On the trot

Japan does indeed have a wonderful and varied mobile phone market, but not having lived In Europe for a while and not being able to view the situation there right now I can’t really comment on how much more advanced they are over
here, if, indeed, they are. The usual bells and whistles are available: photo and movie shooting, MP3, television, all manner of data readable from SD sticks of various sizes, USB connections to PCs, email, internet (Win), those crazy
square barcode decoders and a flooded JAVA and BREW game market.

There are three main carriers in Japan: KDDI AU, NTT Docomo and the recently bankrupted and bought out Vodafone which is now Softbank. All of these have a wide variety of shops or shopspaces all over Tokyo and phones can be purchased as cheaply as 1 Yen (US$ 0,008, EU 0,006) or absolutely free (US$ 0, EU 0) with 1 or 2 year contracts. Carriers offer discount rates for phone calls to others on the same network or one-off discounts for returning older phones when buying new ones. Usually the newest batch of phones, which come out seemingly weekly, retail for a little more, from 5,000 to 15,000 Yen (US$ 43-129, EU 33-98). Monthly costs differ from carrier to carrier and depend on the package you choose but are around 2,000 to 5,000 Yen per month (US$ 17-43, EU 13-33) often with surcharges for packet deliveries beyond your package’s limit. Payment can be made automatically from your bank account or credit card or monthly bills are sent which are payable at any convenience store, which is convenient. So when you go buy your phone make sure to bring all your bank details, papers, foreigner registration card and, if you have one, name stamp with you. After you sign up you can go shopping for an hour orso after which your phone will be ready for use.

A few years ago there was some hullabaloo about AU wanting three months’ advance payment from all foreigners wanting to purchase a phone. According to them too many of them (us) left the country with outstanding bills and this was merely a measure to protect themselves. A few foreign on-line communities spewed outrage and racism and I don’t know if anything ever happened with this, but when I bought my subscription at AU there was no mention of this. Shop around!

The designs of the actual phones are incredibly varied, from the usual brick to the flip-open and the slide-open ones and carriers like AU sometimes hire in famous designers to create their own dream machines for mass production (and consumtion, presumably). It is undeniable there are some lovely phones out there but the designed ones usually retail for a bit more. But there is no price-tag for cool so if you’re the type you can also buy an expensively Louis Vuitton branded leather hand strap to tie to it.

Some of the more forward thinking companies even provide phones for old people; big clunky things without all the bells, whistles or clean, crisp displays but a big-buttoned brick and a contract that bills per call rather than a standard monthly fee. With the inexorable decline of Japanese society into a pension-crisis grey zone this is probably a good marketing decision.

The marketing drive for all the providers is relentless and aggressive though rather samey. Softbank now has minimalist posters up everywhere showing Cameron Diaz’s cabbage faced smile looming large almost incidentally holding a mobile phone. If adverts don’t focus on the latest cute talento they show off the newest technology; flip-open phones with rotating screens to view live television in horizontal widescreen, MP3 players and related music download services, etc. When shopping the mobile displays almost always are near the entrance of electronic stores with clerks shouting special offers through megaphones. It seems to work, though, as all but the most extreme Luddites own one.

But what of the games? None of the carriers provide any game-specific hardware; with the Nintendo DS and Sony’s PSP light-years ahead in technology and display there isn’t really any use. That doesn’t mean the market isn't all but flooded with mobile games. Most handsets come with either a pre-installed game or some kind of easy or convoluted way to get to the on-line list of game providers, of which there are many. Apart from the specialized game providers pretty much all console developers have their own mobile section. Check the website of your favourite developer/publisher and there is bound to be a keitai section.

Technologically speaking these games aren’t much cop. Anything other than a puzzle game will suffer from control issues, memory constraints and frame-rate issues. The screen size is usually sufficient to recreate most classic games but that still leaves the one-thumb input and the reaction times, which aren’t very conducive to action games. If there is any 3D involved, which is rare, it’ll be in the most basic low-poly shapes.

