Hey guys, As some of you know, after my trip to Singapore over Christmas holiday, I went to Tokyo to chill for four days. It's a little late in coming, but I figure, better later than never and I know if I don't write these impressions before the PS2 version arrives I will never write it. Plus, my memory's getting fuzzier by the day. Disclaimer: This post is going to read much like a "A Day in Jeff's Diary," so if that's not your cup of tea, kindly stop reading before reacting with expletives. And so I arrived into Japan with the worst cold in the world. But it was a Friday, and I remembered from the VF3 days as Friday being THE night to be at Kani-spo, and I didn't want to miss it. Traveling from Narita Airport into Tokyo is a nightmare...taxis are extremely expensive to use, so the only real options are by train or by bus (and even then expect to spend $30-$40). The hotel that I stayed at came recommended by retsam, an infrequent VFDC reader who unfortunately I never got the chance to meet up with. It was a cheap but clean, nice-looking, and only 6-months old apartment/hotel in Yotsuya, and barely a 5-minute walk to the station. It's a small room, but it did the trick. Anyway, no bus went directly to the hotel, so I ended up taking the train from Narita to Tokyo, and from Tokyo on the local Chuo line to Yotsuya. Yes, I was dragging my big, clunky, for-3-weeks-holiday fat suitcase in a crowded Tokyo train on a Friday night, with a sniveling red nose. Wonderful! Fortunately, getting to the hotel was much easier than I anticipated, and as soon as I checked in and dumped my bags I was off to Shinjuku, in search of the famed Kani-spo. I've been to Kani three times already, but man, I keep forgetting where it is each time. This last time was no different...Shinjuku station is just MASSIVE. I mean, seriously, it could take you over 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. It took me nearly 40 minutes to find Kani-spo. For those of you who plan to visit, finding the right exit is key. Take the main East exit, find My City, and Kani-spo should be very near by. Once you know where it is, it's but a 5-10 minute walk. Friday night certainly did not disappoint. All the big guns (except Kyasao and BBM) were there. All those guys on the clips, guys whose faces were on posters on the wall, they were there, and the arcade was PACKED. Pretty daunting. The VF4 floor was basically divided into two sections. All in all, there were I think 12 Versus City, VF4 machines. The section on the left is much like the layout in the old VF3 days, and this is where the heavy hitters play. Interestingly, Kani-spo set up a big widescreen TV that fed from the machine that in VF3 days the greats tended to favor...but the plan backfired a little, as I'm guessing the famous players didn't want to be seen as being too presumptious for playing for the big screen. Anyway, most of the big guys played on the third machine down, where there was a gap before the fourth machine for players to walk up and down. The other section, off to the side, is a section for beginners and kyus. I didn't notice this until the third day, but they even have signs on the machine for 8-10 kyus, 4-8 kyus, etc. I guess they wanted to give people starting on new characters a place to build rank. Anyway, I was unaware of all this at first, and with the arcade being that packed, there were many really good players and high dans on the "beginner" side. One of the things that I wanted to do coming in was to use a VF.net card and put all of my matches on the card. So I started off on the beginner side, not so much that I knew it was the section for beginners, but because a spot opened up, and faced against an 8th Dan Akira for my first match!! I think the guy's heart was only half in it though (it would be kind of mean to make someone lose their first match on a brand new card) as I beat him without problems. Anyway, I had a very good start and ripped off a 10 win streak. I had a something like a 25-2 record on that side before I was like...hmm, time to kick some Chibita ass. Heh. Heh. Heh. Anyway, it was a pretty funny sight. I was like, what, 8th kyu? Had only 27 matches on my card and was challenging the grand emperor himself, Chibita's Lion. I could see from the reflection on the monitor some people snickering in the background. In retrospect, it didn't make much sense at all to have challenged Chibita at that point. I guess I should explain the VF.net system and culture to make things more clear. The way the ranking system works is that you start off as ranked as a kyu. There are ten levels of kyu (the lower the better). To move up in ranking, you can play anybody, even kyu players with worse kyus than you or those playing without cards. I'm not sure how many matches you have to play, but I think it's 5 victories in a row to move up. The bigger your streak, the fewer matches (I think) you need to win to move up, and vice versa when you lose, except you move in the opposite direction. So it's possible to go up the ladder quickly if you are on a hot streak and if people keep challenging you. Once you break out of the kyu ranking, you enter the dan ranking. There are ten levels of dan, from sho dan to 10 dan (higher the better). At this point, you must play people of your own rank to be able to move up. Sho dans play sho dans to become 2nd dan. Again, it's 5 in a