Now in its fifteenth year, the Japan Media Arts Festival is a chance for exhibits in the categories of interactive and media arts, entertainment, animation and manga to be given awards and recommendations by a panel of judges, with the prize picks on display to the public in the National Arts Center in Tokyo this week.
With prior winners and recommended works in the entertainment category comprising such titles as Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami and Wii Sports, the festival has traditionally been a chance for games to show their artistic worth, and a fairly reliable gauge of how the Japanese games industry is performing in the mainstream eye.
It might be a damning indictment then, that traditional videogames weren't shown in the main exhibition this year, but rather at one of the festival's satellite venues for a limited run. Indeed, while Capcom's eccentric 3DS sound based adventure Nazo Waku Yakata:received a deserved nod from judges, it's hard to believe that Nintendo's Pokedex 3DS app and Vanquish weren't only present in the recommended works out of The Last Guardian's inability to show up and have hopes pasted onto it.
The entertainment grand prize went to the Space Balloon Project, wherein a Galaxy S II phone was strapped to a balloon and sent spaceward, displaying Twitter messages to the stars in a voyage that was transmitted over UStream. Underneath this meanwhile, smart phones were used more conventionally in a variety of recommended works, but these took the form of software toys rather than games- Tsubasa Naruse's Rhythmushi being one of the more endearing- the titular pencil sketched insect grooving along to player's button presses.
While videogame software was hard to find in the Arts Center, hardware wasn't. Earning recommendation from the entertainment division was Microsoft's Kinect, and various mods found their way onto the show floor. Of these, Ralph Kistler and Jan Sieber's Monkey Business received the most curiosity from attendees- an animatronic cuddly monkey that, via Kinect, mirrors the users' movements- being undeniably cute, but also unfortunately not up to the strain of handling a crowd- the notorious finickyness of Kinect leading to some awkward simian motions. More reliable, meanwhile was Yunsil Heo and Hyunwoo Bang's Soak, wherein a stretched piece of elastic fabric suspended above a Kinect allowed users to produce colourful inkblots.
The scarcity of traditional games at the main festival was perhaps a sign of the perceived decline in the industry here, but perhaps the industry itself was best summed up by an exhibit not listed in the festival's official literature (and my apologies to the creators, who I can't name)- Game Border is a ten minute game developed over six months and played across eleven platforms concurrently. Starting on a Game and Watch, you have to move manhole covers for a character to make his way across the screen. Once leaving, he appears on a retro 80s TV and a Famicom controller must be clutched through a Wariowareish micro rendition of Mario. From there, it's onto a Game Boy (make a bridge for the character in (what else) a Tetris minigame), so he can fall onto a Super Famicom driven Pilotwings stage, then run into a Saturn Virtua Fight. The hero presses on through a mini PS1 Biohazard romp, off to a DS, up to a PSP, across to an iPhone, where naturally he is hurled Angry Birds style to a Wii driven volleyball bout, and then spiked to a Kinect, where the player is once again tasked with the original mechanic of moving manhole covers.
The piece is at once a charming walk through videogames' technological progress and a sobering thought. Have we come from simple distractions, through building mechanics and complexity, back round full circle to those simple toys, albeit with more sophisticated input? It's a view that seems to have been shared by the panel this year. Hope fully the Japanese games industry can rally to the same level of past glories.