I have tried my hand at mobile versions of Metal Slug, Bomberman and Megaman and though they look suitably classic and polished they played like a handicapped and discontented cow. I have stayed away from RPGs as my Japanese probably wouldn’t cope with them even if my eyes could manage the tiny kanji. I have played a few minutes of the cheaper RPGs but they were all terribly unexciting, leaving you with the option of paying for the more expensive, licensed ones if you desire a more complete experience.

Price-wise the going is pretty good. Most simple games retail at around 105 Yen (US$ 0.90 ,EU 0.60), which includes the sales tax, with more complicated games going for 200 to 300 (US$ 1.70-2.60, EU 1.30-1.90). Real game releases, usually still simple versions of successful console franchises go for 500 Yen (US$ 4.30, EU 3.20) and include titles such as Final Fantasy and Phoenix Wright. The ones that occupy me most, and, judging by the sneaky looks I throw over other commuters’ shoulders, other people too are the simpler puzzle and card games. Tetris is obviously ideal but things like bridge, Mahjongg and solitaire always make an appearance. These don’t really suffer much from input and frame-rate restrictions and often come cheapest.

For developers the same Hell exists as in the west: a dearth of different formats and screen sizes to content with as well as a closely guarded market ruled by providers, though direct downloads from publishers’ websites take up a fair chunk of the sales (though I have no figures to back this up). Most development houses have their own, small mobile section with tiny teams often comprised of graduates who work cheaply. To give an indication of the many differences in hardware: my phone, not new but certainly not a brick, can’t play the mobile version of Lumines as its make doesn’t appear in the list of suitable devices which spans a good three screens of html (on a mobile screen).

As a consumer I’ll recommend you my personal favourites:

G-Mode’s excellent Tetris Red (and the identical in all but colour Tetris Blue) is the one that I play 99.9% of the time. The input is suitably fast and well-suited to the one thumb control. Its sticky Tetris play-mode is inspired and highly addictive, with blocks made up of different colours, similar ones sticking together but others falling as low as they can. My only gripe is that when I downloaded the update it deleted my high-scores. Simply because of the sticky Tetris mode it stands head and shoulders above any other Tetris game I have tried, including the various other versions available from G-Mode’s website. GameLoft’s Bejeweled is also a fun diversion, though it is marred by the introduction of a samey-looking jewel from level 5
onwards, making it very hard to spot the difference between the pearl and the stripy pearl, to the extent it almost breaks the game for anyone who hasn’t got 20-20, magnified vision.
Taito’s classic Puzznic is also a good one to excursive the old gray matter. It has a very cute design and the puzzles get very challenging.

There is simply no way you can avoid getting a mobile phone when you get to Japan, but luckily the choice is enormous and even the cheapest are technologically advanced enough to offer all the frills you expect from a decent handset. You have to be careful which provider to go with, as, for example, Vodafone’s mobiles’ reception became terribly unstable when it was in its death throes, but these things are hard to predict. Going either for the cheapest package or the coolest phone would seem to be more than enough of a guideline you’ll ever need.


  1. What's the deal with those square barcode thingos?

  2. There will be an application on your mobile phone that uses the built-in camera to scan these barcodes. They can contain URLs, mailtos, address info, etc. You see them on pamphlets, catalogues, ads, business cards. Very handy stuff.

    Any Japan-resident readers want to hazard a guess what the attached barcode says?

  3. So tell us then, how do you make one of those? =)

  4. KDDI AU offers the software to make these for free from their website. Other providers possibly do too, but I used AU's tiny little app.

  5. Phoenix Wright for the win! I wouldn't touch mobile phone games with a ten-foot pole though. From what I've seen and played they're absolutely horrendous, and they don't interest me in the slightest. I've got my DS with me always. Call me old-fashioned, but the main function of my mobile phone is still making the ye olde telephone call.