I mode! You mode! We all mode for i-mode!

I want you to take a little trip with me down repressed memory lane. Cast your mind back. It's 2001. Everyone keeps telling you the Dreamcast is dead, but you're not having any of it. There are AAA titles still to come on the horizon, Dreamcast Magazine is still on the newsstand (barely), and you've got an eye on Lik Sang and Play-Asia for some exclusive import goodness. You're a true believer and you're not jumping the Sega ship yet (or ever). 

But you have a problem. You can't stay tethered to your 15" CRT TV and curled up against the warmth of your precious blue swirl baby. You have to leave the house. You have stupid lectures to attend, and that interminable bus ride awaits. If only there was some kind of portable Sega device you could take with you to while away the drudgery of public transport.

You look to your shiny new Neo Geo Pocket Color, but it's just not Sega enough for you today. You look to your forlorn and dust-covered Game Gear lying under a pile of socks in the back corner. Those capacitors have blown and leaked and it's never coming back to life. In desperation, you fish out the VMU from your Dreamcast controller, but the batteries are dead and there's only so much of Voldo's Volleyball minigame you can take. Out of options, you trudge out into the gloom, resigned to your terrible fate. 

Meanwhile, in Japan...

In June 2001, Sharp released a new generation "J-Phone" - the J-SH07. It was the first J-Phone to be compatible with Java applets, and it also came bundled with Ulala from Space Channel 5 as a kind of virtual pet / avatar on the device.

The more you used your phone, the better your "rating" gets, and as a reward, Ulala dances for you and sometimes changes costumes. You could download more Space Channel 5 related goodies from the "Ulala no Channel J" service.

Incidentally, this is probably the first mobile phone app to feature a fully animated 3D model 

Tom has previously sailed these J-Phone waters while looking for the "lost" Jet Set Radio game "Typing Jet." You can read more about that here

Anyway, this is but a mere segue to a more interesting (and pressing) issue. When Sega went multi-platform, they didn't just mean the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox. They also embraced the early mobile gaming scene in Japan. This era of gaming is poorly documented and not well understood in the West. It was from a time when the best the rest of us could hope for was a built in monochrome version of Snake. The iPhone was a mere glint in Steve Jobs eye...

... and Android was but an itch in Google's sweaty crotch.

One of Sega Retro's wiki admins, Black Squirrel, has been recently trawling through pages and pages of archived websites from the early 2000s about Sega's foray into this lost world of mobile gaming. You can read more about his research in this thread

To cut a long story short, one of the largest platforms or ecosystems for mobile gaming in Japan during this time was the i-mode mobile internet service, provided by NTT DoCoMo. In January 2001, the third generation of i-mode compatible phones were released (the "503i" series), and these were the first to support J2ME-based (Java) "i-appli" programs. 

Sega soon after launched the "Sonic Cafe" service (you might have heard of this before), which included a few i-appli games, and things soon snowballed from there. More advanced generations of i-mode compatible phones were released, which allowed for larger and more complex games, and this continued for almost 7 years. By this time, most people had started to abandon i-mode for the incoming wave of smartphones. 

Incoming wave of smartphones

So why should any of this matter to any self-respecting Dreamcast fan? Well, since the period in which these mobile games were released overlaps with the Dreamcast era, that means a lot of Dreamcast games and Dreamcast related IP were ported over to platform. It's a little like looking into a lost world where Sega released a portable system alongside the Dreamcast, kind of like what the Game Boy Advance was to the Gamecube. 

Always a prototype, never a bride

There are a tonne of interesting looking games released, such as:

Chu Chu Rocket

 Samba de Amigo

Puyo Puyo Fever (Habanero version?!?)

Sonic Kart 3DX

Sonic Shuffle Poker

Chao Adventure (or something, I don't know)

K-Typing of the Dead

"Keitai"=Phone + Typing = K-Typing (Texting of the Dead?)

Phantasy Star

Sadly, this is about all we really know about these titles. You're lucky to find screenshots or title screens preserved on the Wayback Machine. All that can usually be found are just a list of titles of games that once existed. Efforts in emulation and preservation have been slow to gain any traction, and it may already be too late. How many of us still have a flip-phone lying around from the mid 2000s?

ok, maybe there is one somewhere in here

Believe it or not, even in 2021 the i-mode service is still running in Japan, although not for much longer. There is an active project by the Game Preservation Society right now to archive as many of these games as possible before the service is shut down on November 30. Due to the way that the service is provided, it's going to cost about US$500 to $1000 in data usage to nab all the games, so they are looking for donations. Check out this Twitter thread to find out more and maybe help out if you can.

Even once the service is shut down, there is still hope. If people can get enthused about preserving rubbish old Tiger Electronics LCD games, then I'm pretty sure people can be persuaded to get behind sifting through these uncharted sands, sorting through piles of old rotting e-waste to try and find that specific charger cable for a promising looking "dumb phone" that might still hold the key to an elusive and prized game title from the halcyon days of the Dreamcast era.

Words cannot describe...

1 comment:

Pizza Hotline said...

A fascinating article as per usual! I can always count on the junkyard to show me something I would never have anticipated from Segas history. I would love to see one of those sweet little flip phones in full swing!