The Tokyo Game Show is the E3 of the Japanese videogame industry. I mean, E3 is the E3 of the Japanese videogame industry—the annual Los Angeles trade show is the most important in the whole dang videogame world, even if, unlike TGS, it isn’t open to the public. TGS is still crucial for this corner of the business, though. It’s the home show for the titans of Japanese games, companies like Sony, Square-Enix, Sega, Capcom and more, where big budget games destined to be localized and released throughout the world are usually highlighted with original demoes and trailers and elaborate booths. It’s also where smaller Japanese developers and publishers can get some press attention for their work, not just from the Japanese press but from videogame magazines and websites from around the globe. For Westerners intrigued by the obscure corners of the Japanese industry, it’s also the best opportunity to see and play games that will never make it overseas, and to explore entire genres that are largely overlooked outside of Japan. TGS has a cultural identity that’s stronger and more distinct than any of the other major gaming shows, and even if Japanese developers aren’t as dominant as they were in the past, they’re still a vitally important power within the world of games. So Paste sent me to Tokyo to explore TGS in person and write about what I found. Between the major Japanese publishers, the stray Western presence and the great selection of independent developers, I found one of the most fascinating line-up of videogames of any trade show I’ve ever been to. Here, in no particular order, are the best games I saw at Tokyo Game Show this year.
Thumper doesn’t need virtual reality to be great. I’ve been a staunch supporter of Drool’s “rhythm violence” game for years now, since well before it was announced it would be compatible with Playstation VR, but now that I’ve finally had a chance to play it with the headset on I can’t tell if it works better with or without it. The problems I have with VR (beyond its price and general gratuitousness) actually benefit Thumper. The game already felt tense and claustrophobic when I was just watching it on a TV screen; when I’m strapped inside face-covering future goggles and clamshell headphones it becomes downright suffocating. It heightens the paranoia that Thumper already strives to instill within the player, amplifying the game’s ominous power. And because the game’s POV is fixed it doesn’t come with any of the motion sickness issues that frequently pop up for me in VR. Thumper VR is the best argument I’ve seen for VR gaming yet.
This spinoff from Valkyria Chronicles currently has no US release date. Considering the third Valkyria Chronicles game never came out here either, it might never get one. That would be a shame, for fans of Valkyria and RPGs in general. Azure Revolution dispenses with some of the core Valkyria aspects—it doesn’t quite have that water color look, and more notably it’s not a turn-based tactics game. The TGS demo highlighted a real-time combat system that resembled any number of role-playing games from the last decade or so, with me directly controlling the actions of one party member while the other members more or less did their own thing. I’d juggle hand-to-hand strikes with long-distance attacks that might as well have been called spells, while my four AI squad mates joined in. It wasn’t as unique as the original Valkyria Chronicles, but it did share that vague World War II atmosphere, and despite the new visual approach there was still a painterly aspect to the art style. Apparently the game will feature permanent death a la Fire Emblem, which is almost always an effective way to maximize the emotional component of every battle and decision. Azure Revolution might be missing some of what made its successors so great, but the small slice of action on display at TGS still hinted at a deep and satisfying adventure.
The latest remake of cult classic Rez is another one of the few virtual reality successes found at TGS. Like Thumper, it probably helps that Rez has a fixed perspective and is already devoted to overloading multiple senses. Rez Infinite is the same synesthesia-inducing shooter that it’s always been, combining propulsive dance music with colorful, abstract graphics that resemble the VR dreams of the mid-‘90s. My short time with the game didn’t fully convince me that virtual reality will increase the feeling of synesthesia that the game aims for, but it certainly doesn’t seem to hurt it. Of the three games I played at Sony’s official PS VR pavilion, Rez Infinite was the only one that made virtual reality seem like an appealing option for videogames.
Dobotone is a self-contained console and party platform that lets up to four players fiddle off in a variety of ridiculous microgames. Stylized like a lost early ‘80s relic, from the box itself to the stark graphics, Dobotone prompts its players to bash a button or two through each simple game—generally variations on “be the first to do this” or “do this the most in this specific amount of time.” To complicate matters, an extra hand can manually screw with a game’s settings by twisting knobs on the box itself. The camera can be zoomed in or out, dramatically changing the amount of space the players have to move around in. Gravity can be spiked or taken away, recalibrating what actually happens on-screen when players mash those buttons. When all the parts are in motion, with a full roster of four players and an extra miscreant getting handsy with the rules of physics themselves, Dobotone is one of the most unpredictable, frenetic and psychedelic games you’ll ever play.
