Japanese Culture in New York City is a Train Ride Away

This is a guest article by Linda, a Writer and Contributer at Anime Diet

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“Spring Street Mosaic” by HorsePunchKid – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spring_Street_Mosaic.jpg#/media/File:Spring_Street_Mosaic.jpg

Similar to Japan’s vibrant array of trains and buses, one feature of New York City is its public transportation system. New York City’s subway has the distinction of being the second oldest running subway system in the world, and is one of the few that runs on a twenty four hour schedule.

Waku Waku +NYC is located near the G train, which is the only train line in New York currently connecting the borough of Brooklyn to Queens. With the exception of the G and the Staten Island train system, nearly every other train line has to run through Manhattan for travel between the five boroughs. There is a shuttle running between the convention locations (http://wakuwakunyc.com/locations.html), but for visitors who want to also see more of New York City before or after Waku Waku +NYC, the subway and bus are great options.

The base fare for the subway is $2.75 and there would be a $1 surcharge for a new Metro Card. While there is no unlimited day pass, there is a weekly pass for $31. Savvy riders should know that you can make one free transfer between bus and subway within a two hour period.

Have a subway map either in paper or electronically, and be aware that on the weekend, New York City has the weekender service (http://web.mta.info/weekender.html) in effect. The subway system is generally under repair overnight or during the weekend to repair an aging transportation system that sustains six million+ residents and visitors.

If you’re visiting beyond this weekend, and may not want to head to the regular tourist spots, consider these other Japanese/Asian interest spots that entertain the locals.

Lower East Side

Meow Parlour: This is New York City’s first cat café. This place very often does not allow walk-ins, but you can pass by and take a peek in at the cute kitties that reside here. Closest subway station is either F train, East Broadway or D train to Grand Street.

Baby, the Stars Shine Bright/Tokyo Rebel: This is the New York City Location for this sweet Lolita and gothic Lolita boutique. The closest subway to this location is either the F train to Delancey Street or the J, M, Z to Essex Street. If you’re okay to walking, the East Village is within the area. Don’t forget, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright will be holding a fashion show at Waku Waku +NYC!

Around St. Marks, there are plenty of Japanese eateries and ramen spots that include restaurants like Ippudo NY and Spot Dessert Bar.  The closest stop is Astor Place on the 6 train. This area is often referred to as Little Tokyo.

Midtown

Many places of interest can be accessed by either N, Q, R, 1, 2, 3, A, C, E, 7, and S (the S stands for Shuttle) lines to Time Square, the B, D, F, M, and 7 lines to 42nd Street Bryant Park, or the 4, 5, 6, 7, and S lines to 42nd street Grand Central station. In addition to Midtown Comics (http://www.midtowncomics.com/), there’s Muji (http://www.muji.com/us/) which is a Japanese lifestyle store.

Across the street from Bryant Park, there is Kinokuniya Bookstore, the world’s premiere Japanese bookstore, and within walking distance is Lady M, noted for their lovely Mille Crepes cakes. A couple of blocks away, there’s BookOff, Japan’s largest used bookstore, and walking further north there’s Nintendo World and Uniqlo around Rockefeller Center. Down south in Times Square, there’s a Sanrio Popup store (http://ny.racked.com/2015/8/5/9100287/hello-kitty-pop-up-times-square) around 47nd street as well as the Disney Store, where you are bound to find Tsum Tsum products.

While this list of places is focused more specifically on lovers of Japanese culture, this is only the tip of the iceberg to what New York City has to offer. So enjoy Waku Waku +NYC and travel a bit around New York City if you have the time!

Waku Waku +NYC is a brand-new Japanese pop culture festival in Brooklyn, NY this August 29th to 30th that celebrates video games, anime, manga, music, food, art, and more. Tickets are on sale now!

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Collecting Kami: Pokémon and the Crossroads of Pop Culture and Folklore.

This is a guest blog from writer, presenter, and scholar of Japanese culture Charles Dunbar. You can find more of his work at Study of Anime.

I distinctly recall the first time I ever saw the Pokémon Golduck. My initial reaction was “what the hell is that, and how is it a duck?”, because to my teenage eyes, no duck that ever existed had a beak that long, feet that webbed, skin that blue (not to mention lack of feathers), arms instead of wings, and a tail that could trip a human up. Despite having the term “duck” in its name, Golduck was no duck I had ever seen, and I laughed about it with my friends as being another one of those “weird Japanese things” I knew nothing about.

It would be some years before I discovered how wrong I was. While researching a panel on Japanese folklore, I turned the page in one of my many yokai books to find Golduck, or at least something that resembled Golduck, staring me in the face. The same rubbery skin, same sharp beak, same tail and webbed digits. And I did a double take. This creature, the book called it a kappa, was obviously of the same ilk as the Pokémon I had once made fun of. And I did what any curious student of folklore would- I set aside my initial panel research, and began checking to see how many other Pokemon shared traits with these wonderful Japanese monsters.

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By myself (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) ], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the “side effects” of acculturation is that we tend to pepper our creations with nods to the culture we are raised in. For example, when we hear characters say “go to hell,” we have a connotative understanding of what that means, and thus it requires no further explanation. But when those terms and ideas appear outside of our home culture, suddenly they become not-so-subtle nods to the ways in which our own cultures differ from others. And this becomes doubly apparent when we start crafting stories using our own folklore. Suddenly those blood drinkers hiding in the shadows become something alien and terrifying to those who have never encountered them, and that receiving audience can either choose to pursue a better understanding of them, or just accept them as particular to the storyteller’s cultural understanding.

