Lose yourself

Today was a day I'd planned a long time ago. I'd been holding onto two important pieces of paper for the entirety of the trip, with periods of worry about their security, like when my bag was lost in Vienna. The first were the JR passes that gave us one week of unlimited rail transport all across Japan. The second was a voucher for access to the Studio Ghibli museum. Both were irreplaceable, with no refund for loss and both had specific validity dates. Thankfully, we made it here with everything intact.

When I looked out the window this morning, I was a little surprised to see heavy drizzle and grey sky. It had been very pleasant over the last few days and I hadn't sensed any change was on the way. Alas, all day I had to navigate the rain with little reprieve. I enjoy wet weather, but the one downside that irks on occasion is when my socks and shoes get wet. Sadly today it was the kind of slanted, blowy rain that makes umbrellas pointless and, indeed, difficult.

I took a couple of trains about half an hour west of Tokyo station to get to the Ghibli museum, and then walked fifteen minutes from the terminal to the park where it is based. Ghibli is the Oscar-winning film studio responsible for films like Spirited Away and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The museum is a whimsical building with the theme 'lose yourself', and stretches over several floors. It has odd half-size passages, spiral staircases, a rooftop garden and, deliberately, no obvious navigation route. I got there quite early and was glad that I did, as the queue when I left was quite substantial (and I'd walked in alone when I arrived).

Sadly, there wasn't much that had English translations, but the place was full of beautiful displays and artwork that you could appreciate without being able to read the accompanying text. There was a slightly surprising historical bent, with spinning stroboscopic animation reels, old cameras and projection systems on display, and detailed recreations of an animator's workshop. It was pretty cool to see all the storyboards and sketches of famous films. There was even a short film to watch (all Japanese, sadly, though able to be followed regardless) and the ticket was a real piece of film stock with a couple of frames of Ghibli film. There was a lifesize catbus, but sadly only children were allowed on it.

After a couple of hours, I braved the rain back to the station to take another couple of trains to the Tokyo Game Show, which was conveniently on the entirely opposite side of town. So I travelled west for eighty minutes to get to the convention centre where it was held. TGS is still rather unique in the gaming expo world as it offers two days on the weekend when the public, not just game journalists, can visit and play games aren't out yet and won't be, in some cases, for quite a while. It was an utter fluke that I was here at the exact right time to visit - another happy coincidence to add to the list with the Edinburgh Fringe and the Fringe crew filming in Vancouver.

It was my first expo, and it was an impressive display. The convention is spread over three huge halls in the centre, and is made up of game companies' booths, some of which I obviously knew (Playstation, Square Enix, Namco Bandai) and many of which were regional. The place was packed with people young and old, many in costumes, and booms with loud speakers. There are employees pushing flyers at you as you walk past their displays, and screens everywhere showing trailers or footage from the people playing the consoles below. It echoes in your head, and you wade through crowds ten deep to find something worth queuing up for half an hour or more to play.

I walked past a Wii U unit - Wii U being Nintendo's upcoming console, in case you didn't know - and considered lining up. It was just for a hack and slash game, though, and didn't seem worth the hour. I admired the tablet controller from afar and then moved on, enjoying the atmosphere. My first stop was actually the PlayStation booth, where I got my hands on a PS Vita for the first time. Yes, I know it's been out for a while. Sue me. I didn't want to spend the cash at this stage despite the appeal of Uncharted, and no one I know owns one either.

A drawing app that shared images with other users for them to edit was interesting, but better was a puzzle game called PulzAR that used AR cards and required you to position them and then adjust the on-screen laser and mirrors. I queued to try a two-player game called The Box! Open Me which mixed AR cards again with puzzle-solving. You had to team up to open a crate together, and was a lot cooler than that description sounds. After watching the previous people play and seeing how it was solved, I didn't feel compelled to stay when time was ticking on and there were other games worth waiting for.

