The two Petes collaborated on this article. If you can guess who it is written in the style of, you win nothing, but may feel either proud or ashamed, at your discretion.
It was in a karaoke bar in Saitama that I first met Kobayashi Hikaru-san. This was not your high-end bar, like you’d find in Shibuya, or Harajuku, or any of the other hip spots. This was a thoroughly middle-class establishment. That didn’t stop us from proceeding to get very, very drunk along with a couple of his friends. I spent most of the night ignoring the interview and getting hit on by two very cute girls who gave me their keitei numbers.
It turned out that one of the cute Japanese girls had recognized me from the publicity photos for my band. I had started the band with a few buddies who noticed me jamming absentmindedly in the hallway of my apartment building in Harajuku. I was playing on the old guitar that I had left over from my punk-rock days. I had brought the instrument over here on a lark having felt pangs of nostalgia for my high school days and simpler times as I packed my suitcases to make the trip across the sea. So now, here in Japan, I have a cool band and this makes cute girls recognize me and hit on me even in dumpy karaoke bars. This is one of the reasons that I am so lucky. I live in Tokyo and relate the highlights of my wonderful life to you back in the States.
I hummed the first few bars of the victory theme to Dragon Quest III in Kobayashi san’s ear, and he smiled knowingly. “Yes,” he said. “This is why Microsoft will never succeed in our market. They just don’t understand us.” I smiled knowingly and sipped my vodka and Pocari Sweat. It’s a good piece of music; not as good as if it were sung by Nomiya Maki, formerly of The Pizzicato Five, but serviceable. It always made me feel somewhat sad, a little wistful. In the midst of the victory theme there is an element of sadness, sadness like I experienced when I was back in Illinois and I got into that fight with Billy Connor over whether Tekken or Virtua Fighter was the more realistic fighting experience. Bill punched me in the nose, and I ran home bleeding, vowing to escape Illinois and all that it represents. He’s probably selling used cars in Skokie, while I spend my afternoons playing pachinko in Akihabara. Yeah. Even if bittersweet, it’s still a victory.
“We will be playing golf next Wednesday and would be honoured if you would join us,” said Kobayashi san. “What is your handicap?” This would be delicate. While I have nothing but respect for Mr Kobayashi, lead designer of Jack the Giant Killer, I had already committed to direct a cosplay drama depicting the redemption of Bowser. “I’m a 72,” I said. “But only on Congo Canopy.” There was a long silence, and he sipped his scotch. “Congo Canopy, I see. Perhaps another time.” Kobayashi san was letting me off easy. Sometimes what is left unspoken has a power stronger than a thousand shouted words. His game, seemingly just a cheap Donkey Kong knock off, shows this wisdom. The first level, where Jack climbs the entangled vines, at first seems baroque and labyrinthine, but that is just on the surface. Beneath the Aubrey Beardsley veneer (“the curves intuitively know / Which aspects of nouveau to save”) is a sparseness and a power that, in the end, are nothing less than a metaphor for the world in which we move: the birds and snails nipping at our heels, trying to make those of us who are trying to ascend plummet to our failure. Hikaru Kobayashi understands the fear of failure. So do we all.
Feeling full from the drinks, I excused myself. In the bathroom, I sidled up to a urinal and voided my bladder, thinking about Mr. Kobayashi and our conversation. Suddenly the full weight of it hit me: I had insulted him. Jack the Giant Killer had always been viewed as a knock-off of Donkey Kong, and this always overshadowed its brilliance. He thought that my thoughtless mention of Congo Canopy was cruel mocking. I shook, washed my hands, and rushed back to the bar, but Kobayashi-san was gone. His friend with the bleached hair, the one who looked a bit like Vaan from the brilliant (and completely unacknowledged in its brilliance) Final Fantasy XII shrugged and gestured vaguely toward the door, then walked through it. I wandered out into the chill autumn Saitama night.
In the second level of Jack the Giant Killer, Jack wanders through the clouds trying to cross the bridge to reach the castle, but lions and birds get in his way. Boorish schoolgirls in seifuku block my path. I gently nudge them out of my way without even a gomen. Did they understand what I had done? No. Completely ignorant of their own culture, they had probably never even played Dragon Quest III, had never once visited Baharata or Portoga on a quest to defeat the Baramos. Being rude wounded me, but I had need of haste, as much haste as I needed when Zoma opened the pit to the Dark World. Pushing my self-consciousness down, I squared my shoulders and ran.
As I pushed my way through the throng, a soft rain began to fall. It was a mist at first, but as I was able to gain speed, the cold drops pelted my face, each a painful reminder of my earlier insolence. I leaned my head forward and gained a measure of relief from the onslaught of cold dampness. I ran for perhaps two or three minutes this way, and the rain grew only more insistant. Then, as I looked up, I realized that the bleach haired marker that had been my beacon was gone, having melted into the crowd like Solid Snake in the shadows. I stopped and tried to regain my bearings, my gaze darting back and forth across the street, but in vain. Kobayashi-san and his companion were lost to me, and with them any chance I had at redemption. How long I stood there I can’t say, but later, chilled to my bones, I turned around and shuffled slowly back to the bar, hoping to drown my sorrow in drink and the false merriment of karaoke.
The last time I met Mr. Hikaru Kobayashi was at this year’s Tokyo Game Show, a fractured morass of gift bags and courtesy hostesses wearing corporate logos on their metallic underwear. Apropos of the atmosphere, we spoke of nothing but empty courtesies, brief platitudes on the high quality of his company’s releases, and commiserated over how hot it was, “Atsui, kyo mo atsui desu, neh?”
When at last a break in the crowds left us, mercifully, alone for a moment, I quickly leaned over and looked him in the eyes. “Mr. Kobayashi, I just want you to know that I have always greatly enjoyed your games. They are as dear to me as Dragon Quest III.”
He smiled, murmured a polite thank you and protested that I was too kind, and then turned and walked away.