Stuff I Say

iPhone App Review: Puzzle Quest Ep. 1&2

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on July 31, 2009

While the concept of Puzzle Quest is both frighteningly addictive and a whole lot of fun, the actual iPhone implementation reeks of a quick DS port without any attention to the detail or performance that iPhone users deserve. This review will be divided up into two sections, one reviewing the gameplay and the other reviewing the software itself.

Puzzle Quest’s basic gameplay involves matching colored gems in groups of 3, 4 and 5. Matching these gems supplies you with mana to cast spells that change existing runes on the board, deal direct damage to your opponent and/or provide you with bonuses like double-damage or improved defense. Matching skulls causes direct damage to your opponent and battles consist of taking turns back and forth until one of you wins. While random chains and luck will always play a factor in battles, the ability to level up your character, gain enemy spells, ride mounts that give you special powers, and improve yourself via gold and items means that over time you’ll feel your more powerful, while still being challenged due to a number of factors. Furthermore, the depth of all these things, including the ability to siege cities, do quests, gain special items and hunt for new runes means something like 40 or 50 hours of gameplay, really. And you’ll want to, because all this is far too addicting for its own good.

As far as the iPhone port itself is concerned, there are a number of issues that exist even in the current version. Small locations on the map are difficult, if not impossible to select, sometimes and on my 3G there is a little lag when you open certain screens (leveling up, doing things at your citadel, getting rumors) that makes pressing certain on-screen buttons infuriating. You’ll be jabbing the screen over and over, trying to put that one point in Air Mastery, only to accidentally dump all your points into when the screen finally catches up to you and then when you go to try and remove them, you’ll depress the button and watch as Puzzle Quest flounders. Navigating the map can be a pain as well, as you’ll often move to the wrong place and have to fight something you didn’t want to because you couldn’t properly select your final destination. While the fighting itself is mostly fine, selecting spells, especially spells that target specific pieces on the board introduces further frustration, because it’s unresponsive enough to bug you, but far from unplayable. Meanwhile, the graphics are somewhat unclear and muddy, and you’ll come across a number of benign graphical glitches on your quest, some of which require a restart or two to fix themselves.

My final opinion is as follows. The game itself– the concept and the intellectual property, is fascinating. It’s addictive enough that you might just alienate your friends and lovers playing it. If you’re a perfectionist like me, you’ll play 40, 50 hours just to complete all the quests and catch all the monsters. However, the responsiveness of the game will frustrate you, and you’ll wonder why they didn’t take the time to create a native iPhone version of it, one with crisp, new art, larger and more responsive buttons and touch zones, basically, something that was designed for this device, rather than an obvious port from some other device.

Buy it, play it, and review it with the hope that Puzzle Quest 2 will have more polish than its predecessor does.

Romanization or Why I hate X, Ys and Zs

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on July 13, 2009

I’m going to go ahead and start this off with two hypotheses: Blue is blue and green is green, and also, Japanese romanization is a linguistic orphan, whose only real strength is conciseness, and (to a lesser extent) interoperability.

So let’s talk about romanization first.

The Jesuits back in the 1600s, more specifically a Japanese Catholic priest or group of priests, were responsible for the first iteration of romanization, which was created for interoperability with their Western printing presses. They spread the word of God and his romanization of the Japanese language until Japan eventually closed itself off from foreign intervention. It wasn’t until a man named Hepburn popularized another romanization system in the late 1800s, which eventually came to be known as Hepburn romanization, that it came back into use. Now it’s unclear to me, just how the next series of events transpired, as I’m not a scholar studying romanization, but according to my digging, Hepburn popularized Japanese romanization proposed by the Society for the Romanization of the Japanese Alphabet (社団法人日本ローマ字会). Shortly thereafter, a Japanese physicist, Aikitsu Tanakadate, created his own variation of romanized script– Nihon-shiki (日本式ローマ字). His intention was to completely replace kana and kanji with the roman alphabet, in order to make Japan more competitive with the Western world. Had he succeeded, he would have at the very least heralded great change, for better or worse, to the Japanese language. After that, in the 1900s, the Japanese cabinet declared Kunrei-shiki (訓令式ローマ字) as the unified standard, which was based on Nihon-shiki, probably because it is more “regular” and thus more logical to the Japanese who are used to the logical progression of kana along phonetic lines and columns. While this is not something I’ve ever really understood very well, learning kana in phonetic groups can aid one when it comes time to conjugate verbs, apparently. Kunrei-shiki was abolished by the Allied occupational forces, and then later reinstated by the Japanese cabinet. A modernized version of the Hepburn system is used for the majority of official documents and public works (road signs, place names, etc.) in Japan today.