For me, this is one of the great joys found within anime. While I still watch the series and play the games for the joy of experiencing them, at the same time I’ve found anime to be an invaluable tool for discovering new paths into the exploration of Japanese culture. Signposts if you will, pointing me towards new ideas, legends, and beckoning me to dig a bit deeper when the series or game is over. And these inspirations are everywhere once one sits down to look for them. For example the game Okami, while being both beautiful and artistic, also shares its narrative with the story of Amaterasu emerging from the cave and driving off monsters through her light. So too does the series Sasami-san@ganbaranai, which takes that same classic legend of the kami in the cave, and dresses it up as an adorable hikikomori schoolgirl spending her days rejecting the outside world. Pokémon, as previously mentioned, shares a lot in common with the yokai indices that started appearing in the mid-Edo period, while still satisfying the historical urge to discover, collect, and catalogue that many Japanese youths practice to this day. And even more overt properties like Natsume Yujincho and Nurarihyon no Mago [Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan] bring those old legends into the present, challenging classical creatures with modern problems to overcome, or at least weather. They breathe new life into old stories, evolving tales once told by candlelight into mass media properties that astound and inspire new generations to look behind the curtain, and into the hidden world around them.

 Sasami-san@Ganbaranai

Pokémon is one of those series that rides this idea incredibly well. For those who play the game without any knowledge of either Japanese folklore or their obsession with cataloguing yokai, the series is a playful romp through catching/grinding pets until they can win fights, with a little plot thrown in to keep the story going. Sure, some of the Pokémon look a little out there, but when a fan discovers that some of those Pokémon share traits with fantastical creatures (as I did with the golduck all those years ago), suddenly the series comes alive with nods to regional legends (like Xerneas, inspired by the shishigami from Tohoku), mighty guardians (Arcanine, taking notes from the Koma-inu), ancient kami (Tornadus, with the same color and disposition as windy Fujin), and supernatural celebrities (Froslass and Mawile, derived from the Yuki- and Futakuchi-onna, respectively). And all the player needs to do at that point is follow the trails deep into the sacred forests of Japanese folklore to discover how far they might lead.

Waku Waku +NYC is a brand-new Japanese pop culture festival in Brooklyn, NY this August 29th to 30th that celebrates video games, anime, manga, music, food, art, and more. Tickets are on sale now!

Ghosts of the Past

This is a guest blog by Alain Mendez. You can check out more of his work at Reverse Thieves and the Speakeasy Podcast.

With Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens less than four months away you can’t throw an IP packet on the Internet without hitting an article or video on the movie. That is a fairly impressive longevity for a series whose first movie came out thirty-eight years ago. The cultural impact of the series is undeniable. If you ask people what films were written by George Lucas, then Star Wars and Indiana Jones will surely come up on most everyone’s list. But I have a fondness for Willow, which he also wrote, and has largely been forgotten by all but a small group of fantasy fans. I think that while Willow might be a flawed movie it still deserves to be remembered. Just because a creator is popular does not mean all of his works get an equal amount of attention. It turns out that even if a work is excellent, a rising tide does not raise all ships.

When you go to Waku Waku +NYC I’m sure a good deal of you are going to ask Keiji Inafune about one of four things: Mighty No. 9, Red Ash, Kickstarter, or Mega Man. In many ways those projects can be seen as his Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but I feel that Keiji Inafune has a Willow under his belt. That is when he was the Executive Producer on Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. So after you played the Mighty No. 9 demo and got your Red Ash questions out of the way, you might want to ask him about this overlooked classic.

The plot of Ghost Trick revolves around the recently deceased Sissel. He dies in the middle of the night and it seems to have scrambled his brains, so he can remember his murder but the “who, what, when, where, and why” have vanished from his memory. In fact he can’t recall much about himself other than his name. He quickly learns from another ghost that he has until sunrise to find out who killed him and why. As a ghost Sissel has three main powers: The ability to possess inanimate objects and manipulate them, the power to possess corpses, and ability to travel back in time four minutes in hopes of saving anyone he has possessed. He then has to use this tool set to save others and learn the truth of both his life and death.

The interesting limitation is that, being a weak ghost, Sissel can’t jump too far. This means he has to jump from object to object to save the last person he leaped into like he was Dr. Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. A simple example of a puzzle in Ghost Trick might be saving someone from being killed by a bowling ball. The bowling ball is on a high shelf so it is too far away to interact with directly. Sissel might start by jumping to a power cord for an air conditioner. He then turns on the air conditioner to open up an umbrella. He can jump into that umbrella and then bump into a jar full of marbles which knocks it over. He can then jump from the rolling marble to a precariously placed bust. Then if he times the fall of the bust correctly it can hit into the bowling ball so it does not hit the person he is trying to save. If he goes down a dead-end path or misses the timing of any of the chain he can rewind time and try again. This leads to Sissel creating complex Rube Goldberg devices to save the people capable of discovering what happened to him.

You thought Sam Wheat had it hard.

I think the game has a triumvirate of strengths that really made it stand out. First of all, the writing was fantastic. It had some really snappy dialog, vibrant characters, and some amazing plot twists I would never dare spoil. Suffice it to say, the journey (especially the ending) is well worth the trip. The second was a very innovate set of gameplay mechanics. The puzzles really take advantage of the very unique but intuitive power set of our poor ghost.  It makes the game feel very fresh and special. Lastly, it just has colorful and fluid animation. The bright colors, memorable character designs, and expressive rotoscoping make the game striking and impossible to forget. It is a powerful combination that really makes it a game that stand alone in the best way possible.

Much like Willow I feel Ghost Trick never got its time to shine despite the fact there was so much to love about both of them. Then again, who knows? As Mighty No. 9 has shown us, the world of Kickstarters has opened up a new avenue for neglected and overlooked ideas. Maybe Ghost Trick will get the second chance it deserves.

