Taito’s Hey arcade in Akihabara, Tokyo, has long rows of Taito Egret II cabinets with aftermarket headphone amplifiers

Arcades may have all but died out in the west, but in Japan they remain big business. I write a website about arcades in Tokyo, and sometimes forget it’s not normal to live in an arcade daydream. I‘m prone to using obscure arcade terminology and I neglect readers who don’t click joysticks in the noise so often.

I’m frequently surprised, for example, to be asked what a "candy cabinet" is – which I lazily assumed was common knowledge. I’m sure a lot of you know already, but there’s no shame in rehearsing the basics and no reason not to welcome the arcade-curious to our world. So let’s spell it out.

Candy Cabs 101

An arcade-goer plays on a Sega Blast City cabinet offering 7,000 games in the Sega High-Tech Land arcade in Tateishi, Tokyo

A candy cabinet is a standardised arcade cabinet, usually from the '90s, with a screen, control panel and interchangeable games. It sounds a bit like a games console, but unlike a console - which houses the computing hardware and just loads data from a cartridge or a disk to play different games - candy cabinets are more like empty shells, with games coming on circuit boards that actually include the computing hardware. Candy cabs can therefore not only run different games, but also run them on a range of hardware. The candy cab just supplies the screen and controls.

This kind of generic cabinet has never been unique to Japan, but the equivalent cabinets in the West were typically made of wood and intended to be played standing up. Candy cabs are plastic and at a height for sitting down.

The screen can be configured in a standard horizontal setup (in Japanese, yoko) or rotated 90° to a vertical orientation (tate), mainly for vertical scrolling shoot-em-ups, or shmups. The control panel is also replaceable with all manner of button configurations, from a classic stick-and-six to two-player to twin sticks to a 23-button specialist keyboard for the Chinese domino-like game Mah Jong… to just about anything.

Classic Candy

A Puzzle Bobble player spends a public holiday afternoon at a Taito Egret II cabinet in the Taito Station arcade in Shinjuku, Tokyo

The most popular candy cabs were made by Sega and Taito in the '90s. Taito’s classics are the Egret series. The Egret II (like the older Egret 29) has a mechanism enabling the monitor to be rotated from yoko to tate simply, by one person. On other cabs, that change means recruiting a friend to heave a massive old TV out and back in again. The Egret II is therefore a favourite for personal games rooms, where you might only have one cabinet and want to switch between vertical and horizontal games. Taito’s famous Hey arcade in nerdopolis Akihabara has iconic long rows of Egrets flying off into the distance under dim blue lights.

Sega’s candy cabs are mostly some kind of "City": Astro City, Blast City, Net City… A cabinet I find particularly fun in its commitment to a single cause is the Sega Versus City, launched in 1996. Versus Cities are enormous things with two screens and control panels back-to-back, like conjoined candy cab twins, bonded by their capacious plastic skin and sharing their internal circuit board organs. They’re built for two-player competitive play, usually on fighting games. The idea is that players can’t react to what they see – or even hear, believe it or not – their opponent doing with their stick and buttons. With the Versus City, players can react only to what is on the screen.

Candy Cabs Today

A staff member services a Sega Blast City cabinet in the Playland Carnival arcade in Shinjuku

Games are still made for candy cabs, especially relatively niche-interest shmups and fighters. Modern generic cabs are still sold by Sega and Taito and are in most Tokyo arcades, but the candy cabs of the '90s remain a commonplace symbol of retro-hardcore gaming, and are also sought after by players and collectors for home arcades and museums.

Even more sought-after are the PCBs – the printed circuit boards hosting the games. Although serious candy-heads may prefer to change out the boards through the lockable service doors on the front of the machines, there is a modern-day alternative: emulation. Emulating old games on standard hardware like a PC or console stashed inside the cabinet enables players to select from multiple games before dropping their coins.

Emulation is a handy approach for the home arcade, but it’s also present in Tokyo game centres. Actual PCBs introduce maintenance challenges for a big arcade, particularly for ageing games, and swapping them is a hassle, so emulation is sometimes the pragmatic way to go. An emulator cabinet might still only offer a single game, though, and some PCBs actually present a choice from dozens, so you may not know whether you’re playing an emulator cab. But if the machinetop advertises a choice of ten thousand games (yes, those exist), it rather gives the game away.

Unless you’re a very serious arcade gamer who can tell the difference by playing (which I’m not), your best way to be sure you’re playing a real PCB – if you care about doing that – is to go to an arcade like Club Sega in Nishishinjuku, where staff will install an old '90s board from a display case at your request.

Most recent candy cabinet games – like the newest King of Fighters or BlazBlue (both fighting games) – are downloaded from the internet onto a standard board installed in the machine, streamlining candy cab operation for the modern world. This approach frustrates some home collectors who can’t access the download service outside Japan, but it’s an encouraging sign that these cabinets will keep on going.

Sticking Power

A range of joysticks were on sale at the Sanwa Denshi booth at Tokyo Game Show 2017

The cabs change and the games change, but the sticks and buttons have been relatively constant. The two biggest names are Sanwa and Seimitsu, both of which are very much dad-aged, having been making joysticks since the '80s. Sanwa had a booth at the Tokyo Game Show in 2017 selling their latest products, which included "silent" controls to help keep your combos private.

The constancy of stick and buttons over the years gives arcade gaming a traditional feel, even in its most modern incarnations. There’s a timelessness about candy cab gaming – which is all the more apparent if you consider that many big games were born before their players.

Suck it and See

Interchangeable rom cartridges that plug into a Neo Geo motherboard inside a candy cabinet are available to play at Club Sega in Nishishinjuku, Tokyo

If you want to taste the candy cab experience in Tokyo, you can find them in plenty of arcades, including the big-name Segas and Taitos. Look out for yellowed plastic, bulging 4-to-3- (i.e. old-TV-) ratio screens, and colourful buttons. A helpful little rule of thumb for the newbie hunter: the candy’s in the basement.

Finally, the question I’ve ignored all the way through: why are they called candy cabs? Because the bright, multicoloured joysticks and buttons look like sweets! Or so the story goes. You can certainly picture a dayglo-dressed '90s teen popping plastic-green gumballs while they brawl their way through a pixelated Neo Tokyo. But the real answer is probably that the first Japanese cabinets to be exported west in a big way were SNK’s, with model names like “Candy 18” and “Candy 25”. But that’s dull – let’s say it’s the gumballs. Why not head to Tokyo one day and taste the retro sweetness for yourself?

Thanks go to Chun Wah Kong (@chunwahkong on Instragram) and Aaron Kraten (@akraten on Instagram) for fact-checking and explanations that helped make this article!