European journalists aren't hard to spot in certain foreign settings, as I learned on a recent TAITRA-led press tour of Taiwan. As well as our obviously Western features, there was the ritual of nocturnal beer-swilling and the strange expression that came over us when we first got a whiff of the local delicacy, stinky tofu. But more than anything else, it was the stupid grin that decorated our faces as we took breakfast every morning that marked us out as one-time colonisers. It wasn't just the novelty of eating noodles at 07:00, but rather the fact that we had just enjoyed another splendid morning encounter with a smart toilet.
I, for one, never really got the whole bidet thing, but I knew that they were generally the sign of a good hotel and made a handy back-up to the mini-bar with the addition of ice. But a fully integrated, electronic unit? Absolute genius, and typical of the kind of wonderfully indulgent innovations one finds in the Far East. A strong case can be made tracing the origins of the smart toilet back to Japan, so it was with fond memories of a warmed and squeaky clean keister that I trundled off last weekend to Hyper Japan, the UK's largest J-culture exhibition. The attractions were myriad and I was eager to see the wackiness that awaited.
Initially, I was drawn to the show on the basis of its food and drink credentials, and took much pleasure rolling my own maki and chowing down on Japanese street food - always just the right side of greasy. There was the auxiliary promise of bad ass samurai swords, too, and of course the day also proved a plum outing for my inner geek. It has to be said that the bespoke iPhone cases on display were fairly eye-catching - this is, after all, a celebration of the country that conceived the edible survivalist iPhone 5 case recently.
But most of all, I was looking forward to the gaming on display. Specifically, I was eager to get my hands on Nintendo's latest full console offering, the Wii U. Now, I haven't pledged allegiance to Nintendo for a while. As a spratling, I was the proud owner of the original 8-bit NES console, growing up on the very first iterations of legendary franchises like Super Mario Brothers and Zelda. To this day, I still crave the simplistic pleasures of Duck Hunt. Fast-forward a few years, and I briefly sported the N64 in my living room and really enjoyed some of its titles - there's no question that GoldenEye is an easy selection for most gamer's all-time top 10 list, and Mario Kart is still one of the multi-player experiences I judge others against.
At the same time, I was also very much aligning myself to the PlayStation camp - the N64 certainly had great titles, they were just few and far between and its childish marketing seemed determined to alienate the emerging stroppy teenager in me. Similarly, I recognise the Xbox 360 as a remarkable technical achievement, but can't get my head around the brutal size of the controller. I even have a fair soft spot for the original Wii, with some of my fondest recent gaming memories coming at university courtesy of a few pints of Guinness and marathon Mario Tennis tournaments. If there's one thing that can be said in Nintendo's favour, it's that is has some great titles under its belt, and the Wii U launch game line-up boasts some interesting looking refreshes of classic franchises.
So I was intrigued to say the least by the chance to play around with the Wii U ahead of its official release this Friday, though it's fair to say I was approaching it with a critical eye. The main talking point, as you would expect, was the console's GamePad, which sports a 6in touch-screen. The responsive capability was a useful addition for menu handling and the like, offering a welcome respite from the blisters typically sustained by jamming dozens of start buttons during every boot up. In a similar vein, it is likely to be a great way of navigating Nintendo's forthcoming Wii U media hub, TVii, when it hits the UK in early-2013. As our photos show, however, the luxury of a touch-screen interface will require a fair bit of aesthetic upkeep, especially once the kids get their grubby mitts on it.
Moreover, from an actual game-play perspective, it was a difficult proposition to get excited about. It could potentially be a useful secondary screen in an RPG, used for displaying dungeon maps or character attributes, but playing a new version of Mario Chase that I assume is part of the NintendoLand package, I found myself easily distracted by the auxiliary screen, my eyes unsure about what to focus on. Overall, the GamePad was undeniably chunky, about as far away from the sleek PlayStation controller I love as you can get, and I found the joystick in particular a bit rigid and unresponsive.
Despite these qualms, playing the game itself was hugely enjoyable, though I didn't get the feeling that NintendoLand itself was likely to lure serious gamers to the new platform as its simplistic arcade-style offerings seemed to lack the addictive depth that typically causes hardcore types to swoon. Mario Chase boasts endless replayability, but seems restricted to short-spurt gaming sessions.
Still, against the occasionally sense-jarring backdrop of Hyper Japan, surrounded by numerous overly stimulating experiences, the Wii U was one of the most in-demand attractions and left people with a smile on their face. That can only be a good thing for Nintendo and its make-or-break new platform. Maybe the system's apparent popularity was down to the fact that it's ill-advised for kids to go saki tasting or playing with sharp implements; more likely, it's because Nintendo has a real knack for making fun, universally accessible games of the arcade ilk.
Image credit (smart toilet): iTouchless Housewares and Products