Waku Waku +NYC is a brand-new Japanese pop culture festival in Brooklyn, NY this August 29th to 30th that celebrates video games, anime, manga, music, food, art, and more. Tickets are on sale now!

“Don’t Let Your Fear of Failure Hold You Back.” An Interview with Smasher Max Ketchum

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Super Smash Bros. is a beloved video game franchise where players can battle each other using Nintendo’s most famous characters, but it’s the competitive community for Smash that’s been getting more and more attention over the past few years. Waku Waku +NYC recently had the opportunity to interview Max Ketchum—New Jersey and New York Gamer, pro Smasher, tournament organizer, and commentator—to ask him about what it’s like to be in the Smash community.

Follow Max on Twitter @juicedoom

Introduce yourself!

I’m Max Ketchum. I represent Team Smash Hub, IQHQ, and Juice. IQHQ and Juice are like family to me. The Smash Hub is a website I recently started with some other players, DKWill, JTails, False, and Dire, as well as two friends in web design who are getting into Smash now. We made the site to serve a function similar to Melee It On Me: news feeds, community updates, a well-documented archive of highlights videos and matches, and articles.

First and foremost I’d say I’m just a Smasher overall. I don’t have a single, specific role within the community because I love doing everything. I play in tournaments, I commentate, I sometimes stream tournaments and my own gameplay, and I even run my own tournaments. I’ve also represented the community at events such as PAX, speaking at panels on behalf of the Smash community. In general, I like to do as much as I can, and I don’t want to waste any time bringing Smash to the forefront of entertainment.

What tournaments are you involved with?

The primary tournament I run is called Smash Attack at Next Level Arcade in Brooklyn. It’s a joint venture with the fighting game streamer Team Spooky. I also help run tournaments such as KTAR and Apex, as well as other tournaments in my area. I recently started Smash 4 Collegiate, a kind of NCAA for Smashers.

A lot of our attendees might not be familiar with competitive Smash or competitive gaming in general. They might know Mario or Pikachu but not Smash Bros. How would you explain it to a complete newbie?

At the very basic level, Smash Bros. is like Street Fighter with platforms, and the focus is to outsmart your opponent. When either player is knocked away, you try to extend your advantage in order to win. Competitive Smash may seem strange to casual players, but we’re putting ourselves to the test, and seeing how we stack up to our peers. We take it more as a craft or a lifestyle.

So it’s very much about self-improvement then.

Certainly, both inside and outside of the game. It’s an ongoing pursuit for knowledge.

What was it like growing up in the NY/NJ area as a gamer?

When I was a kid, I grew up in a small town called West Milford, NJ. It was a fairly remote location, even though it’s only 45 miles from New York City. I was the best player in town, and I had been aware of the competitive scene. I wanted to take it a step further but couldn’t because of my location.

When I entered high school and my friend had a car, tournaments became a lot more accessible for me. After that, living in the New York/New Jersey region, the world was my oyster. All of the tournaments in my area were immediately accessible. After I came to New York for college, I benefited from public transit.

New York is a top area for Smash and always has been. It’s quite fortunate for me, because playing more top players pushes your own rate of improvement. When it comes to the general trend of the game, the best players for the most part come from the most densely populated regions.

How has the landscape for Smash changed in New York since you first began?

Now you have everything at your fingertips, but that wasn’t nearly as prevalent in the older days. You had to go on Smashboards or GameFAQs, and YouTube didn’t even exist when I first started. I learned how to Wavedash [a special movement technique in Melee] from a sticky post on GameFAQs! Back then you had to really dig for information, go onto online file sharing communities, and even videos were VCR rips because that’s all anyone could afford. Everything was a lot quieter, and there were fewer players, but everyone was very motivated.

I really got started with Brawl, and back then there was the feud between Melee and Brawl. There was no respect between the two communities, but now that Smash 4 [Super Smash Bros. for Wii U] is out everyone is realizing that we’re all in this together. Back then, nobody even thought that there would be 2,000-man tournaments at EVO [the largest fighting game tournament in the world]. Nobody was thinking they could make it their life, but now people are a lot more committed to it and ESPORTS in general. There’s more new blood too, so the growth rate has gone through the roof, as well as actual money, actual sponsors, and real venues.

What is your proudest moment when it comes to your work in the NY/NJ Smash community?

If I had to pick just one?

Everyone who knows me is aware that, even though I’m a commentator, I’m also very hungry as a player. Back in the early days of Smash 4, I took a set off of [Top 3 player] Nairo. It was like a combo video, double dunks and all that. Nairo was Apex champion [in Brawl] that year, and was always the best player in our region, so being such an underdog and beating such a legendary player was amazing.

The match was actually featured in the highlight trailer for EVO, and actually my proudest moment might actually be seeing that match in the EVO trailer.

Another moment: At EVO I had a money match with Fatality, who was making videos showing off Falcon combos, and receiving a lot of praise. I challenged him to a $100 money match, and he accepted. We played at EVO off-stream at a quiet time of day, with not a lot of people watching, but a representative from Nintendo was there. It was a best of 9 and I ended up down 4 games to 1. Fatality says to me, “I’m the best Falcon in the world.” Then I won four straight games in a row. I completely downloaded him, calmed myself down, and figured him out. Then I said to him, “You may be the best Captain Falcon but I am Captain Falcon.”

What are your goals for the future?

As far as my goals, I have them in every area, but I want to be the best Captain Falcon, and even one of the best players in the world. I don’t think Fatality is the only Captain Falcon. There are players in Mexico, Japan, and more, and I have a long way to go.

