Plus Alpha: Call of Duty: The Caf

Plus Alpha is a weekly column that explores life in Japan from the perspective of American expatriate and game-industry veteran Jarik Sikat. Having worked in numerous areas of the game industry since 1994, Sikat relocated to Japan in 2010.

Saturday morning, I met up with the rest of my unit at our intended rendezvous point: Akihabara Station. Our original plan involved a recon of the games section at the massive Yodobashi Camera store, picking up an Apple TV at Bic Camera, and lunch. But what I should have learned by now is that in combat, nothing ever goes as planned.

The weather report forecasted a 70 percent chance of rain starting by 1900 hours, but typhoon-like conditions struck Tokyo at 1100. As much as possible, we tried to wait out the storm at the Gundam Café, but after about an hour and no clear sign of the storm letting up, we decided to press on. Strike one.

I was hoping to buy an Apple TV using my point card at Bic Camera, a major electronics retailer. Now, I could have sworn there was a Bic Camera nearby (there’s not). Upon asking the generally congenial girl staffing the Akihabara Station information window, I quickly got the impression she thought I was crazy. Strike two.

At 1300 hours, our unit came across a “pop-up” restaurant. Open only from Nov. 12 through the 28th, the Call of Duty Café was set up to promote the Japanese release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Serving up such bizarrely named entrées as “BOMB Soba noodles,” “Survival Katsu Curry” (breaded and fried pork with rice smothered in curry), and the “Blind Eye Salad” at an average price of 900 yen, it seemed reasonable enough for the novelty that it was.

The drink menu included, among other things, the green, kiwi-flavored “Camouflage” and the intimidating “Delta Force.” Described as an imagining of the American military through “cola and star,” the “Delta Force,” we assumed, was supposed to capture the superior strength of the world’s greatest fighting force in liquid form. What we got was a Cherry Coke. Rounding out the menu were the ironically named “COD Honey Toast” and “RPG Parfait.”

Between the three of us we ordered “Takoyaki Grenades” (traditional Japanese octopus dumplings), the “Imosuna Set” (basically potato chips with gizzards) and the “Ballistick [sic] Knife” Pork (pork on a skewer). We held back on ordering anything else, and here’s why.

The waitresses, dressed in camouflage tops and denim shorts, were very helpful explaining the menu and taking our order. Beyond that, however, even for a temporary shop intended to be open for less than a month, the décor was minimal. I’ve seen more elaborate set dressings at game-industry events that lasted a few hours. There were no playable demo units, and to make matters worse, the video monitors were running something akin to a “quick scoping” greatest hits reel from Modern Warfare 2. That’s right: Modern Warfare 2. In low resolution. We were one floor underground, too far in to turn back, and I just wanted to get out of there without being offensive.

The “Imosuna Set” came out first, but we were left waiting for about 25 minutes for the rest of our order – just long enough to contemplate whether or not Activision had actually signed off on all of this. Our food eventually came, but it was served at a barely palatable room temperature. Rather than complain and prolong the ordeal any further, we ate as much as possible, paid the bill and made our escape.

I had genuinely hoped to report back with a more positive story about some of the ways publishers are promoting Western games in Japan, but I was left clutching my stomach on the train ride home. We also never got to visit the games section at Yodobashi Camera. Strike three.

Although Western games consistently face an uphill battle in Japan, I don’t view this as one of the reasons why. If Modern Warfare 3 were to hit it big here, it would be a hit regardless of this misguided attempt at promoting the title. The idea was sound and had a lot of potential, but it was just poorly executed. Some of the menu items were a bit ridiculous, but maybe we can agree to write that off as the result of cultural differences.

It wasn’t all bad. The staff was nice, and we each walked away with an MW3 button. There was also a clever achievements system in place. As our server explained to us, the restaurant kept track of all of the items individual customers ordered. If you ordered at least one of each menu item before the shop’s set closing date, you’d receive an MW3 chair cover. If you were to actually survive eating all of the café’s 17 items, though, you should probably be given the Medal of Honor.

Jarik Sikat has worked in the videogame industry in areas ranging from localization and product development to public relations and marketing. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in PlayStation: The Official Magazine, Official Xbox Magazine and Newtype USA.