Welcome to Import Horizons at GameCritics.com. Savvy gamers are aware of the gaming scene in Japan, but language, access and playability have been the bane of those looking for diverse titles from the East. Some games are so culturally idiosyncratic that players often give up in frustration. This semi-regular feature will bridge that gap with advice for those looking to import, and those curious to the world of gaming in Japan.
The sport of tennis is unforgiving.
Unlike some sports that are just "fun" on any level, tennis doesn't make such claims that anyone can just pick it up. Basketball is fun to play with friends in the driveway, or even in the office cubicle with crumpled paper and a wastepaper basket. Football is wide open to interpretation with simple rules, and baseball needs only a ball, a stick, and garbage can lids for plate markers. Even golf can be fun—if I'm scoring strokes by the brightly painted Dutch windmill, and the open mouth of a pink hippopotamus. But oh… not so with tennis. The phrase, "let's go play tennis" is akin to asking who in the room holds a Mensa card. While loved by millions on TV, as exemplified by the U.S. Open, the sport doesn't find home in too many parks across the country. This wall of rejection is even higher for those in the inner city. But for me, in my youth, I did fall in love with tennis.
Anyone who believes playing tennis isn't a tough sport—even on the High School level—can go workout with Venus and Serena Williams. Every minuscule detail of my being was distilled into pure athletics. Running, reflexes, strength, endurance, precision, confidence, you name it. When I spun around sweat flew off my head in spiral designs. Chasing dropped balls off the net was a rush. A tightly placed shot off the corner was still within reach. My knees bled from ground diving shots. I excelled at making the impossible shot happen. The head of my racket was chiseled to a sharpened edge from scrapping split-second saves across the court. Shoes wore out. Strings broke. Sweat in my eyes. I was in my element. I never won state trophies, or regional ribbons, but the memory of my personal achievements in tennis are still with me.
Granted, not all the memories of my youth were so golden. When I consider the soap opera that were my teenage years I can't help but cringe. Girlfriend troubles, pop-quizzes, friends trying to sell me dope, parental restrictions. Face it; teen life can suck even without the city, or regional tennis championships on the line. But engaging in sports can be a great deflector for troubled times. This predicament has been condensed into the ever popular Japanese manga (comic) Tennisu No Ohijisama (The Prince Of Tennis).
Tennisu No Ohijisama is popular in Japanese manga much like beans are in Mexican recipes. Serialized in the successful weekly magazine, Shonen Jump it is supported with a hit animated series on Tokyo TV (over 80 episodes since 2001). The manga drawn by Konomi Takeshi is in the "Shonen" art style (targeted at a male audience), however the series is loved mostly by female readers due to the abundance of gorgeous guys featured on the clay court - nine lead-male characters in all, not to mention the competition from rival schools. It's a boy-on-boy extravaganza. The story centers on impish Ryoma Echizen, a junior tennis champion in America, but now recently returned to Japan for his first year at Seishun Gakuen High School. Of course, he also joins their well-known tennis club (Seigaku) and becomes an underdog star in his first year, and a member on the top team in the tournament division. You can imagine the hate flying backhand and forehand for the new hot shot kid on the block. With few friends on his side, Ryoma finds the world of tennis can speak for him where words fail. On the court, petty scores are settled as his insight of the other players become crystal clear. As the saying goes, "you don't really know a person until you fight them."
This is not the first time the popular series has graced the world of video games. The Game Boy Advance version ranked #29 on the top 100 best selling Japanese games of 2002. Sony's current PlayStation 2 version Tennisu No Ojisama: Smash Hit (Prince Of Tennis: Smash Hit), puts you and your team on the hotplate to win the regional tournament. But this time 3D graphics get the cel-shaded treatment, which blends well with the anime still shots of hand drawn character busts during the sideline dialog. But the off court action isn't a feature of Smash Hit. This is about bringing it, and leaving it, all on the court. Before I closed the tray on my PlayStation 2 the memories were already swelling up in my mind. I remembered all the running, the diving, the smash saves, the ace serves and dropped balls.
My anticipation was not let down. Smash Hit offers a bevy of tennis action, although a bit heavy on the arcade style—this is the equivalent of NBA Street on a clay court. In short, I would get riled up and build a patina of sweat, but without the frustration of the stats building minutia of a sports simulation. Control is set up with two swing options, normal, and power, plus a special shot after building up the mental energy gauge. Left analog control stick sets up my swing automatically—as long as I'm in position to hit the ball. This is awkward at first, since the same analog stick moves the character and adds angle to the shot. A typical play involves me running to the ball, holding position, and then just before the swing choosing the ball's direction (with the same stick) and then hitting it. The result is confusing because the player will stick like glue when about to swing—even if I am looking to make a last split second correction. This becomes very tricky when pulling off special moves that use the shoulder buttons. Once the ball crosses the net onto my side of the court I have a split second to react. Not much time for me, but easy for the competition. Speaking of which, the game offers 20 opponents—each with their own special attack. However, with this lil' feature out comes my hate.