row to move up, but if you lose 5 in a row, you go down in rank. If you think about it, this system of ranking is quite brilliant. Sega doesn't want beginners to get intimidated too quickly, so it's fairly easy to break out of the kyu level as you can play anyone. But if you're a 10th dan, do you really want pesky 2nd dans to keep challenging you? No, you want similarly ranked dans to fight you, and that's why AM2 made it so you that X-dans must beat X-dans to move up. What this means is that on the dan level, you will get a lot of people of the same dan challenging you in the hopes of improving their rank, not just any X-dan player, although 2nd dans can still play against 10th dans. Presumably, players of a certain dan would be about equal in strength. Yet, rankings are fluid and players often move up and down, so there is never a shortage of players of a certain rank. Unlike the impression one may get from watching clips on the Internet, not everyone in Japan are 9+ dans!! In fact, I would say the "average" VF.net player is 2-4 dan...i.e. 2-4 dans are the most common on any given day at any given arcade. Improving rank through VF.net is VERY addicting...and I found myself literally searching for players of my own dan, and scoping them out..."Hmm, this 2 dan is pretty strong, better not challenge her. Ahh, this one is weak, I have a good chance of winning. OK, I'll play him." Those were the kind of thoughts running through my mind as I sought to improve my ranking. The worst thing is that usually, when I lose to a player, I try to think about why I lost and would challenge that player again to patch up that hole in my game. With VF.net, I found myself hesitating to challenge someone I lost to in fear of getting my ranking demoted. (The easiest way to lose your ranking is to develop a grudge and to keep challenging the same player you lost to with your card.) And so it made no sense at all at that point for me to have been playing against those big guys on Friday night. If I had wanted to improve my ranking, I should be playing guys that weren't as strong. If I just wanted to challenge emperors, I might as well not have used the 8 kyu card...as an emperor, what are you supposed to think when an 8-kyu challenges you?! Anyway, I got mauled at the emperor machines and won only three times and lost about a billion. =) My winning percentage plummeted from 90+% to 40%. It was then that I came to realize that a disparity in skill level existed between sides. So I started playing on the beginner side again, working up to 50+%, and then going back to challenge the high dans until my percentage dropped to 40%, at which point I would move back to the beginner section, and the cycle continues. Looking back, while I sort of regret using my card to play against the emps (it was a very touristy thing to do), I am glad that I had the courage to play them. On the next three days, on my subsequent trips to Kani-spo, the big hitters all but disappeared. There were a few 8-10+ dans that showed up, sure, but most of the guys on those posters were MIA. This is really a testament to the power of i-Mode and VF.net. Without a doubt, Chibita is someone a lot of people track on their cell phones. Basically, if you designate Chibita as someone you want to keep track of on i-Mode (i-Mode is a wireless network in Japan), any time Chibita uses his card, you get an e-mail of when and where he is playing. That explains why Friday was packed to the limit throughout the night while Saturday was by contrast practically empty. It was funny too, because when an hour or two after I arrived, the crowd had begun to die down a little. But when Chibita pulled out his small emperor Lau, another wave of human traffic showed up half an hour later. When that crowded began to thin out and Chibita pulled out his small emperor Kage, another wave of people would show up. On an interesting sidenote, this is a great example of the differences in arcade dynamics between Japan and the U.S. In the U.S., it's all about location, and generally, arcades pay very little attention to doing what is necessary to keep customers returning. Most business is generated from in-and-out traffic, much like stores in airports, so arcade operators don't really care about about the quality of customer experience. In Japan, on the other hand, and especially for VF4-centric arcades, it's all about the players. When Chibita and company show up, half of Tokyo shows up as well. For Kani-spo, this means that arcade traffic is more unpredictable. People no longer come on Friday and Saturday in expectation of watching Chibita and co., creating predictable traffic flow, but people come only when Chibita and co. had made an appearance through VF.net and i-Mode. But when they come, boy does Kani-spo really rake in the dough. As such, Kani-spo really depends on Chibita and friends to make frequent appearances to draw in the traffic. With this kind of a market, arcades like Kani-spo are making a genuine effort to making sure regulars stay happy. It's little things like the big screen TV, a poster on the wall that keeps track of some sort of ranking (Chibita is first, Gerrira second, and so on), the First Tournament video running continuously, etc. that give those players a sense of importance and perhaps even loyalty to the arcade. Service, of course, is top notch. There are always someone