I also want to be one of the main representatives for Smash. I have a positive attitude and I want to push people forward. I see myself as a valuable commentator, and I’d like more opportunities to work to back that up. As a Tournament Organizer, I’m looking to do bigger events, including more high-stakes invitationals for the best players in the region (I believe I’m the first to do it) and the collegiate league. I want to show people what’s possible for the Smash Community; it doesn’t have to always be a Saturday tournament at $10 a pop. I want people to see Smash as a sport because there’s almost no difference between the two, except that one is more of a physical activity, which is a pretty minor thing. There’s competition, and someone puts in a lot of time and wants to see who the best is. On even a non-competitive level, there’s a lot to wanting to just get together and have fun. I want to see it be like the next NBA, or like a real-life Pokémon.

My secret, top goal, however, is to be involved with the design of Smash as a game. I think I really have some great game design ideas for Smash, and I wish I could at least get an ear. That’s actually the one area I’ve never been able to get into. Sakurai, he burned the hell out of me at the last E3. I’m the guy who asked him, if I beat you at Smash Bros. would you let me balance the game, to which he responded, “Have you ever made a game?” I’d like to be a creative force in Smash, just like how companies like Capcom and Namco get pros to work with them.

You’re a Captain Falcon player in Smash 4. What draws you to the character?

I love playing aggressively in every game, and Captain Falcon is both strong and fast. I’m someone who plays based on reads. I’ll try to condition you into doing something predictable, go for that hard read, and finish you with a Rage Forward Smash [a type of powerful attack in Smash 4] or something. He’s my ideal character, except for being so heavy. I usually prefer the pixie characters* (Sheik in Melee, Meta Knight in Brawl, Pikachu in 64), the light, in-your-face characters.

Also, Falcon is iconic. When you see Falcon, you know it’s going to be a hype match, and I love being a crowd pleaser and a hype man. Captain Falcon is the essence of fun in Smash Bros. and even non-Smash fans know him. Everyone knows what a Falcon Punch is. Beyond that, he’s just good.

What inspired you to write the “Call to Arms” for the Smash 4 Community?

I looked at the Melee scene, and they’re getting the crowds and the cheers and the hundreds of thousands of views, and I thought, why don’t we have that? I did some research and found that the Melee scene really has it together. They have Melee It On Me. They have articles on who are the Top 100 players, what the top players think matchup-wise, and how they’ve been doing at recent tournaments. Beyond that, you have guys like Scar and later D1 and Crimson Blur working at Twitch.tv, creating opportunities. It wasn’t sheer luck. They laid the groundwork, and were really passionate about the game, and thought about what they could do for the community.

I asked Melee leaders like Prog and Tafokints (big shout-outs to those guys for being such inspirations and mentors), and they told me why Brawl suffered for non-gameplay-related reasons. It could have been the best game in the world, but no one was reaching out trying to get larger venues or larger sponsors. I thought Brawl was a great game, but it didn’t have that community pressure to get it to the next level. The passion wasn’t there.

Smash 4 came out and I saw the same things happening, even though I think Smash 4 improved on a lot of things from Brawl. I looked back, and thought about ways to bring the scene up, and determined that we need to have something like Melee It On Me. We need to have a Collegiate League.

Even before I wrote the Call to Arms, people were really motivated competitively, but I felt that they were squandering their potential by going on Facebook and complaining. Put yourself out there! Post some videos, make a Twitter account. Even if there are trolls, if you make the game look so fun and amazing, then they’re not going to have much to stand on.

A lot of the Smash 4 community came from Brawl, and I feel like we were kicked around back then. In the last year of Brawl’s life, people were afraid to be passionate about it, and I never wanted the Smash Community to be a place where you felt like you were lesser for playing a certain game. I think we need to show everyone what a great product and what a great community we have.

Are you a fan of anime, manga, or any other part of Japanese pop culture? What are your favorite titles?

I’m very under-exposed to Japanese pop culture, but it’s more that I don’t watch much television in general. I’ve been very behind the curve, and I just watched my first anime ever a couple of months ago, Death Note, and I loved it. I’d give it a 13 out of 10, and I hear it’s not even the best anime out there! I just saw Ping Pong, and thought it was really good too. Japanese culture is really awesome and I’d love to go to Japan.

I also see that you’re a fan of Pokémon and its own competitive scene. What’s your favorite generation of all time, and what’s your favorite Pokémon for battling others?

I used to play a lot online, and I will money match anyone in Pokémon.

As for favorite generation, it’s tough. I like different generations for different reasons. In terms of actually playing on the cart, Gold/Silver/Crystal. 16 badges! They broke the mold! I love the Pokémon added in Generations V [Black/White] and VI [X/Y]. A lot of older fans of the first generation complain about the new Pokémon designs, but good and bad designs have always been around. I also actually love the battle dynamics they added in Generation IV [Diamond/Pearl/Platinum] when they split physical and special [Pokémon’s way of determining the damage an attack does to an opponent]. In terms of competing, Generation VI is the best.

As for favorite Pokémon, I really like Vaporeon, Exeggutor, Cacturne, Magneton (more than Magnezone), and Lampent. I tend to like middle-evolutions more than final forms.

Do you have any words for others aspiring to contribute to their own communities, Smash, or otherwise, as well as any shout-outs?

Apply yourself! Don’t just be a wallflower. You can be the coolest kid in your high school or the least cool one, but everybody at tournaments can get together. Just do it, full Shia LaBeouf. Most people I’ll see at a tournament for the first time, I’ll see them again for years on end. There’s no reason not to go. Foster yourself and your community, make some friends. Most of my friends I’ve made through video games, and you can improve your skills, find yourself, self-improve, there’s a lot to Smash.