At some point Line Wobbler, which has been a favorite at shows like GDC, EGX and Indiecade for a couple of years now, will stop showing up at events like TGS. It might take years (like Johann Sebastian Joust) but inevitably it will fade away from the game show scene. Until then make sure you get your hands on Robin Baumgarten’s LED strip dungeon-crawler so you can experience one of the most idiosyncratic game experiments for yourself. Line Wobbler is perfectly suited for game shows not just because it’s a novelty or conversation piece but because it’s actually a pretty brilliant little game that’s also almost impossible to play in any other context. You’d have to install the ten or so feet of light-up cable in some otherwise underused nook of your home, all to enjoy something that’s less about conventional ideas of “fun” than about deconstructing the notion of videogames altogether. Of course if it didn’t work so well as a game, if it wasn’t “fun” to a surprising degree, Line Wobbler would just be a quickly disregarded curious footnote and not the festival hit it’s turned into. It’s a testament to the power of ingenuity and self-imposed limitations, and also a neat looking art piece.
As expected, many of the games in the “indie” area pursued distinctive twists on classic game genres. One of the more inspired such games was Ghostus, which hides an intricate puzzler based on repetitive, looping play in the guise of a side-scrolling shoot ‘em up. This ain’t Gradius: it’s a strategy game where you have to map out the right path to color-changing access points while also “recording” successive plays and replaying that ghost data to gradually eliminate all the various targets. It made no sense to me at first—especially with the language barrier—but the goal quickly became apparent during my first play. And then the difficulty became equally apparent within a couple of levels, as time, color and obstacles all stacked on top of each other to make each level increasingly torturous.
My initial reaction to You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter is that I’m old. I’d more closely relate to this game about the potent cocktail of anxiety and excitement felt when you first search for pornography online as a kid if it was about searching for a Playboy in my brother’s closet instead, or trying to watch Cinemax late at night without my parents finding out. As the game’s halting text increased the tension of my character’s investigation, and as the muffled sounds of cars and doors regularly signaled the potential return of my digital parents, the fear of being caught became overwhelming. It was one of the most horrifying games I’ve ever played, burning me right back down to the age of 13, trying to wrap my head around just what in the hell was going on with my body and my brain that made me want to search out something so disgusting and so wrong but also so indescribably thrilling. So yeah, just because I’m too old for the internet to have played a role in my sexual awakening doesn’t make the game any less bewitching. The stress of searching for and enjoying something that you know is forbidden, that you know is only for adults, that you know would both get you into trouble and also leave you mortally embarrassed if discovered, crosses all technological borders. You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter captures that real-life moment with startling accuracy, even when you’re in your thirties and standing in a crowded exhibition hall outside of Tokyo. If you want to try it yourself, you can download it here.
If you can’t handle the scabrous nihilism of Hotline Miami, but appreciate the idea of a shooter that’s actually a tightly confined, time-based puzzle game, you might want to try out Lithium City. Nico Tuason’s isometric shooter shamelessly broadcasts its influences, and the impact of Hotline Miami is undeniable—it has the same neon glow, the minimal synth pulse, the focus on angles and trajectories and swift, unapologetic violence. It’s not bloody, though, or as joylessly cynical—you can see the clean, austere Lithium City as a videogame within the world of Hotline Miami, something your character would pump quarters in at the arcade between those increasingly grotesque jobs, but whose depiction of violence was constricted by the moral climate of the 1980s. There’s an airlessness to Lithium City that might diminish its appeal over time—outside of the brief demo I played, it might turn out to be as generic as its post-Bladerunner aesthetic—but the ten minutes I sped through at TGS has me interested in playing more.
Final Fantasy XV’s promotion has been heavy on the road trip angle, highlighting your anime goodtime buddies as they drive the countryside without apparent aim or destination. The TGS demo didn’t start on the road, but after a few glimpses at the game’s story it dropped me and my crew in its open world and let us get into whatever kind of trouble we felt like kicking up. Compared to the straight-forward, orderly Final Fantasies of the last decade or so, the freedom hinted at in this demo is a refreshing callback to earlier eras of Square’s franchise player.
Million Shells isn’t some kind of revelation. It’s not a game that I’m excited to one day own and play through to completion. It may not even ever make it to America. For me it’s representative of the spirit of TGS, though, and a good example of why I wanted to go to the show in the first place. It’s a distinctly Japanese game made by Japanese developers for a system (the Playstation Vita) that persists in Japan despite practically being dead on arrival in America. This touch-based hybrid of Missile Command and Galaga would never win any awards for innovation or artistry, but it’s a well-crafted genre exercise that makes smart use of the technology it’s built for, while also evoking the history and legacy of Japanese game design.
Honorable mentions: Agartha; Fantastic Contraption; Semispheres; Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy; Starr Mazer: DSP.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.