nearby to fix anything broken. Ash trays are continually being emptied. Very impressive stuff, and a far, far cry from the crap that U.S. arcade goers have to put up with. Anyway, as you my have deduced from my Chibita Lau/Kage comment, each card can only be played for one character. It's very easy to insert the card into the machine, and the machine automatically selects the character for you. I didn't know you could only have one character at first, so imagine my confusion when I saw Chibita playing Lau and Kage, little realizing that he was a small emperor for both characters! After a while though, it kinda sucked playing only one character. I was approaching VF4 burnout at that stage (averaged 3+ hours over 3 weeks playing VF4 over the break), and I was practically over the top with Kage burnout from using the card. On Saturday afternoon, I went to visit Akhibara to check out the VF4 level there. I was curious to see whether a disparity existed between an X-dan at Kani-spo and an X-dan at Akhi. I would say definitely yes...Akhi's players tended to be more "scrubby" in the sense that that players tended to abuse a certain strategy/pattern/guessing game that wouldn't work on more experienced players, but could work on players not used to that particular style. The thing about Japan is that there are so many people playing VF4 that you can get comfortable playing a certain style...when it stops working on someone, just move on and use it on someone else, and this only happens because of the deep pool of players. The result is that you get a HUGE spectrum of playing styles...there are people as scrubby and "cheap" as can be, and players that play with finesse and style. In the U.S., by contrast, among the small pool of "serious" VFers, you play against the same people over and over again, so that you're forced to adapt and change tactics, resulting in fewer "scrubby" players (again, scrub in the sense of reliance on a limited set of guessing games and tactics). Anyway, I had worked up to the 3rd dan level, and I have to admit it was pretty difficult to get there. While I matched up well against 4-6 dans, I really didn't have the consistency to dominate against 3- dans, scrubby or no. But I did upset quite a few high dan players, and my best wins were against a 10th dan Pai and a small emperor Jacky (didn't note their names, but the 10th dan Pai was on Friday night, so probably the same Pai player that Mo mentioned). My desire to play every match on my card (too much Kage!!!) and my desire to improve my game turned out to be unexpectedly at odds with each other. For example, Gerrira (I think it was him) had just started Pai and was playing on the beginner's side at Kani. He's obviously a genius player and was ripping off an impressive streak. At that point, I was keen on observing how strong players play Pai, and so I challenged him after people stopped playing against him. We were both 3rd dans (he did it in fewer than 100 games...brat). I lost, but it was very close and I thought I could beat him. So I challenged him again...and again...and again...and before you know it, it was a Title Match. Not for him, but for me. Yes, I lost my 3rd dan ranking. T___T The point is, if you're serious about improving rank, you don't want to challenge people like Gerrira on your way up. Sure enough, an hour later when I came back to see how he was doing, his Pai was 5th dan. Incidentally, losing rank is one of the crappiest feelings you can get. It's shocking at how VF.net can influence how you feel and play...Title Matches, for example, are a pyschological bomb, especially if you want to improve your ranking in the shortest time possible. It's actually pretty hard to get 5 wins in a row against opponents of your own dan; first in seeking those players out, and second in that few would challenge you again (i.e. usually it has to be 5 wins in a row against different players). The higher the dan, the tougher it is, which is probably why the system is such a success in allocating appropriate dans to players. So when the Title Match logo shows up, man, it could really destroy you mentally. Losing a Title Match on your way up is almost as bad as losing a rank. So anyway, by the third day I had slightly over two hundred matches on my card and about a 50% winning percentage. I was getting pretty sick of Kage at that point, but didn't really want to start a new character card. Why bother playing a kyu when I'll be leaving in a couple days? I was close to ditching my "every game on my card" mantra, but this one uber scrubby player made it easy. Basically, I had already two or three losses in a row as a newly demoted 2nd dan. (The thing is that Kani-spo is full of players who are actually high dans with other characters, with really strong fundamentals, and are just starting out with new characters; Kani-spo really isn't the best place to improve your ranking.) When I challenged this scrubby player that I should have been able to beat, I lost rather badly. So I challenged again...and lost. I was practically like !