Now, on Twitter, @Tomoakiyama notes that Japanese psychologically assign the さしすせそ line of hiragana to sa-si-su-se-so and za-zi-zu-ze-zo respectively in romaji. This is an unfortunate consequence of bureaucracy. Japanese children learn Kunrei-shiki romanization in elementary school in order to write their names and practice the alphabet. However, when they graduate and go on to junior high school, they spend their first month in English classes trying to unlearn Kunrei-shiki so that they can write their names according to the Hepburn romanization that’s outlined in their junior high textbooks.

Kunrei-shiki “makes sense” to Japanese people in that it remains regular down the phoneme lines. The sa-si-su-se-so line is easy to write because all you have to do is change the vowel, however, unfortunately it isn’t very accurate. In my opinion, the ultimate goal of any system of romanization should be to map the roman alphabet to corresponding Japanese sounds in the way that allows a reader to render the sounds accurately. Thus, it makes sense that sa represents the sound さ in Japanese– it is the phonetic equivalent. Su, se, and so furthermore adhere to this rule. This happy go lucky world falls apart at the “siems” so to speak, as “si” doesn’t correspond to the Japanese sound for し, which is most certainly “shi”.

Now here’s where I’m going to lay a few things out.

First of all, the only reason “si” psychologically appeals to Japanese people is because they learn it first. If you taught your children at home than an apple was an orange, and vice versa, they’d be confused and upset to find out the opposite at school. Similarly, if you spent most of your early life memorizing kana from a chart that had the first kana in each line redacted or omitted, you’d find yourself crippled and confused when the time came to correct your mistake.

Second, teachers who teach romanization, and, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate too, that this includes most Japanese people in general, don’t understand the concept of phonics (in relation to say, Hangul or the Roman alphabet). In Japanese, kana represent one sound and one sound alone. In the cases where the spoken sound changes or diverges, so does the kana. In English, “ki” can be “ki as in kit” or “ki as in kite.” Letters are like tinker-toys. You put them together and you create a larger whole (say a robot) that dictates the way the different parts of the whole sound (suddenly, those connected bits become arms and legs, and are labeled and perceived differently than they were before the whole came into view), whereas Japanese kana are like predefined computer variables, no matter where they appear, they have the same value, always. This leads to the situation where teachers teach romanization from a chart. They tell their students, who are tiny and have absolutely no exposure to anything comparable, that “si” corresponds to し and that’s that. I think that most Japanese children internalize “si” as a unit, much like they do し in Japanese, and that if you were to ask them whether, say, two consonants sitting together, say, “sk” were a valid construction, they’d almost surely respond in the negative. (And they’d be correct, as far as the romanization of their own language is concerned.)

Really, the blame here lies upon the Japanese government’s wishy-washy policies regarding official romanization and in fact, highlights how apathetic Japanese people are about creating ONE MORE writing system for a language that already has two more than most.

Now that I’ve reached the end of this diatribe, I have one other thing to say, and that is that Japanese culture fosters a lot of memes that gain noteriety specifically because they are Japanese and supposedly indicative of Japanese philosophy, even though when you really sit down and think about it, they’re really more stupid than anything. Failure to come to terms with one, single, worthwhile way of romanizing the Japanese language is just one example of this fervent desire to do it the Japanese way, irrespective of practicality. Two other examples I can think of off the top of my head involve color: namely, the color of the sun and traffic lights.

Scientifically, the sun is closer to white than yellow, but when viewed through the atmosphere, the scattered wavelengths of light appear to be yellow– most of the time. As the sun sets, this scattering becomes more pronounced and the sun can take on a red, orange, or even purple hue as it sinks beneath the horizon and colors the surrounding sky. I’m not sure how I was first introduced to the color of the sun, but I surmise that I just looked up in the sky one day and make that deduction on my own. In Japan, however, children are told, over and over again, until it permeates their very being, that the sun is, in fact, red. Ask any Japanese person what color the sun is, and aside from a few scientists who know better, they will tell you that it’s red. This comes from the flag and traditional Japanese tradition. The Rising Sun, the symbol of the Japanese empire, is red, and thus, culturally, the sun is red. The same red they paint their postboxes with. In the same vein, green lights in Japan are blue. Japanese people will tell you that blue (青) can mean either green or blue, but while a green traffic light can be called blue, a blue sky can’t be referred to as being green (緑). There are a number of traffic lights, some blue and others green, that tell you to “GO.” There are some green and some blue lights in both Japan and America. I’ll even go as far as to say that colloquially, Americans might refer to the “go-light” as a “green light,” when discussing lights that tell you it is legal (and safe) to go. However, the color green does not and will not ever equal the color blue. If you were to show an American a Japanese traffic signal that had a blue (rather than green) signal in it and then ask them what color the light was, the American would tell you it was blue. Whereas, if you were to show a Japanese person an American traffic signal that had a typical green bulb in it and ask them what color the corresponding light was, the Japanese person would invariably tell you it was blue.

