Game review – Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale

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I recently finished Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale on 2DS.

I’d stumbled on it in lists of 2/3DS games worth checking out that were a little off the beaten track. I’d also read that it was a relatively short game, and occasionally sold with quite a discount in the Nintendo eShop. So I decided to check it out.

It’s a gorgeous little game in which you control a small boy wandering around a small town speaking to people, picking up orbs that you use in an in-game game, and generally trying to progress the story.

In terms of gameplay it’s part point-and-click and part visual novel. The story itself is initially very sweet and silly – a decent rendering of the imagination of a ten-year-old child making their own fun in a small town. It progresses into a weird, semi-fictional climax that you’re left wondering whether it’s ‘real’ in the game, or just a further extension of the hyperactive mind of a young child. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

It’s also, for that reason, a fairly shallow and childish story. There are some elements of family/fatherly pride thrown in, and the white lies parents tell their children, but it’s really all quite two dimensional. You’re basically thrown into a 1970s small town where all is quite sleepy, and the majority of the residents bide their time during the week until the broadcast of the Friday evening monster show on TV.

Story aside, the game’s general ambience is what won me over. It features beautiful ‘painted’ backgrounds and there’s a constant small-town soundtrack with buzzing cicadas, chattering locals, and the surprisingly frequent train and level-crossing sounds. It’s soothing and does well to transport the player to a small Japanese town. Headphones recommended.

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(Irritating side rant: I’m unable to take screenshots in this game. Some 2/3DS games let you take them natively. Others you can utilise a workaround where you post to MiiVerse first. But this only works for games with a MiiVerse community, which (bafflingly!) AotFM lacks. So I’ve had to grab the ones you see hear from the web, along with some related artwork.)

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The in-game game I mentioned is just a little semi-random Top Trumps-style card battling system which is basically of no consequence in the game’s story (apart from once). But it’s a cute little extra addition to the world of the children, and it pushes the player to explore the town in search of the glowing orbs that are collected to top up the cards.

The story takes quite a sharp turn towards the end – the ‘Friday Monsters’ of the game’s title make something of an appearance, and you’re left feeling a bit disconnected from the simplicity of running round with your friends wearing a backpack. It doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but it comes as quite a surprise. In many ways it’s the right plot twist for this game.

Overall, it’s a lovely little game. I’d stop short of repeating the line from other reviews that draw comparisons with Studio Ghibli films. It’s not quite there, but it’s in the same neighbourhood.

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The biggest drawback – which I entered into knowing full well – is the game’s diminutive length. I kept putting off playing it as I knew it would be over in one sitting, and that was basically the case. My play-time journal reports between two and three hours’ play, which is about on par with what I’d read. And that’s from the word go to the end of the story and the credits having rolled. The game’s value for money is questionable on a time/cost graph but you have to consider its charm as well, and this is a strong feature of AotFM.

I could probably squeeze out another 30 minutes or so by collecting the few remaining cards and having some unnecessary card battles, but I’m not sure I will. To be fair, it would be worth it to just hear a few minutes of cicada-buzz, or the soft dinging of the railway level crossing. Playing through the story again would be pretty dull as there are no real options. The game uses ‘chapters’ – there are twenty-six of them – but they’re short, and they overlap, so you can be working through four or five at once, and complete one just by talking to someone, for example.

I want more of this game. And games like it.

I loved Shenmue on Dreamcast, but never got very far with it. The game’s story and ‘combat’ wasn’t so interesting to me, but the ambience and sense of place was palpable.

More recently I have developed a bit of a crush on the teenage girl life-sim Life is Strange. And I’m the type of guy to fire up Red Dead Redemption or Just Cause 2 and simply head down a rough trail until I reach a rocky point from which to watch the clouds roll overhead.

The maker of AotFM was previously involved with a Japan-only series named Boku no Natsuyasumi which seems strikingly similar to this game in terms of visual style and gameplay. It’s a shame that those games are Japanese language only, and by their very nature rely on text to drive the story. They look like exactly the kind of thing I want to sink a few hours into, but I’ll have to keep looking.

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to cook

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Some recent creations

I’m still learning to cook. I’ve been learning to cook for about ten years. In truth, I don’t think anyone ever stops learning to cook – only those who possibly never started to in the first place.