@#$% WTF, why was I losing!?!? and in a Bungle-like temper. I wanted to challenge...again!!...and...lost. Yes. From 3rd to sho dan in one day. It was way too depressing, and I decided to F it. I was only in Tokyo for another day and I didn't want to waste it hunting sho dans...I was there to play against and learn from the best. And so I gave up using my card, but it just didn't feel "right" for a 3rd dan (much less sho dan) to challenge an emperor, which I wanted to do. I couldn't help but feel that the culture was one where a player needed to earn the right to play a high dan player, a threshold I would peg at the 7+ dan level. A 7th dan and an emperor dan match is somewhat equitable in that the 7th dan has a realistic chance of upsetting the emperor. Since not everyone is dead set on improving rank or may use their card infrequently, there are many 7th dan players with emperor-like skills. However, you can still be a 4-6 dan and play against an emperor without having spectators raise eyebrows. The reality is that if you're 4th dan, you're seen as someone who has gone through the process--someone's who's proven that they can beat down scrubs consistently and deserve the chance to play against better opponents. 1-3 dan is scrubby, 4-6 dan is up and coming, 7-9 dan is respectable, 10th dan and up is someone worth keeping track of. All this, of course, is just my feeling based on what I observed...I don't really know exactly what the VF.net culture is like, seeing as how I don't know much Japanese (I only had one semester's worth in high school...freshman year) and I had only been in Tokyo for four days. Further, seeing as how Kani-spo was where I spent 95% of my time, I could very well just be describing a Kani-spo culture...maybe a 4-6 dan in the local neighborhood arcade is considered respectable, 1-3 dan up-and-coming, etc. So at Kani-spo, if you want to conform to custom, and if you want to play against an emperor but don''t have a 4+ dan card, what you should do is to challenge without a card. That way, you're allowing the possibility that you're a good player who just doesn't use a card, and the high dan player may take you seriously since he can only judge you by the way you play and not by your card ranking. Rankings can be a headache and can get in the way of getting a good VF experience, so I understand why many players in Tokyo choose not to bother at all. However, while I have played against VF.net-less players who clearly have high dan skills, most "good" players that play without a ranking I would generally place at the 4-6 dan level. And so for the rest of the trip I played primarily without the card and I ended up using a variety of characters. My most effective, aside from Kage, surprisingly turned out to be Wolf, Vanessa, and later on Pai. It was a proud moment when I was playing my Wolf against a group of high dan players and one of the players peered over to see who I was, flawed-GS-understanding and all. Cool feeling. =) I was much too embarrassed to use my Lau and Jacky during the trip and used them only once or twice...I'm quite effective with them, but they were downright scrubby next to the high dan Laus and Jackys that populate Kani-spo. One or two more thoughts about VF.net before I finish off this post...if flash was what AM2 was looking to incorporate into VF4, they certainly hit the bulls eye with the varied costumes that you can get through VF.net. I mean, wow, Tekken 4 looks downright boring in comparison to the multitude of accessories, colors, weapons, and designs that you can customize for your character. For example, there was this one great 7th dan Jacky player called Rodriguez (in katana), from G-boys I think. His Jacky really did look like a "Rodriguez"...yellow shades, tight fitting black T, silver necklace, and maroon sweats. Or this one 3rd dan Kage, who calls himself Moonlight Demon (or something along those lines). His Kage was in shiny purple with one of those samurai-demon masks, and his Kage literally looked like some bat-like evil-being from House of the Dead. Or take this one Sarah player, who must have tried to pick the most atrocious combination of colors he possibly could. His Sarah had neon pink pants with neon green shoes, and every kick burned into your eyes. I think he called her Crazy Legs, or something like that. This level of personalization is just way too cool, and I'm glad that AM2 is bringing it over in the PS2 version. Anyway, in conclusion, if you're planning to make a trip to Tokyo and if you're not staying long, I would advise you not to take VF.net too seriously. Play against the people you want to play, don't focus on beating scrubs just so you can advance in ranking. I wish I had used my four days more carefully instead of focusing so much on improving my rank. And if you want to insist on moving up, I don't recommend doing it in Kani-spo! Do it at some local arcade where it should be easier. To me, it seems that VF.net is more suitable for people who live in Tokyo or who are in Tokyo for a considerable length of time...getting the consistency to beat any scrub on any given day to get to the 4+ dan level takes time and experience, and unless you were just on a really hot streak or if for some reason people keep challenging you, attaining and staying at the 7+ dan level requires considerable commitment and patience. Aight, those were my Tokyo impressions from what I can remember. Mo, please feel free to add...don't know if your/Ryan's experiences are similar. All in all, I really enjoyed my trip there, though I wish my cold/flu/fever hadn't been so bad; I was literally burning up the entire trip. If anyone has any questions, fire away and I'll do my best to answer.