Even if you’re the worst player, go anyway. Otherwise you’ll never improve. Even if you don’t end up being the best, it’ll be a hell of a journey and you’ll have great times and great memories. Don’t let your fear of failure or falling short of expectations hold you back.

I’d like to shout out everybody who pushed me in the Smash community. I was a random back in the day, reading GameFAQs and Smashboards, slipping things I learned into conversation with better players so I could appear educated. People have helped me along the way, and I’m not wholly responsible for where I am. Almost every person I’ve met in the Smash community has helped me to learn that I can always get better.

As for specific shout-outs, I’d like to shout out the OG bros: Toronto Joe, Rapture, False, D1, and all my Canada and New York homies. You helped me through the thick and thin and pushing the Smash community. Nobody does it alone.

I thought I’d go to college and get an office job, but this is my true calling. Shout outs to the Smash community. This is my dream.

Waku Waku +NYC is a brand-new Japanese pop culture festival in Brooklyn, NY this August 29th to 30th that celebrates video games, anime, manga, music, food, art, and more. Tickets are on sale now!

 

Shining in the Storm: An Interview with Nick Minarik from Gundam Planet

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Minarik, one of the minds behind Gundam Planet, an online and offline store in New Jersey dedicated to selling Gunpla, or Gundam plastic models that fans can build themselves. They even hold workshps at their store! Gundam Planet’s been serving New Jersey and New York anime fans for over 5 years now, and I wanted to highlight everything he and the company have been doing to promote a love of Japanese popular culture. You can find out more about Gundam Planet at their official site and their YouTube page.

Waku Waku +NYC: Hi, Nick! Could you tell us about yourself and Gundam Planet?

Nick: Well as for myself, I went to college in Vermont and was the first writing major at my school (Castleton State), and as part of the program I had to take part in an internship. I’ve been a big Gundam fan since the early 2000’s and I had recently been browsing the GP website and noticing a lot of errors in spelling and grammar, but it was otherwise a beautiful site. I approached them to set up an unpaid internship that would essentially have me edit the entire site’s contents, and they were very receptive to the idea, and that’s how I got my start.

As for GP itself, the website was started in 2010 by the owner (who’s a web design genius) with a focus on clean, well-presented contents. I started the internship in 2012, so they had already been pretty well established by the time I came around.

Waku Waku +NYC: Wow, three years now! Are you still an “intern” or has your title grown, seeing as you’ve done so much to improve the site overall.

Nick: Haha yeah, they’ve been nice enough not to kick me out by now! In 2013 the old manager had to go back to Japan, and since I’d become familiar with the systems and inventory, the owner asked me to step up and take over as manager.

Waku Waku +NYC: Good to see your passion’s paid off! So, how did Gundam Planet get started in the first place, and what inspired GP to provide workshops for customers?

Nick: Well the owner realized that Gundam was a growing niche in the US, so he decided to make that the focus of his own website. He develops websites for many clients as part of his IT consulting business, but this was his first that he directly controlled from concept to completion and beyond. Basically, he had a really good eye for what was becoming popular at the time.

Waku Waku +NYC: Based on what you’ve said, I assume the owner (shall he remain anonymous or can we talk about him by name?) is also a huge fan of Gundam.

Nick: I’m not actually next to him right now so I can’t get his opinion on that, but I kind of like keeping the mystery alive regardless. “The Owner” has a nice ring to it. And strangely, not really! He’s a big fan of classic super robot anime shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s like Mazinger Z and Grendizer, but the rest of us at the store are definitely the Gundam fanatics. We do all the freaking out over Gundam for him!

Waku Waku +NYC: I’ll have to ask him all about his favorite mecha series if I ever get the chance!

Something you mentioned sounds intriguing, specifically Gundam’s growing fanbase. Gundam has always had a devoted fanbase, but its success in the US has been…uneven to say the least. Around 2010 and maybe even before that, what do you think has been the key to bringing in new fans to Gundam and indeed Gunpla? And for that matter, what’s changed since the days of Mark Simmons’ Gundam.com, Toonami airings of Gundam Wing, and more?

Nick: All great questions, I’ll try to do them justice. What I’ve noticed is that the key to new Gundam fans is that they “rediscover” it. For so many people my age (mid 20s), we were introduced to it when Gundam Wing aired on Toonami in 2000. Back then, there was a Bandai America division that released North America specific Gundam toys and figures that you would see in Walmart and Toys R Us, and it was all very accessible and affordable. Of course 8-12 year old kids are going to love action figures of these amazing robots that we’d never seen before, so we all got really hyped on them.

Not too long after it all started though, Bandai America stopped making any Gundam anything, so they all stopped being available very suddenly. That’s when some of us “fell out” of the fan base, because even though we still loved it, we had no way to come by it.

Then in recent years, the internet has become so vast and filled with content, all of us who remembered liking Gundam found some way to go back and revisit it and get into it again. Gundam Planet is a great example of a store that capitalized on the returning interest, because it made available something that had been unavailable to us for a little while.

Waku Waku +NYC: Mecha in general has been somewhat neglected in geek fandom beyond general references such as Voltron.

Nick: You’re right, all of us here get so annoyed of hearing “Oh that looks like Transformers!”

Waku Waku +NYC: Do you think there are a lot of fans of giant robot and science fiction anime, a silent but powerful fan base that needs sites like Gundam Planet?

Nick: Well that comes back to the internet again, where these fan bases are no longer silent and are actually finding places to congregate and share their passion for the subject and kind of consult each other on the best places to find what they’re looking for.

Waku Waku +NYC: I remember the Gundam fandom used to be like that too! It seems like history repeats itself with new generations, just like in Turn A Gundam.

