“I know Tokyo arcades are dying out, but are they easy to find?” I was asked this question recently by an author researching a Street Fighter book. Dying out?! Maybe – but there’s a long way to go.
Stand with me outside the Shinjuku Minami-guchi branch of the Taito Station arcade, next to the world’s busiest train terminal. It borders one of Tokyo’s seedier districts but, by British standards, the street is clean and the teeming crowds polite. The streetlights shine a soft green that suits the sultry night air. An enormous Space Invader hangs over “GAME” in huge letters. That’s not just some generic arcade icon – Space Invaders was Taito’s game back in 1978. Tokyo is still lit by the afterglow of the 1980s boom and the arcades have been part of it since that peak.
But is real gaming dead in Tokyo? Is it all crane games and Print Club? Hardly: there’s rhythm action, tate shmups, fighters from different decades sitting side by side, trading card games, insanely elaborate coin-pusher machines, intricate online mech battlers, machines you climb into, machines with console controllers hanging off the front, horse betting games you play in a reclining easy chair, traditional genre pieces and wacky bids to be the Next Big Thing.
This is Tokyo – not anime-and-manga Tokyo, not temple-and-shrine or skyscraper-and-shopping Tokyo, but arcade Tokyo. Let me be your guide.
The ground floor of Taito Station is open to the street so that passers-by might drop in and drop some coins (or tap their e-money cards used on public transport). For that reason, you will see neither battered retro cabinets nor the latest otaku craze. Here you will find casual games – accessible, appealing, and sociable.
Invariably, UFO catchers (“yoofo catchers” – crane games) will be front and centre, with schoolkid lovebirds trying to grab each other prizes ranging from the predictable (soft toys) to the thoroughly bizarre (plastic models of spoons full of food).
The only actual video games on the entrance level are date-friendly affairs like the Let’s Go series of two-seater benches in dark booths behind curtains. These are often pleasingly retro or sport an interesting gimmick like glasses-free 3D (Let’s Go Island) or vacuum cleaner controllers (Luigi’s Mansion).
There are no hardcore players on ground level – except maybe on Taiko Drum Master. (They’re the ones who brought their own drumsticks.) But the most important thing on the ground floor is the lift. Let’s go up and find some proper games.
Teleport: to Ueno, a youthful district in the north-east of Tokyo. We’re in Sam’s Town, a game centre in the non-Sega-non-Taito minority. It’s dingy, smoky, and cacophonous. Now we’re getting real: if you’re on the first floor then you weren’t just passing by; you’ve come in on purpose, probably to feed some sort of unseemly addiction. Sure enough, this floor’s for medal games.
For a medal game you insert medals in place of coins. You then stand to win more medals, which you can use to play the game some more, until you’ve lost all your medals. The medals are bought for cash, but can’t be cashed in. They’re just medals. Pointless, futile medals. The most sophisticated set-ups are for virtual horse betting, featuring banks of individual consoles, reclining seats, and built-in ashtrays and cup holders to help you settle in for the long haul. Pure, private luxury, with a wall-to-wall screen showing the races in which you participate anonymously.
Luxurious, yes, but it’s Loserville – at the sad, daylightless end of the floor, dotted with suited salarymen who either don’t have anywhere better to go, or do. Let’s move on.
Warp zone: now we’re on floor 2 of Sega Yoyogi, a neat little arcade, well appointed for its size and not too busy. You may be relieved to see something, finally, that resembles an arcade cabinet. There are screens to look at, stools to sit on, and pretty little coinslots all puckered up waiting for you. But where are the joysticks? Welcome to the trading card games.
TCGs take many forms: maybe virtual cards are stored on your saved profile like in the aircraft-carrier/kinky-schoolgirl mashup Kantai Collection. Maybe you have actual cards which you move on a tabletop to control onscreen resources like in the pseudo historical samurai wargame Sengoku Taisen. Maybe you’re building your Panini sticker collection with World Club Champion Football. It’s pretty cool when an arcade game pukes up physical trading cards for a win. The typical TCG player looks a little older – with the disposable income to build that thick deck at his side.