This allegiance to specific cultural memes in spite of the ultimate truth to the contrary being both easy to grasp and widely understood, is too responsible for the notion that [psychologically “si” is closer to し than “shi” is], even though the truth is simply that the government mandates that “si” is taught to kids before “shi” is taught to them and that their teachers, teachers who have been teaching “si” before “shi” for who knows how many years, don’t really understand the difference anyway, because, aside from romanization’s function in the modern QWERTY keyboard, its usefulness on road signs, it’s role in helping to compact J-E and E-J dictionaries, romaji as a replacement for kanji or kana in written documents is all but useless to both Japanese people and Japanese language learners alike.

Note: Tomo notes that you can type “zi” on a computer keyboard and get じ and while this is absolutely true, I think this is less about linguistics and more about the QWERTY keyboard and corresponding IME software being flexible enough to accommodate everyone, Kunrei and Hepburn enthusiasts alike.

More Analysis on the iPhone’s No. 1 Sales Records Last Week in Japan

Posted in Uncategorized by 51future on July 6, 2009

So I saw this story via a friend on Twitter, and after reading it I had a lot to say about it, which you can see on the comments over there. However, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about it here, on my own site a little too.

The premise of the article is that the weekly sales numbers of the iPhone 3GS in Japan on the week it launched– namely its No.1 spot, aren’t all that indicitive on it’s popularity and I agree. Weekly sales numbers represent short-term gains which are generally skewed towards new products emerging at the top.

However, delving deeper into the article, we are presented with a few observations about why the iPhone isn’t all that great for Japanese people, which I think, deserve a little discussion.

First, this article has a comparison of iPhone 3G features compared to other cell phones in Japan as of 2008. He uses this data to show that Japanese phones are basically pretty slick and furthermore, to infer that Japanese people don’t really need fancy smartphones to do the things they like to do. At the top of that list are things like One-Seg (TV), which is more of a curiosity than anything else, as reception tends to be terrible, among other problems, followed by things like hardware customization (namely the little loops that you hang ornaments off of) and subscriber IDs for Japanese-only cell phone sites. The article is old and some of those things, like One-Seg, skins, etc. have been mostly remedied, so in the latest article he notes that the iPhone can’t subscribe to the big three mobile social networking sites in Japan, Mixi, Mobage-town, and Gree.

This is true, but it isn’t the iPhone’s fault. These sites lock it out and they tell you why too– because when you go to those sites on the iPhone, they tell you that you aren’t using a phone! You’re using a PC to access them. Get off your PC and go get your phone silly! He asks whether you would use a phone that doesn’t have access to Facebook, Myspace, etc. and the answer that an American person would give you, would probably be a resounding YES. We’ve been buying phones for years that can’t access the internet or popular social networking sites, but then again, the culture is different. Japanese people, I think, feel safer when they can cloak themselves in the odd veil of anonymity on sites like Mixi and communicate with people who may or may not be advertisers or criminals in disguise. And they typically use their phones for things other than calling people, because mobile minutes in Japan are more expensive than typical American plans. So while the question isn’t applicable to Americans as much as it is to Japanese, I think that the logic is sound. Access to social networking in Japan is probably a big deal, but the better question to ask is, as I mentioned in the comments there: “Would you continue to use Facebook if they locked you out of it based on your hardware or OS?” The fact that Mixi doesn’t allow iPhone users to register is really Mixi’s problem, not Apple’s or Softbank’s, and I think that anyone who’s thinking about an iPhone is probably smart enough to figure out where the real blame lies and make their own decision.

