Tourists dropping in on Japan’s arcades are often surprised. Western arcades have stuck to a familiar trajectory, running last-decade machines form last-century franchises: OutRun 2, After Burner Climax, Time Crisis 4…. The games we’re used to are easygoing, fun and friendly, with a warm welcome and a wave goodbye. It’s not like that in Japan. Arcade games out there are the fruits of a different branch of the family tree – odd characters by any account.

Japan’s arcade games are awkward little so-and-sos who seem to go out of their way to confound you. Gunslinger Stratos is a team-based, nationally-networked, third-person shooter; very complex, requiring twin sticks and dual lightguns. Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield presents levers, buttons and pedals in a sit-in private-booth with spherical-projection screen for mecha deathmatches using headset communicators. Unlike our good old friends – pals since the '90s – Japanese games have become demanding and obtuse, and expect serious commitment from the player, not a casual "Well, I have some time and change to spare" approach.

But of all these stubbornly inscrutable individuals, nobody is harder to get to know than the Trading Card Games – the 'TCGs'. Despite their standoffishness, though, when we actually sit down with some TCGs, they told us about a secret link connecting most of the arcade games in Tokyo. Allow us to explain.

The Collectibles Spectrum

In order to inspire repeat play, many Japanese arcade games have a collectibles mechanic of some kind. For instance, Sega's Border Break – an online team battle mecha game which has been running since 2009 – has a massive catalogue (a literal, fat paper catalogue) of character accessories to choose from.

Now, Border Break isn’t a TCG, but we can imagine it being at the most video gamey end of something we’ll call the 'collectibles spectrum'. At the other end of that spectrum would be something that is 100% pure collectibles – like the famous gashapon capsule machines where you drop coins and collect toys. What makes TCGs so fascinating, then, is that they explore the whole range of the collectibles spectrum, showing how many video games ultimately – surprisingly – have roots in trinket dispensers.

Let’s start at the video game end of the collectibles spectrum and take a little tour…

KanColle

At the gamey end of the spectrum, there’s trading card game Kantai Collection. 'KanColle' began as a web game where you collected virtual 'cards'. You expanded your deck as you played, but you didn’t actually get any physical collectibles – it was definitely a video game. The characters on the cards, by the way, are simultaneously both teenage girls and battleships – it’s hard to believe no one thought of it before!

Sangokushi Taisen

Now we take one step nearer the gashapon via the pseudo-historical wargame TCG Sangokushi Taisen. Here, you do have physical trading cards, but the gameplay is sophisticated real-time strategy, sliding your cards around a table and seeing your armies move on screen. Buttons and gestures add further detail to the controls. The card art began with Chinese 'Wuxia' heroes wielding tremendous weapons with rippling muscles in lithe, swooping forms. The later decks went a bit pervy.

WCCF

World Club Champion Football resembles a Sangokushi Taisen cabinet – you manage a team by moving player cards on a magic table – but the gameplay is a bit less involved, and the sticker-collecting roots of its tie-up with Panini (of playground sticker album fame) tickle your 'complete-the-set' itch.

Gundam Try Age

Now we come to a format called ;Carddass;, which literally means ;dispense cards;, so you can see we’re about to ride the collectibles spectrum all the way down on this one. But first, we have the more modern 'Data Carddass' machines, which spit out smart trading cards which can be read by a sensor and added to a real video game. Titles cover a bunch of genres.

First up, Gundam Try Age. Despite the childish look of the diminutive cabinet, Try Age is a mecha war game with a lot going on. It’s Mobile Suit Gundam trading-card-based realtime strategy, in which you have two card decks: suits and pilots. Three of each go onto the control panel, then you move them around and time button-hits to shoot stuff. Rad.

Data Carddass Dori Fes

The next Data Carddass, as we slip down a little further towards toy territory, is Dori Fes. Data Carddass Dori Fes is the arcade incarnation of Dream Festival, an idol-based, purpose-built, mixed-media money machine. It does dispense cards, but that’s not all it has to offer: it’s also a rhythm game. Or whatever. Just gimme the cards.

Puri Para

Puri Para is a compelling and thoughtful opus in Takara Tomy’s (no doubt culturally important) Pretty Series. There is a game in here, but you must be willing to accept that 'music-slash-fashion' is an actual game genre. It’s aimed at young girls – cute, smiley young girls, judging by the typical clientele you see playing it. Cute, smiley young girls, who happen to be giggling, mischievous, round-shouldered, male, about 40, with their trousers pulled up really high. Ahem.

Gundam War

The original Carddass machines (no 'Data' here) began as simple card dispensers. Bandai Namco actually positioned them as vending machines and so managed to get them into department stores and supermarkets, not just arcades. Even here, though, the collectibles spectrum keeps going, because some cards are just pretty pictures, but others are used for complex tabletop games. Gundam War, for instance, ran for many years, adding more and more decks and tangling into madder and madder complications. 

Gashapon

Aaaaand… SMASH! We’ve hit rock bottom. The most game-like thing about gashapon prizes is that most of them come in sets, and you get one at random, so you may need to buy (or trade) a lot of capsules to get them all. The lowliest of the low are just one-off toys – kiddy-silencing impulse buys that eke out their charm until it wears so thin it breaks. Then into the bin with them.

Back to the Arcade

To bring all of that back to the arcades, we now have a bit of cultural context for the collectibles fetish, even in non-card games like Border Break.

TCGs, when you take the time to get to know them, are a fascinating offshoot of the arcade game family tree, with branches stretching into every genre. And they’re actually the clearest expression of the thinking behind the collectibles mechanics in most modern games. If riding the collectibles spectrum was the 'gasha' of the turning handle, this little nugget of insight is the 'pon' of the capsule hitting the hatch.

So if you’re in a Japanese arcade and you meet a TCG who seems socially awkward or rude, please remember they don’t mean to be difficult. They just have a load of complicated stuff going on. Give them a break and you’ll be surprised how nice they are.