Let me clarify. In college, my rival on the court was a punk obnoxiously named, Paris. This guy was a ten-foot rubber wall. No matter what shot I gave him, it came back—fast! Crosscourt shots, net volleys, overhead smashes, soft touches. All effortlessly returned. Lo' and behold, my hell spawned Paris is alive and well in Smash Hit now embodied in the character, Fuji Syusuke. Perhaps I'm a magnet for these beat downs, because this character happened to be the first opponent I selected for my hapless hero. I may as well give Charles Manson the keys to my house. It wouldn't be so bad, if the character didn't fully emulate the evil Paris' self-assured passive aggressive mannerism—firing mind numbing shots and turning his back on my futile attempt to recover the ball. Paris made me sweat more than normal. Made me practice more than usual. I hated him for that. Prince Of Tennis continues this legacy of hate. Thank you Konami, the letter bomb is in the mail.
Perhaps, if there was a merciful god, I could find my old college nemesis and bring him to justice on Smash Hit. The game features 4 player action via the multi-tap so the fun, or pain, can be had by all. Replays of embarrassing shots automatically kick in adding to the party fun, plus commentary from super deformed characters of your opponents will chide and add suggestions when you're screwing up. However, single players, like myself, will still have plenty to do. Various mission tasks are played in the "scenario" section, which makes use of all the characters in the game. Often you're forced to play different characters that must either save a game, not miss a point, or beat an opponent in a specified amount of time. These tasks range from very easy to stupid freakin' insane Paris-style hard. I like challenges, but walking into a tennis match like a relief baseball pitcher with the game on the line isn't my way to spend an afternoon.
Fortunately, the tournament divisions in Smash Hit are a tad easier because they are presented in doubles competition. By definition, I'm only doing half the work. But in some cases, such as when the malevolent Paris is on my side, I'm only doing a third of the work. The artificial intelligence for the computer-controlled characters is very high. I was rather impressed while playing doubles, not only was my teammate on the ball, but also on it so much that he was hogging it from me! At times I rushed the net just to play the ball in front of my own partner. However, this could result in being struck by my teammate, which I also found quite humorous. In fact, with a series of properly placed shots you can turn the tennis court into a dodge ball field—literally knocking the rackets out of the opponents hands, like a gunslinger.
All this doesn't come without some hard work, first. When starting a new game I was surprised to get lectured that I need to practice through four virtual days before the tournament. This includes wall practice with a teammate, playing 3-on-1 smash returns, placing the ball in certain areas of the court, reflex training, and timed events. Do well in these practice scenarios and you can increase your special abilities and hit percentages. Do badly, and you're basically on your own. Not impossible, but the entertainment value will be measured in blood, sweat, and tears. There's nothing better than needing a clutch point and your mental energy gauge just filled up for a special shot on your service. But without the practice you'll never have the options, which brings full circle the entire effort. This actual "training" though was a very nice touch I'd like to see in more sports games.
Importers looking for ease of play might want to look elsewhere. Prince Of Tennis has zero English language support in both the game and the instruction manual. Gamers will need, at least, some Japanese language skills for navigation through the various menus and scenarios, so only those in desperate search of a tennis fix need apply. This also applies with the "Limited Edition" version, which features a separate DVD animation disk of the main characters pulling pranks at the dorm. Gamers start with a slot machine interface, then attempt to line up the characters in two, or three, slots and unlock the animated scenes. This is very lighthearted stuff, and clearly designed for the female audience—who would relish seeing the guys in various positions and poses. A lengthy picture gallery can also be unlocked in the regular game—which smacks heavily of the Teen Beat, or YM magazine pin-ups.
But even without language support, as most sports titles go, players can fudge through the bulk of it, although gamers will miss out on the nuances of the sport. And in the world of tennis that is what separates the heroes from the goats. That mental edge, or keen awareness of a well placed crosscourt shot at the right time. As I look back on my brief stint in college tennis, perhaps that mental edge is what the vile Paris had over me all along. Losing my cool, and focusing on him instead of my game only dragged me down that black hole of no return. If anything, perhaps I owe Paris an apology...or, a thank you. Sometimes the real hard-earned lessons in life are found only on the courts, tracks, and fields of sporting events—where your true self is wide open, analyzed and interpreted.
Tennis may be unforgiving…
…But I hope Paris gets my apology. Well…maybe not on the tennis court.
Jim-san no tagami (Jim's Letters)
You have questions about import games, or want information about upcoming titles in Japan, then send us your inquiries and you might find your letter in the next installment of the Import Horizons. Sorry we're not a translation service, so please don't send URLs and graphic files. However, if you have a specific import title you would like addressed, or a suggestion for future installments feel free to contact GameCritics.com and keep your eyes peeled on this spot.