I can pretty much pinpoint the start of my learning process as looking at the instructions on a jar of Dolmio, then trying to reverse engineer my own pasta sauce. This, and trying to buy cheap ingredients with my student loan, sent me down a path and I’ve not looked back since.

This process slowed somewhat for two years when I was living in a small studio flat. It did, fortunately, have a full kitchen setup – just not a particularly large one. In that sense, I got quite good at working within the limitations imposed on me. Only two hobs. Only one workspace. A small fridge with an ice box. Etc.

Thank goodness I also had a proper oven.

M kindly referred to this studio flat existence as like living on a boat. I liked this metaphor. With her suggestions and assistance, I grew to quite enjoy cooking in my little kitchen. I even managed to create a fair number of nice, sit-down, multi-course meals.

Now though, we have a larger kitchen at our disposal. We also have much more storage space, access to M’s cookbooks, and – crucially – M’s knowledge of cookery, and her passion for trying new meals and techniques. It’s also much more enjoyable and efficient creating meals for two than just for one.

So I’m now happily using cookbooks to cook most meals. A handful of dishes have become staples. But I still like to have the recipe somewhere nearby, because I’m a forgetful soul, and I’m likely to mess up the order, or forget a crucial ingredient. I’m not yet cooking intuitively; I’m following a set of instructions to the letter. If the instructions are unclear, I’m not very good at improvising.

M and I joke that I’m a little autistic in this sense: I need absolutely every instruction, timing and ingredient written down in a clear, ordered list. Any deviation from the list will cause me some anxiety and possibly cause me to mess up the meal. A photograph of the end result is always useful. What the hell is this thing meant to look like?

Thankfully, an ingredients list, a clear method, and photograph(s) are the basic components of any good cookbook, so I am in my comfort zone here.

As I progress, I am beginning to learn shortcuts, and identifying opportunities for daisy-chaining two meals – tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch – which share preparation methods. And although I can chuck together a few familiar ingredients to make something from scratch, I’m actively enjoying the process of cooking according to a growing range of recipes.

My hope is that this will continue until – much like learning a new language – more and more components of each recipe will come to me naturally, and I will gain more and more independence.

With all this in mind, I was very interested to read Matthew Culnane’s latest post entitled Atomic cookery. It’s a great piece, and well worth your time. In it, he talks about dismantling cookery books and recipes, and how this process can inform the chef and actually free them from the rigidity of recipes.

It’s sort of a conceptual ‘teach them how to catch fish’ kind of deal, where knowing how and why to do something is so much more useful than just doing it because the book says so.

Mr Culnane also makes some interesting parallels with tech – and with web design in particular, which has a set of components and a certain order of things.

My own experience of learning web design – a frantic few months in 2002* of copying and pasting code from pages I liked, to see which bits did what – is quite similar to using elements of recipes to achieve another, quite separate, result.

It’s this modular approach that Matthew talks about which seems so relevant. But he warns against painting oneself into a corner by enforcing unnecessarily restrictive metaphors to different processes.


* Any web design learning I’ve done since then has simply tacked itself onto that initial blooming of understanding – CSS still seems like a relatively new and interesting innovation to me.

Switzerland

Before I get too wrapped up in Spring and completely forget about our winter adventures, I must mention our trip last December to Switzerland.

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The view down towards Weggis
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Rigi Kaltbad

We had booked ourselves in for a week at a mountainside spa resort. The Rigi is ‘the Queen of the mountains’, and has a surprising number of rail connections up and down its flanks. What’s more, the region is carless, so folk can walk around untroubled by traffic.

It was, as we’d hoped it would be, staggering beautiful. Although we didn’t get the dreamed-for snowfall, the views of the Swiss Alps in the distance were breathtaking, and we were blessed with mostly clear weather.

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Actually, I should qualify that statement by saying that our resort and surrounding area was blessed with clear weather. We were at sufficient altitude to be above the clouds. The Rigi is famous for sitting atop a ‘sea of fog’.

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The sea of fog

We learned about this ‘sea of fog’ on our first evening. We took the train from Lucerne, followed by a local bus, and then one more, until finally our last connection was a cable car up the mountain.

A kind local fellow showed us the way to the station – the luftseilbahn – and explained the mysterious ‘sea’. As our car rose swiftly up the hillside in darkness, we soon left the modest lights of the town of Weggis behind.