On the way up, there’s a pen-and-paper waiting list for Lord of Vermillion on a clipboard. This sort of low-tech/high-tech collision is very Tokyo, and perhaps why TCGs do so well. Anyway, let’s get in the lift.
The doors slide open in Taito Station at Shinjuku south – back where we started. Their website boasts of “Shinjuku’s strongest music game corner”. That’s a lie: it’s not a corner; it’s the whole floor.
It’s time I told you something: there’s no retro floor. It’s better than that. Retro games are all over the place but they’re not treated like retro games; they’re just great games that are still great so you can still play them.
Take these music games for example. On this one floor you have Pop’n Music (1998), DrumMania 9th Mix (2003), Rhythm Tengoku (2007), Jubeat Ripples APPEND (2010), and maimai Pink (2015). It’s like someone made a rhythm action museum.
If tall card decks betrayed the financial investment of the TCG players, it’s sheer skill on this floor that betrays incredible amounts of sacrificed time. Refreshingly the vibe isn’t so severely men-only, and many of the sportily dressed, Pocari-Sweat-chugging kids here are either performing highly energised routines or practicing to perform another time.
Another lo-fi touch here: the list of new songs for Beatmania IIDX 23 Copula is a homemade Excel printout pinned to a corkboard. It feels like a personal touch: by fans, for fans.
Ding! Top floor – of the famous Taito Hey in Akihabara. You’re used to the smoke and grime now, and this place somehow seems tidy and formal. Players hunch forward in orderly rows, like students in a library. In fact, there’s a shelf of thick books – strategy guides for big-name games refined and versioned up over several years. People here are inconspicuous: their clothes are plain, their belongings folded neatly into the baskets provided. They barely move as the lights flash across their concentrating faces.
The games are serious and unapologetic – not musical, not collectible, not obviously fun. They’re far from the ground floor crowd-pullers, but they’re brilliant. Gunslinger Stratos is a networked team shooter you play with two lightguns. Border Break is a mouse-and-joystick mech war with endless upgrades to earn or buy. For Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield, you climb into a giant cockpit, closing the door behind you to play on a spherical screen.
These are the premium titles that Tokyo’s arcade gamers come to play. They’re complex and completely in Japanese, but don’t be scared off: find the tutorial mode and the graphical prompts will give you half a chance.
You did it! You made it to the core of Japanese arcade culture. Let’s head back downstairs.
Hey, we missed our floor! We’ve ended up in the basement of Club Sega in Shinjuku. There’s a display case in the elevator lobby stacked full of Neo Geo ROMs. A handwritten cardboard sign says you can play what you want. The bottom shelf has Street Fighter 2 – and a championship belt.
When that writer called me about his Street Fighter book, he wanted to see some real tournaments. I sent him here. The door to the games room says “Battle Arena”. There are tight aisles of candy cabs. They’re running classics from the '90s like Fatal Fury and Metal Slug, and gems from the 2000s, like Ikaruga and Karous (and Metal Slug again). And of course you can play most of the Street Fighters. Alongside the oldschool cabinets, modern HD displays host Street Fighter IV and - the current king - Tekken 7.
After-school kids or lunch-break office workers are training with intense focus. It’s like a gym, but with more ashtrays. They’ll play right up to the onscreen notices of closing time. Vending machines dispense bottles of milky ice tea to see them through until then.
We step back into the green streetlight under that giant Space Invader and you realise now that you stink. You’re infused with the flavour of nighttime Tokyo. This city crams its work-clothed citizens into bars and basements, pumps in smoke, stews everything in sweltering humidity, makes office days long and apartments cramped enough not to rush back to, then flashes and shouts old favourites on candy cabs in the dark.
Arcade gaming is an ingredient of this metropolis – maybe it won’t be forever, but you can certainly still taste it.
Roland Ingram runs Arcade Tokyo, a site devoted to covering the coin-op sector in Japan.