Nick: Ahhh, you did your research!

Waku Waku +NYC:  A lifetime’s worth!

Nick: (You could have also gone with the Endless Waltz of history ;))

Waku Waku +NYC: What would you say is the appeal of Gundam models and Gunpla?

Nick: Basically, Gunpla is Bandai’s line of incredibly high-quality model kits of mobile suits found throughout the Gundam universe. They’re all pre-colored and snap together without glue, so it’s very accessible and you really get a fully functional action figure when you’re done building!

Imagine you’re watching this show and you see this amazing robot, and that appeals to something inside all of us that makes us go, “Man, I want that thing” in some form. The fact that Bandai is making so many of these robots available in a physical form that’s enjoyable to build is a large part of its appeal.

The designs of the suits and the technology of the models themselves are also 100% unique. There’s really nothing else like it in terms of how much the hobby is determined by your own level of commitment!

Waku Waku +NYC: How much time have you devoted to building Gundam models?

Nick: Uh I’d be kind of scared to actually evaluate that number

Waku Waku +NYC: So you’d call yourself pretty hardcore then

Nick: Recently it’s been less, because surprisingly, working at GP gives you much less time to build models. But overall, definitely the high hundreds of hours

Waku Waku +NYC: As someone who’s built models but never really painted them or anything, the dedication of Gunpla builders is amazing to me. I still have a poor unfinished Master Grade Master Gundam somewhere!

Nick: I don’t paint anything either, and that’s what I mean by the hobby being determined by you. You and I don’t paint but so many people do. Some people barely put any time into cleaning up the plastic, some people remove seam lines, it’s really incredible.

Waku Waku +NYC: Do you find that there has been any significant changes in the Gundam fandom in the NY/NJ area, both from your perspective growing up in the area, and from seeing Gundam Planet grow?

Nick: Well strangely, no one close to me ever had any interest in Gundam growing up, so I never had any idea that anyone really cared about it. So that makes answering that particular question hard from my perspective

And to be honest, I feel like the fandom has always been there. They just never knew it was so readily available to them now. We get so many customers who come into the store and say either “I can’t believe you guys are right here!” or “Man I used to love all this stuff!”

To me that’s indicative of the fact that everyone who used to love it still does and just hasn’t been able to find a way to come by it. Of course having a place like GP to take your friends when you’re into something like this will have a better chance of hooking them into it also, though.

Waku Waku +NYC: Do most of your customers come from the Wing generation or are they into the newer series, the 00s and SEEDs?

Nick: You nailed our three most consistent sellers with those series. Wing always has sticking power because of the nostalgia factor. People will always, always lose their minds over how amazing Heavyarms is no matter how old it is.

Waku Waku +NYC: Years ago I mentioned to a Japanese classmate that the top Gundam series at the time in the US were Wing and G, and he was amazed. It goes to show that Gundam Planet knows its audience

Nick: G Gundam is also a big one. People love it for the cheese factor.

That was another struggle for the owner, that he knew the Japanese market very well but not the NA market. That’s where I came in, with the perspective of a consumer that was also part of the target audience.

Waku Waku +NYC: What do you think about the recent anime Gundam Build Fighters and Gundam Build Fighters TRY? Have they brought more fans to Gunpla, and do you think those series are good ambassadors for Gunpla in general?

Nick: I liked them both, but they’re definitely not anywhere near my favorite series in the universe; however, I can definitely acknowledge that the idea from Bandai’s point of view is actually genius.

Build Fighters has definitely not only brought more people in, but also widened the appeal of the show. A lot of Gundam series (08th MS Team, War in the Pocket, etc.) are really heavy, really serious affairs that don’t really give younger viewers a chance. The more fun-loving approach is something that parents can feel comfortable introducing to their kids, or older siblings can show younger siblings. Plus, it was streamed for free on YouTube with subs in all languages, so literally anyone could watch it.

Waku Waku +NYC: Have the recent Gundam Unicorn and Gundam: Reconguista in G [G-Reco] anime had any success bringing in new customers? And what are your thoughts on each?

Nick: Gundam Unicorn is very heavily interwoven with the plots of the other Universal Century* timelines, so newcomers to Gundam would probably find themselves really confused at times in that OVA. Also, the hour running time of each episode could be a little long for some, even though the animation is absolutely gorgeous.

However, the suit designs being so incredible probably does have a large part in that particular line of kits’ popularity, although it’s hard to say what percentage of buyers comprise “new” customers.

G-Reco… as the manager of GP it’s bad form to bash any Gundam properties, but if I had to pick the biggest flop I’ve seen, that’s the one.

*The original timeline of the first Gundam anime, which over the decades has spawned many sequels and spin-offs that take place within the same universe.

Waku Waku +NYC: Are you excited about all of the Gundam series coming out on Blu-ray?

Nick: Absolutely! Japanese Blu-ray releases are absolute insanity that can actually run upwards of $300 depending on the series. Having domestic releases is going to be so amazing.

Waku Waku +NYC: I’d like to return to Gunpla for the next question: What’s one tip you’d give to beginners and experts alike when it comes to Gunpla?

Nick: I LOVE THIS QUESTION. Everyone who’s going to even think about touching a model kit needs a sharp curved blade on their hobby knife

I know people who have been building for years, and when I make them try a curved blade, they’re always surprised how much easier it is and how much cleaner the nubs on the kits look compared to a straight blade

Waku Waku +NYC: That’s great advice! I should try it myself.

Nick: We have a tutorial on our Youtube channel about that too 🙂

Waku Waku +NYC: Okay, so I have to ask you these questions: favorite Gundam series, favorite Mobile Suit?