At one point on the way up – to our surprise at 8pm on a dark winter’s evening – the car’s lights were dimmed completely, and so we rose silently, through thick fog, in complete darkness. It was one of the eeriest moments I’ve ever experienced, particularly when travelling somewhere new.

Thankfully we could tell from the demeanour of our fellow travellers that this occurrence was entirely normal, and before long we had reached the top station and our final destination.

A week above the clouds awaited us.

A few days in the Lake District

Spring is here. It’s still quite cold first thing in the morning, but the longer evenings are suddenly back, and nightly constitutionals are making a return. When the sun shines and the wind drops, the warmth on one’s skin is very welcome.

M and I spent last week in the Lake District – just what the doctor ordered. We even spent an unseasonably warm warm afternoon at Kew Gardens the day before we travelled. A mini-holiday prologue.

I have a few little strands to mention about this trip to the Lakes (not quite Postcards, as per my last visit), which I will try to do over the coming week or two. But for now, just a handful of snapshots from Windermere, Blackwell, and a few other spots thereabouts.

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Have returned to London with something of a thump.

Giving myself a few days’ buffer at either end of the holiday was a very good idea. But whether it’s the deafening traffic of Finchley Road or the gloomy grime of certain streets around my neighbourhood, the transition from country to town has hit me quite hard. The existential ennui of the local and global political situation isn’t helping much. But perhaps it’s just post-holiday blues.

Anyway. Photographs.

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Blackwell, a Baillie Scott Arts & Crafts house nestled in the hills above Windermere
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On Windermere
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I like a good stile – but a dry stone wall stile? Marvellous.
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Sketching at Blackwell
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I loved Blackwell. I’d like to have spent much more time there.
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Towards Orrest Head

Thoughts on StreetPass

About a month ago, after some amount of umming and ahhing, I bought a Nintendo 2DS.

I’d been interested in picking one up for a while, and the promise of price-drops around Black Friday had me checking every now and then. I’m not a massive gamer, but there are a handful of games on the system that looked appealing to me.

article-2412249-1ba413ba000005dc-179_468x385The 2DS is the cheaper version of the 3DS. For one thing it, obviously, omits the 3D screen. This wasn’t a huge concern to me. It also has a simple, flat construction rather than the 3DS’ hinged, folding clamshell approach. This makes the 2DS less neat and pocketable, but still quite portable.

(Trivia: the flat construction means that although the 2DS appears to have two separate screens, it’s actually one big slab under the plastic shell to save money. Clever!)

I’ll talk about the games another time – I’m dozens of hours into Weeaboo Junction alone – but today I’m thinking about one of the system’s core functions: StreetPass.

StreetPass

2DS and 3DS devices all have WiFi built in. This lets the user download games, play online multiplayer, and browse the web (to some degree). So far, so ordinary for a games console these days.

But 2DSes and 3DSes can also talk to eachother, primarily for local multiplayer, but also for StreetPass functionality. Contrary to most device-to-device communications, StreetPass actually allows devices to talk without any input from the users.

relay-pointsAs long as a 2DS or 3DS is on standby/in sleep mode, it is constantly seeking other devices to talk to. And when it finds one, it will perform a sort of ‘handshake’ with the other device. Later, both users will see a green LED notification light on the device, and they’ll have any one of a number of things to check/play with.

Obviously, this kind of exchange only happens when two devices are in close proximity, so it’s more likely in busier places, like cities and public transport hubs. Therefore, it can be hugely beneficial to take your 2DS anywhere you go, leaving it in standby mode, just on the off-chance you pass another user.

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It me.

This quite unique system function was one of the things that attracted me to the console. I rather like the idea of pseudo-random exchanges with strangers within the walled garden of Nintendo’s network and games.

“But Paul!” you cry.

“Don’t you know the 3DS was first launched six years ago?! Just how many users do you think there will be still bumbling around on the streets of London?”

Fair point.

My experiences with StreetPass have been… Well, pretty much as I’d expected. I’ve had a handful of exchanges so far, usually near busier transport interchanges, like Golders Green, Euston station, and other busy trains/stations I’ve passed through recently.

But frequenting locations such as these is by no means a dead cert in terms of receiving StreetPasses. I’ve carried my 2DS in my bag when visiting Euston station, Oxford Street, etc, and had no ‘hits’. I tell myself that other factors may be at play – too many other devices interfering with WiFi reception, or the limited range of each device. But I really think it’s just down to a low install base. Which, in a way, makes each StreetPass all the sweeter.

