Japan's Skiers Go Virtual

TOKYO'S video arcades host countless desperate, bone-crunching struggles.

The most popular type of game involves staring at a screen and using buttons and a joystick to control a two-dimensional figure who fights. Teenagers sit at the consoles, relentlessly tapping the buttons, perpetrating virtual but violent acts.

But now a company called Namco is celebrating the success of a game that breaks the conventions of video arcades. The game demands no roundhouse kicks to an opponent's head. It is a racing game, but involves no motorcycles, automobiles, or trains.

There are no guns to reload or missiles to arm.

Remarkably, there are practically no buttons to press. You place your feet on tilting pads that swing from side to side. You grasp handles placed at hip level to keep your balance. Then you look up at the screen, and the countdown begins.

There follows 90 seconds or so of exhilarating virtual athleticism that approximates skiing. The player can control the actions of a downhill skier on-screen or select a skier's-eye view that maximizes the illusion of actually careening down a snowy slope.

Trees must be avoided, curves negotiated, and competing skiers dodged. Always there is the race against the clock and the threat that a wipeout will slow you down.

''It's fun,'' confirms one young woman, after taking a turn at an arcade in Tokyo's Shibuya district. She says she actually prefers snowboarding to skiing and rolls up her sleeve to display a small bruise recently incurred on a real slope. But she says Alpine Racer has the ''feeling'' of skiing.

Meanwhile her date for the evening takes a turn, loses control on a curve, and groans as he hits a tree. The screen flashes a message saying he was off course. But soon his skis are pointed downhill, and he is off.

''That was hard, wasn't it?'' he exclaims as he reaches the end of his turn, fumbling for more change.

ALPINE Racer, even by the standards of Japanese arcades, isn't cheap. In major arcades one turn costs 300 yen ($2.85), but some places charge only 200 or even 100 yen. Most of the fighting games cost 50 to 100 yen a turn.

Tokyo-based Namco Limited introduced Alpine Racer in July 1995 and has sold several thousand machines in Japan and abroad. Last year the company won a ''best new game'' award at an American video-game-industry trade fair.

In Tokyo arcades, the game continues to draw crowds. Television shows and magazines have plugged it, whimsically, as a cheaper way to ski. One magazine had an experienced skier test the game, but his performance was less than inspiring - he couldn't reach the finish of the expert trail before time ran out.

Alpine Racer draws a wide variety of players, including young couples, office workers, and even families, says Takashi Gomikawa, editor of a magazine for arcade video-game players.

The operators of many Tokyo game centers struggle to keep their arcades clean, picking up candy wrappers and emptying ashtrays with a diligence that approaches that of waiters in a gourmet restaurant.

But the emphasis on violence in most of the games makes arcades feel like a place where people, mostly boys and young men, come to exorcise unspoken frustrations.

As it is, Japan's huge pachinko industry is often described as one of this society's great stress relievers. Pachinko is a pinball-like game of outwardly staggering monotony. But many Japanese claim to find it soothing. Although gambling at pachinko is officially discouraged, it is easy to do.

Alpine Racer is an indication that the video game industry is trying to soften the edges of arcades and broaden the market. Sega Enterprises Ltd., the Tokyo-based industry leader, has introduced a sports-fishing game that similarly attempts to replicate a sport. But it has not proved as successful as Namco's skiing game.

''Actually, we are not envious [of Alpine Racer],'' says Sega spokeswoman Masao Hibi. ''But the concept is very good.''

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