Nick: 08th MS Team and the GM Sniper II White Dingo Custom, respectively.

Waku Waku +NYC: You have excellent taste!

Nick: White Dingoes for life.

Waku Waku +NYC: What in particular appeals to you about such a specific and some might say obscure suit?

Nick: Part of it is the attachment to the source material with the Dreamcast game Gundam Side Stories 0079: Rise from the Ashes. It’s one of the best (if not the best) Gundam games ever made and it was a really great localization. Plus, the design is just killer from the color to that crazy medium shield.

Plus how cool is a game that focuses on an elite Federation special forces unit based in Australia after the colony drop? I could go on for days.

Waku Waku +NYC: Especially with your interest in 08th MS Team and a gruntish suit like GM Sniper II, it seems like you enjoy the realistic side of Gundam. What do you think of Super Robots?

Nick: You nailed exactly why I don’t like super robot shows (Except Gurren Lagann). I just can’t really get behind the designs, as shallow as that is. I can understand the appeal but it’s just not for me

Waku Waku +NYC: Ever get into any fights with the boss?

Nick: Usually I leave him alone and he leaves me alone, but sometimes we have words. But like why does everything need to transform? Gosh!

Waku Waku +NYC: Last question! Do you have any shout outs?

Nick: We talking personal or on a business level? I could plug an awesome pizza place by me, haha.

Waku Waku +NYC: Anything you’d like!

Nick: Well I mean for me, this was all because of the amazing people in my life always supporting my passion for what a lot of people would call silly. My parents always helped me find Gundam stuff in the area (Gundam Invasion Tour anyone?), and when I joined the GP Team, the owner was very patient in dealing with my lack of experience in the field–I still haven’t had an ounce of business schooling. He and everyone else at GP are so wonderful, and we’re always helping each other grow as people and as a business.

We also appreciate all the opportunities to express ourselves given by people like you who seek us out and ask us the real questions, and we can’t thank you enough for that!

Waku Waku +NYC: Thank you for the interview, and I wish for continued success for you and Gundam Planet!

Waku Waku +NYC is a new Japanese pop culture festival in New York City dedicated to bringing together the worlds of Japanese food, fashion, video games, anime, manga, and more. Check us out this August 29-30 at the brand new Brooklyn Expo Center!

Natural Selection and Option Selects: The EVO Championship Series

The Evolution Championship series, also known as EVO, is the largest fighting game tournament in the United States, and it’s set to return to Las Vegas this weekend. Having been in existence for 14 years through multiple iterations of fighting games, technological changes, and even generations of gamers, what I find most fascinating about EVO is that, true to its name, it is both a showcase of a survival of the fittest philosophy, as well as an example of change and adaptation.

Fighting games are in an incredible place today. With more active fighting game communities in existence and a larger community than ever before thanks to the advent of online play, it’s easy to think that the famous impact of Street Fighter II and the legacy of the arcades had never truly gone away. However, prior to the grand mainstream return of the genre in the form of Street Fighter IV in 2008, fighting games had entered their dark ages. In 2002 Capcom barely considered fighting games to be a part of their lineup, and fans were standing up for what they believed in: fierce competition, and an appreciation of strategy, nerve, wits, and camaraderie, as well as a sense of “purity of experience.”

From Arcade to Console

EVO was born from arcades, as that’s where competition was at its finest, and the ability to adapt to whatever the arcade threw at you—whether it was unlikely opponents, difficult controls, or even a bustling yet foreboding atmosphere—was key to victory. New York gamers were well aware of this, as NYC was home to Chinatown Fair, the birthplace of many EVO champions. On the day of a tournament, only the best could move on, and EVO embraced this mentality. Additionally, while many games were adapted to home consoles at that point, most of the time they had minor to significant changes due to differences in hardware. As a result, EVO matches were played out on arcade machines, because that was the competitive standard.

In 2004, however, home consoles had reached a point of development where they were practically as good as the arcades. Between the Playstation 2, Dreamcast, and more, the old adage that having a video game console was like “having an arcade at home” was less an advertising slogan and more of a reality. EVO decided to make almost a full switch to consoles, which was controversial to say the least. EVO had been built with arcade machines, and the idea of the arcade as the default and therefore most common iteration of a fighting game meant that it was forcing players to unlearn what had at that point become gospel to the community.

History has proven the switch to console to be the right decision, as not only are arcades themselves an ever-increasingly rare sight in the United States, and consoles have become the de facto standard for fighting games, but the philosophy of adaptation on a competitive level has encouraged players to learn a lot more about themselves and their peers. For example, where at one point playing with a gamepad instead of an arcade stick was considered ridiculous for “real competitors,” a number of players have rose up using their gamepads, and have even won tournaments with them, most notably EVO 2014 Ultra Street Fighter IV champion, Meltdown Louffy.

Super Smash Bros. and the Philosophy of Adaptation

While competitors at EVO have always been subject to the law of the electronic jungle, the game themselves have also been under scrutiny. While some tournaments have always erred on the side of caution, EVO was willing to throw any decent fighting game on-stage and challenge its players to find the greediest, most exploitable strategies possible and abuse them to no end. The idea is, if a fighting game is deep and complex enough, then people will eventually find ways around it. Another possibility would be that publicizing these strategies at EVO would make them commonplace and thus allow people more access to the strategies themselves, as well as the potential to devise counters. If neither could happen, then a game simply didn’t deserve to be competitive. EVO was willing to experiment where others would not even dare.