The other way to get StreetPass hits is via a Nintendo Zone.

These are public WiFi hotspots and there used to be loads in the UK, but now it appears to be limited to branches of GAME, the videogame retailer. Above, left, shows the remaining Nintendo Zones within the M25, and, right, the map shows the European countries still with Nintendo Zones. Source.

Users who StreetPass within a Nintendo Zone get the data from, I believe, the last six users to also do the same. This makes it a good way to bulk up your StreetPass hits without actually needing to be in proximity with the other users. The clever bit is, much like an actual StreetPass, you don’t need to do anything to connect to a Nintendo Zone. It just works when you’re in range. I tested this out recently by stuffing my 2DS into my running backpack and passing my nearest branch of GAME. It worked perfectly, and gave the expected boost to my StreetPass hit count.

So what do you get when you StreetPass with someone? It depends.

The main port of call is a sort-of game called Mii Plaza, where other users’ Miis will be gathered. Miis are Nintendo’s weird bobble-headed avatars which you can tweak to vaguely resemble you or whomever you please. The associated metadata is limited: your birthday (DD/MM only), the latest 3DS game you’ve been playing, and a few other child-friendly tidbits.

You’re quite limited in what data you can include in the free text fields. It would be a stretch, even, to hack your contact details into it. And that’s sort of the point. Nintendo intentionally made this system pseudo-anonymous. They have a two-way handshake friend code system for real-life buddies, but StreetPass is just kind of vague. Miis, as avatars, are kind of ageless. It’s hard to tell if you’ve StreetPassed with a ten-year-old or a fifty-year-old.

Anyway, in Mii Plaza there are a handful of cute mini-games, and you also see a frankly horrifying army of all the Miis you’ve ‘met’ recently, lined up and grinning. But Mii Plaza is pre-installed and is just one bit of 3DS software that makes use of StreetPass.

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Other games for the system such as Mario Kart 7 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf can trade data with other users via StreetPass, including fastest lap times in the former and sharing home interior designs with the latter. There are a ton of other examples.

There’s even a music player built into the 2DS/3DS, and if you add some tracks to your favourites, StreetPass will work a bit of Last.FM-style magic and notify you if you share any favourite tracks with other users.

Even with my limited experiences with StreetPass, I’ve had a number of quite charming ‘interactions’ (these are only ever after the fact, never real-time) with other users, particularly seeing their Animal Crossing homes.

The age of the system and the lack of remaining Nintendo Zones means the opportunities to StreetPass are getting fewer and fewer. I wish there were still more Zones available – I think they also used to use the ubiquitous ‘The Cloud’ WiFi hotspots, which would’ve really boosted your chances. But still, it’s a fun little bonus feature of the system which adds some charm and some unexpected surprises now and then.

The fact that StreetPass isn’t coming to the Nintendo Switch means I guess its days are numbered. Hopefully the 2DS/3DS system will live on alongside the Switch, as the new system isn’t truly portable – or certainly not pocketable – and I believe Nintendo has indicated that the two platforms will co-exist for the time being.

Even if StreetPass ceased to exist tomorrow, the vast library of games for the 3DS, not to mention DS and Virtual Console titles, means I will have plenty to keep me going for a while yet.

Postscript

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a closed system run by someone like Nintendo, the technology behind StreetPass is proving hard to research. Online, in the marketing bumf, you’ll find real-world scenarios and in-game features, rather than frequencies, power consumption transmission ranges, amount and format of data transmitted or time needed for a successful StreetPass.

Some of these factors are applicable to the WiFi standard generally. But other factors remain a bit of a mystery. And perhaps that’s best. Certainly it makes sense to keep it simple for the purposes of a mainstream, predominantly kid-friendly console.

The more information a company releases on functions like this, the more likely it is to be hacked or gamed. There are, or were, ways to create your own bootleg Nintendo Zones with a hacked router, which intrigues me greatly. But I also like that it all just works for the average user.

Anyway, the whole concept has got me thinking about near field communications (NFC), local WiFi and Bluetooth handshakes and beacons, mesh networks, and other possibilities with similar technologies.

I had some reckons on StreetPass in general, and I have further reckons on the wider concept of device-to-device communications and other potential applications. Watch this space.