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The Summer I Lived Initial D

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"Letters from the New York Otaku"

By David Cabrera

#45 - The Summer I Lived Initial D

No, really, it kind of happened. Nobody even got hurt!

A couple otaku tendencies from previous columns got me thinking, particularly paying big money for anime-related videogames: a way of trying to experience the world of one's favorite series first-hand. “Have I ever really done that?” I wondered.

The closest I ever got to that was the Initial D arcade game. It's been years, and I don't know what it's like anymore (the current version of the game doesn't exist in America). But I have fond memories of a game that was just like the manga racing world in which it took place: the way you could fling the 86 around a hairpin turn like a paper airplane with a flick of the wrist.

As someone who loves both games and anime/manga (common, huh?), that kind of feeling is really rare. But it was a little more than just that.

In the few months that Initial D was popular, there were just two machines on our Chinatown stomping grounds and maybe three more in the rest of the city. One had a broken steering wheel, so it wasn't good for much. The other was an adventure.

I rarely went into the shady, seedy, downright suspicious pool hall on Grand without an Asian buddy in tow. When I went alone, sharp glares from the staff made it clear they weren't pleased to have someone who looked like me-- whether I had money to spend there or not. I didn't care. Initial D was in the back. The back was the part of the place I cared about.

In a dark, sweaty corner, there was a line about five or six deep to play Initial D. The level of competition was unbelievable: even the mediocre players were far beyond my own level, or that of anybody else I'd ever played against elsewhere in the city. The more pretty-boy the player looked, the stronger he was likely to be-- very anime, right? The best player wore a shining silver mesh shirt, gave all his opponents a kilometer headstart, and pulled maneuvers in his cherry-red 86 that we didn't even know were possible.

We were the weaklings at this pool hall, but the veterans were more than willing to take us on. We spent $30 every Saturday night watching, losing, learning the tracks by heart and exulting in our precious few wins... often against each other.

It was the most in-character way to play Initial D: in a dark, nearly secret location, young men with nothing better to do-- many with fabulous hair-- spent their nights battling their way down Japanese mountain passes to blaring Super Eurobeat. When I look back on it, though I probably didn't realize, I was never closer to actually sinking into the world of a fiction than I was in the Initial D days.

Eventually the machines broke down from overuse—they weren't cooled sufficiently for the summer heat, and left on for at least 12 hours a day-- and were tossed out. I checked out the pool hall a few more times, but by then it was even shadier and less welcoming. Maybe it was a front for criminals after all...

Today there just aren't arcades anymore in America. I'd really like to play that Gundam pod game: I bet it gives you the same feeling.