I swapped to the Playstation 3 line, which was far longer, and had to choose which game of the thirty or so on offer I wanted to queue for, which is a tough call. In the end, I asked for The Unfinished Swan, a smaller downloadable title I'd had my eye on for a few years but that was also listed (I think) as closed. A nice guy kindly squeezed me in and I got to play it. Basically, you're in an entirely white space and can shoot black paint to coat your surroundings and identify walls and navigate through.

I had hoped it would be the next Journey for me, but despite the uniqueness of the concept and the visuals, I must admit that the gameplay of shooting paint balls and jumping didn't have the hook I expected. Repeatedly firing black paint into white space to see where hidden walls are has the potential to get tiresome, though the friendly attendant (possibly one of its developers himself given the American accent) did note that the puzzle elements change later on. The storybook plot setup was kiddy, though probably won't be overly present. While it had flashes of beauty, like arriving at a high point and looking back at the world you painted, it was surprisingly unimpressive visually. Something about it didn't hit as powerfully as I'd hoped. I'll still give it a go when it comes out next year.

I considered lining up again for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, but really wanted to try the Wii U before the expo closed at 5pm. I headed over to Namco's booth and joined the line for Tekken Tag Tournament 2: Wii U Edition. It has the very strange conceit of taking existing Tekken characters and skinning them with Nintendo costumes. So you have a fat Mario, a guy in a Bowser shell, and a man dressed as Princess Zelda. Plus, there's a mode where items like giant and poison mushrooms drop in and alter your characters mid-fight. Very strange and yet kind of awesome.

First impressions of the Wii U controller were very brief. The console itself was hidden away beneath the bench, and for all I know may well have just been a PC running dev software, but the controller was fully accessible. No photos allowed, sadly, but in real life the GamePad, with its touchscreen sandwiched between joysticks, is smaller than you'd expect. Lighter too. Doesn't seem like it would be a hassle to play for any length of time, and the in-built screen seemed to be of pretty decent quality. Since they only allowed two rounds of fighting, which passed quickly, it was all over before I'd realised.

I'm still waiting for the platform's killer app - Nintendo still hasn't tipped their hand as to their first-party titles coming down the line to make me want to invest on launch day. Especially after being burnt on the 3DS, which had its price slashed within six months and still lacks a compelling software library. I really want to know what Retro Studios has been cooking. Where's my Metroid game, too? Even a hint of new Zelda? I'm over 2D Mario games.

After that, the place was starting to empty out as booths stopped letting people queue up. I found a few little stalls with indie games. Cube, by HAL Laboratories, of which I can find absolutely no confirmation of elsewhere on the internet (so perhaps the name is wrong), was a Nintendo DS puzzler. It took place on the faces of a cube, and you navigated the sides in 2D to get to the exit, by falling off the edge of a platform onto one below on another side of the cube. Along a similar bent was a PS Vita game where you tried to get to the exit by pushing cubes left and right in 2D space, but could flip the stage 180 degrees to stand on alternate platforms. It had a digital theme about hacking or killing computer viruses, but the name escapes me. The rest of the internet apparently forgot it too.

I did one last lap as I headed to the exit, and couldn't get in to try Lost Planet 3 and wasn't interested in Max Payne 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and the many stereotypically Japanese RPGs and simulations that littered the floor. It was great to have the opportunity to visit, and I'm glad I spotted that it was on today (on the back of a supermarket receipt, if you can believe it). It also ticked off another quintessential Japan experience, in that the hordes of exiting patrons flooded the nearby train station and all crammed into the one train back towards Tokyo. They were only running every twenty to thirty minutes since it is Sunday - the kind of fact that has only rarely been relevant on this trip.

Two days left. One full one tomorrow, one last night, and then a half day to get a final taste before our flight out at night. It's almost over. Weird. The luxury of being able to drift through cultural experiences without regard for time or other obligations will be hard to let go. I've lived so much of the past few months in my head. Getting back to the real world, and all the limitations of expression, time, self and experience thereof, will be a challenge.