on the WiZLAND toy characters. A definite feel-good game aiming for the widest possible player audience, it's hitting the Taito arcades in spring.

Littering the outskirts of the booth were a number of VEWLIX cabinets housing third party content - such as the shooter 'Trouble Witches Episode 1' (Type-X Hardware) developed by Adventure Planning Services / Studio SiestA. Another VEWLIX was populated with 'Mile of the Sky' (Type-X2 Hardware), one of only a few puzzle games on the show floor, developed by Fuuki. Another puzzle game from the developers was 'MAX Crime Case' (Type-X2 Hardware). The VEWLIX cabinet range was the prominent platform of choice at AOU'09 with both the 'VEWLIX-F' and lower cost 'VEWLIX-L' litter a number of booths of other exhibitors. However, the VEWLIX is now under stiff competition from other new LCD flatscreen display cabinets.

Breaking Stinger News - Just before the AOU show, Taito AM facilities increase their prices by 20 per cent in their home island amusement sites during February; this in answer to increased costs and economic conditions. This news came as the corporation revealed that their amusement facility profits rose for the year from its 1,792 internationally based facility operation. The AM division in Japan had already carried out its blood-letting of unprofitable facilities in 2008 and so benefited from the renewed investment.

This move was supported by Taito, publicizing at AOU'09 their new "Happy Project" initiative for their amusement space - following last years Red re-branding (Taito Station) of their facilities. The new Happy Project will be applied across all their sites creating a mechanism to evaluate the satisfaction of the players and guests to the company sites - a tool to be used in addressing the slump in the amusement arcade market; improving the ability to attract new customers by improving the serviced provided. A three-star evaluation on the service provided will be used for in-house research.

NO SHOW - The new TaitoTech direction showed an impressive selection of new game designs. However, the parent was not present this year with no Square-ENIX booth and no showing of the game 'Lord of Vermilion' (Type-X2) that received presentation last year. One game that had been expected to make a break at AOU'09 was the secret driving game that the R&D team has been rumored to be working on. Also 'Space Invaders: Beat the Attacker' (Proprietary Hardware) seems to have fallen off the map regarding placement. A third party no-show was from G.Revolution - their proposed 'Senko no Ronde Dis-United Order' was due to be presented at AOU'09 but in the end was left from the line-up and in a message on their web site was scheduled alternatively for a loctest.

During March, following the AOU'09, Taito held a number of events to celebrate the anniversary of 'Space Invaders' and developments in publicizing the Taito brand. One of these events was the 'Taito Happy Station' event - during these public events that showcased classic coin-op titles form the company's history, a number of new products were revealed; one of these was the announcement of a brand new first-person-shooter title called 'Cyber Driver' (Taito X2 Hardware). With this news of a new release came confirmation that the company was working on a new version of its Type-X hardware.

News Story with thanks to Kevin Williams.
Please visit http://www.thestingerreport.com,
www.thestingerreport.com for others.
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