And yet, this philosophy of change and adaptation was also stubborn in its own ways. When Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series first became part of EVO, it was done hastily, and so organizers decided to adapt the existing Smash community’s rules, which involved a heavy customization of the ruleset well beyond the default. Smashers had learned how to take their raw materials and refine them into an environment that emphasized skill and the pleasurable competitive experience they desired, and this was evident in the way they played their game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. When the sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out in 2008, EVO decided to immediately throw it into their tournament, reflecting their on-going desire to put the games themselves through trial by fire, but with the caveat that the game would adhere closer to its default rules and that it would be up to the community to change them.

This would be a point of contention between the EVO organizers and the Smash community leading all the way up to the tournament itself, as both sides believed they were in the right. The results themselves were controversial, and both sides left with a bitter taste in their mouths, believing the other to have been too unwilling to change. It wasn’t until a community-wide effort involving a breast cancer donation drive that rose over $200,000 that Super Smash Bros. would make its return to EVO, and this time the Smash community’s rules were embraced. Sometimes the best adaptation is to understand where the players themselves are coming from.

 

And now…

EVO 2015 has more games than any previous iteration. Between Ultra Street Figher IV, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign, Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax, Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat X, and Tekken 7. Each game boasts a unique community, and this makes running the tournament all the more challenging. This makes sense, as EVO has historically shown both a desire to push itself to the limits and a willingness change with the times. All the same, however, sometimes the biggest changes come from remembering the core beliefs that EVO were founded on.

EVO never fully abandoned the core philosophy of testing games at the extremes. This year marks the first time that the new Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4) will be at EVO, and amidst a controversy within the Smash 4 community as to whether or not custom moves—special variations in characters’ techniques that can sometimes drastically change how they play—should be allowed, EVO has allowed them. One gets the feeling that they’re hoping to see just how high the game can soar, or indeed crash and burn, when pushed to its limits.

Moreover, 11 years after the move to consoles, an arcade tournament is coming back to EVO. Tekken 7 isn’t even available on consoles, which necessitates bringing actual arcade machines of this brand new game to Las Vegas. For many, the contraptions will look out of place, but to those who remember EVO’s roots, it’ll be in a certain sense a return home.

Whether you’re competing in person, crushing all those who dare to attack you, or watching at home as a family man (or woman!), I hope you enjoy EVO 2015.

-Carl

Waku Waku +NYC is a new Japanese pop culture festival coming to New York City this August 29-30. Games, anime, manga, food, fashion and more, Waku Waku +NYC is a celebration of the best of Japan!

Please Take a Look: The Legend of Satoru Iwata

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By Official GDC (Flickr: GDC 2011 – 3/2 (Day 3)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday, Nintendo announced to the world that its president, Satoru Iwata, had passed away at the age of 55 due to a bile duct growth. The weight of his death was immediately evident, as fans and industry veterans gave their condolences, but also their respect for a great man in the industry who made a difference in more ways than one.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Nintendo was the pinnacle of the video game industry. Under the lead of President Hiroshi Yamauchi (who had himself passed away in 2013), Nintendo rose out of the ashes of the 1983 Video Game Crash through a combination of excellent games and strict copyright protection. The “Nintendo Seal of Quality” kept Nintendo from being flooded with low-quality games, thus bringing up the reputation of Nintendo as a whole. However, by the time of the Nintendo 64, the world had changed. The harsh policies which had protected Nintendo up until then became just as much a weakness as it was a strength. In 2002, Yamauchi stepped down and named Iwata as his successor. Nintendo had been a family business operating for over 100 years, well before the invention of the computer, and Iwata was tasked with bringing Nintendo into the next millennium.

If Yamauchi was the stern, yet caring father, both respected and feared, then Iwata looked to be the wise and gentle dad you could come to for advice any time. He had the aura of an everyman, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that, under his direction, Nintendo captured the world with the Wii, expanding video games to audiences that had rarely even thought of video games. At the height of the Wii’s popularity, one could often hear stories about children being unable to play their favorite video games because their grandparents were occupying it.

Of course, one could argue that this was merely an outward image, and when it comes to media and marketing, often times the surface doesn’t match up with what lies underneath. However, from every single report about Iwata that has ever surfaced, all evidence points to the man’s greatness, a level of talent, dedication, and love for games matched only by his humility. After his death, Kirby and Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai called Iwata the greatest leader he’d ever known, and Earthbound’s Shigesato Itoi described him as the kind of man who would always put others first.

Most have come to know Iwata as the President of Nintendo, and for his lovable Nintendo Directs, but he had been a part of the company for decades. First programming the original Balloon Fight in the 1980s, he became known as an incredibly efficient programmer who could solve even seemingly impossible tasks. He re-created the Pokémon engine from scratch for Pokémon Stadium and even improved upon it without any design documents available to him. When Pokémon Gold and Silver seemingly could not fit on the limited space of a Game Boy cartridge, Iwata stepped in and not only fixed their problem but figured out how to compress the data so well that they could add the Kanto region from the first game as well, which is to this day one of the best surprises in video games. He completely rewrote the code for Earthbound in order to get the game finished in time for release. Perhaps most amazingly, he returned to the trenches one last time to  debug the complex code for Super Smash Bros. Melee so it could make its release date, after he had already become the General Manager of Corporate Planning at Nintendo.

It can be kind of an odd sight to witness president of a corporation, even one as beloved as Nintendo, receive such a massive and heartfelt outpouring of emotion, but I think it’s clear why Iwata was different. Starting as a humble yet hard-working programmer, he slowly rose to the top of Nintendo, doing so not through the political game but through honesty and a genuine passion for video games. Taking Yamauchi’s advice to never be afraid of risk, he carried forward Nintendo’s history of innovation into a new era, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Iwata’s legacy continues to inspire creators of all stripes to keep reaching for their dreams.