In the comments, we started talking about the fact that DoCoMo couldn’t secure the iPhone and while I think this is interesting, I’m not really sure what that means as part of the greater picture. Although Akky claims that Apple has managed to secure contracts with the biggest/most popular providers in America and other places, I’d like to think most Americans and Europeans might disagree that Apple has secured the best carriers in their respective areas. For every person who’s used AT&T, there’s someone who would rather have an iPhone on Verizon or T-Mobile, and, interestingly enough, I imagine Verizon didn’t take the iPhone contract initially, because, like DoCoMo, they wanted too much control over the software– control that Apple wasn’t willing to give up because it would defeat the purpose. Softbank’s new subscriber rates have soared recently because of the iPhone and I’m sure DoCoMo would have loved to claim the same thing, had they been able to loosten their iron grip on the handset enough to have taken it under their wing. DoCoMo couldn’t allow the iPhone on their network because they didn’t want people to A) use a non-iMode browser to access the internet, and B) have access to 3rd-party applications on the App Store. i-Mode is DoCoMo’s moneymaker and lovechild and they think it’s the greatest thing in the goddamn world. When Apple was like, “Here, check out the whole internet,” they probably recoiled in surprise and told Jobs to shove off. Really, the only thing DoCoMo has going for it right now is it’s huge subscriber base. You talk to Japanese people who are on DoCoMo and all they do is admit that, “Yeah, it’s expensive,” and that they “should probably change service providers, but I dunno– my friends use it and I don’t want to bother changing to save a bit of money.”

Akky comments that new Japanese phones surprise and enthrall viewers when you show off their features, but I disagree. I still remember when I went into the DoCoMo shop to cancel my contract a year ago. The employees there all stopped what they were doing and ran over to check out my new phone. When I show people things like this (my latest RunKeeper run): it blows their mind. Show me a Japanese phone that does that and I’ll agree that Japanese phones are all that and a bag of chips. Until then the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen a Japanese phone do is One-Seg, and I got to watch that for exactly 3 seconds before it cut out and the guy spent the rest of our lunch trying to find a signal again. (The iPhone does One-Seg now anyway, with an add-on.)

The final bit I have to say involves cell phone-only sites in Japan, things like Mixi and blogs and stuff. People say that these are important– that since the iPhone doesn’t support them (again, this is not a question of support, but rather, sites locking out Mobile Safari) it’s not that popular. Just how popular these sites are generally, I don’t know. Lots of really popular things (SMAP, Greeen, etc.) are only popular within specific groups in Japan (中学生、高校生, for instance). My girlfriend uses AU’s mobile net to find us hotels and information sometimes, but when it comes to the real heavy lifting, like the hotel we booked today, she does it on a PC because on a phone it’s just inconvenient or impossible. I’ve only met one or two people in real life who bother with Mixi, et. al, and I used to know a high school girl who had a cell phone-only blog that I didn’t end up reading, because, well, my iPhone was locked out. Furthermore, cell phone sites in Japan are hotbeds of criminal activity and online bullying, mostly because (I imagine) people think they’re more private than full-on computer web sites, coupled with the fact that the average young (ie. stupid/exploitable) person in Japan is more likely to have a cell phone than a computer. My point is that I’m not sure these perceived uses are really as popular as the typical Japanese person might think and I think the greater issue with the iPhone is that Japanese hardware moves faster than Apple’s American design focus in regards to things like Suica railpass access built into phones and the digital wallet features that are catching on here in Japan.

In closing, I agree with Akky that the numbers aren’t everything. However, I disagree that the numbers aren’t substantial. Softbank is the weakest carrier, as far as subscriber numbers are concerned, in Japan and those sales represent more than just hardware– every iPhone comes with a Softbank contract.

And another important aspect of all this that no one article has really touched on is the sales of iTouch devices in Japan. Those devices can download applications from the App Store too and as far as I know iTouch sales in Japan are doing well on their own. If the iTouch gets as much market penetration as the original iPods have in Japan, sales in the App Store are going to explode regardless of how the iPhone does, and this will push other Japanese industries, namely websites and other gateways to support Mobile Safari out of necessity. Taking this a step further, I postulate that kids in Japan growing up with an iTouch today, which they will be, given that Apple has all but pushed the other, older iPod designs out to pasture, are going to be buying iPhones in droves when they grow up and grow out of all the microblogging and (anti?)social networking they do on their phones when they’re young. Why? Because they can use all their applications they’re already purchased across all their devices. And hell, the iPhone even has proper cross-carrier e-moji now!

So, yes Akky is right. Those numbers aren’t specifically important or indicative of anything major, but the underlying trend, I think, is pretty clear.