AOU 2011 Amusement Expo

The AOU Amusement Expo (obviously standing for “All-Nippon-Amusement-Machine Operators’ Union”… ahem) was home to all the latest and greatest money-making schemes for arcade owners and operators around Japan.

While arcades may have died or subsided into unused corners of bowling alleys in the UK, arcades or “game centres” in Japan continue to go from strength to strength. What we might consider arcade games are only a part of this pulling power, though. The more appetising arcades here are the ones with an even split between the “bemani” style arcade games you’d expect, UFO catchers and purikura (a bastardisation of “print club”) machines.  The more “ghetto” arcades function solely as soulless money vacuums, focusing principally on medal games, betting games, pachinko and possibly an odd UFO machine sporting the latest in slightly mouldy old-stock warehouse character goods.

The first day is predominantly for arcade owners and operators, and as such, it serves as much more of a “look at these products – put them in your arcades” function. Due to this, a lot of the show floor ends up being dedicated to money making medal games, pachinko, and betting machines, with the possibility of the odd actual arcade videogame cabinet. Although even then, many of the games on show are already available or upgraded versions of the previous year’s game – new titles were few and far between.

Sega’s booth was, as always, my first port of call. The international section (“for export only”) had a no-frills arcade port of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Don’t get me wrong – this was one of my favourite games of last year – but this version has all the fun of the unlockables and event mode sucked out of it, and it’s incredibly difficult to get a good drift boost now. Super Monkey Ball: Ticket Blitz had more on offer with its big glittery tracking ball drawing me in with its more tactile control system for flinging AiAi around its stages.

“StarHorse 3 Season I: A New Legend Begins” was Sega’s show horse for the event. Fairly common in Japan, these games are set up as a large screen with a host of comfortable seats with built-in screens in front of / integrated into them. The focus here is on betting on which virtual horse will win. “StarBoat”, at first, looked like a fun, WaveRace-esque jetski game, until I realised it was effectively the same as Star Horse – a betting game. It seemed as if credits could be used from both games to dress a virtual lady seemingly trapped in a room. Each to their own.

Before moving on to the next area, I decided to hit up the purikura and UFO catcher machines. Purikura machines are glammed-up, Pimp My Ride versions of passport photo booths. They are the big draw for ladies in their teens and twenties. Upon paying the equivalent of a few pounds a high-pitched, whiney Japanese voice will hold your hand through the photo process, then advise you to head around the back to customise your photos with writing, stickers and whatnot before spitting out a copy of your favourite six-odd photos and sending you a virtual copy to your mobile. These machines are made with Japanese ladies’ ideals in mind, though, so don’t be surprised when you receive some “accentuated” photos back with your skin a few shades paler, your irides bigger and your lips more luscious. All this, of course, polished me up a treat.

Laughably described as UFO “catchers”, these defiant mechanisms of unrelenting anguish serve more as “nudgers” in their natural habitat, however on the public day at AOU all the machines are set to actually pick up items rather than using a pathetic attempt which can barely be described as a grip. Hundreds of people queue to win a prize, then requeue, rinse and repeat. In fact, the largest area of the show floor, the Prize Fair, serves as a promotional showcase for all things cute, fluffy and downright adorable.

Namco Bandai’s big draw for the event was Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and it certainly seemed to be all the rage with fans of the series. I had a go, and got pummelled as per usual. I knew I should have played as Kuma. For me, the best game wasn’t a 3D racer, Dragon Ball fighter or Nintendo franchised medal game. It was the simple, but elegant Pac-Man: Battle Royale. This gem is a four-player version of Pac-Man with the same style and finesse of the Pac-Man Championship Edition series. The aim of the game is simple: eat your opponents. In practice, this is not necessarily so simple, though – they too, can eat power pellets.

Konami’s rhythm-action “bemani” games were causing a storm on the public day and you were certainly in for a long wait if you wanted a turn on the latest Guitar Freaks, Drum Mania or Pop’n Music. While all the gaming hipsters were on this side of the Konami area, the opposite side was home to the more… mature and er… earnest followers of a certain Love Plus series. We’ll leave it at that.

Taito’s area was the smallest, but it packed a lot of punch. Quite literally too, with Sonic Blast Heroes, which accurately simulates punching peoples’ lights out… right down to the sweaty gloves. AquaPazza is a lovely looking 2vs2 2D fighter featuring a predominantly female roster and graphics so sharp that they are less sprites than art cel graphics. The on-rails shooter Haunted Museum II was a decent, if predictable, bit of fun too. Not as exciting as the Taito lady manning the Player 2 position seemed to think, though.

Against all odds, my game of the show was hidden away in a corner of the Sega area, and isn’t likely to get much coverage elsewhere, so here goes:

With a tagline like “Learn the traffic safety by driving the bus”, who could resist a go or four on Let’s Go Bus? In this training game, would-be bus conductors learn how and when to pull over to pick up potential customers such as lions, pelicans, pandas, gorillas, ostriches, T-Rexes and aliens. The all-important horn button causes every person and vehicle in the city to halt and be launched into the air, while the windscreen wiper button turns day to night and makes it rain for a few seconds. The hanabi button, as one would expect, causes fireworks to go off both in and outside your bus – not that anyone minds. While it is possible to crash into stationary cars in front of your bus, it is impossible to drive onto the other side of the road. This experience, even more so than Sega’s previous efforts Tokyo Bus Guide and Tokyo Bus Guide 2 has only cemented my decision to drive buses around Japan for the next forty years.

Sega Sound Unit [H.] once again played AOU out. The atmosphere mellowed down to a very friendly vibe where long-time followers of Sega’s internal band and newcomers alike basked in the rose-tinted glory of Sega’s familiar arcade tunes like OutRun’s Magical Sound Shower and Virtual-On’s Flooded City Theme. I can think of no better way to end the day.







Leave a Reply