You can’t comprehend how much better Japanese arcades are

Arcades are better in Japan. It’s that simple. Yes, there are some cherished video game hovels out here in the states, ones that have weathered a brutal storm against an increasingly shrinking market. New Jersey’s 8 on the Break was a personal favorite during my time at Rutgers, and fostered many an expert-level fighting game player; SouthTown Arcade is a local standout now that I’m in San Francisco. But for every niche-servicing sanctuary for hardcore gamers, there are two soulless, sparse Dave & Busters or some such “arcade” that treats its games like cheap novelties that are best enjoyed with beer. While arcades occupy a dismally dwindling space here in America, Japan has fostered them into thriving shrines honoring games new and old. But how? What makes Japanese arcades so different?

I was fortunate enough to spend a few days arcade-hopping in Akihabara, also known as the Electric Town, when I was covering TGS last week. Now, not every district in Japan can boast Akihabara’s arcade count. This was more like the Times Square of gaming havens; I believe I counted six arcades along the same main strip, each of which I spent hours gleefully wandering through in a dreamlike state. Of those six, three were owned by Sega, who proudly displayed their logo on the side of their six-story virtual paradise. It was almost enough to bring a man to joyous tears.

Price-wise, these arcades were about the same: 100 yen (around $1.25 USD, courtesy of the yen’s soaring exchange rate) got you into most games, with the fancier stuff hovering around 200 yen ($2.50). American arcades offer scant uses for your coins: House of the Dead 2 with inaccurate lightguns, a dilapidated DDR machine from 2003, Fast and the Furious with rubberbanding AI galore, and maybe a Street Fighter III: Third Strike cabinet if you’re lucky. There doesn’t seem to be a need, a care, or an affordable viability to fill the venue with the newest machines, so you’re pretty much stuck with whatever your local spot’s got, save for a few new Stern pinball machines to tie in with the latest blockbuster movie.

Akihabara arcades offer so, so much more. Take, for instance, Taito’s Hirose Entertainment Yard, or Taito HEY for short. This multi-level wonderland has something for everyone: Slot machines, pachinko, head-to-head (as in, two cabinets with one player each) fighting games, rhythm games, quiz games, shmups, retro games, lightgun shooters, UFO catchers (more on those later), racing games, horse betting simulators. Games for days. On top of these amusement marvels, you’ll find top-notch vending machines stocked with ice-cold beverages, energy drinks, and even ice-cream cones, nestled next to crank-activated gachapon machines that dispense gorgeous toys instead of musty gumballs.

There’s also a wider range of clientele within Japan’s entertainment kingdoms. UFO catchers are like the arcade gateway drug, and always get prime placement in the lobby or first floor, where they’re sure to attract boys and girls of all ages. These eye-grabbing attractions are like the sterile versions of low-odds carnival games, but they offer niftier mechanisms (like punching holes through strips of paper) as a means of delivering their pristine prizes: full-sized anime figures, wall scrolls, and PS Vita games, on top of the typical mascot plushies. Best of all, perseverance usually pays off, and you’ll often hear the delighted squeals of schoolgirls who finally scored the prize they’ve been pursuing all afternoon, cheered on by the steadfast staff that frequent every floor. It’s a system that far outshines ticket dispensers: It’s all about instant gratification, in an environment that’s enticing to the younger crowd while still ensnaring the occasional adult.

As you ascend the escalator up to gaming heaven, you’ll find a softly lit room with wall-to-wall arcade cabinets spouting lights and noise in every direction. There’s nary a broken-down or untended machine in sight: Where you’d expect to find the reject Cabela games or a Time Crisis 2 cabinet that’s seen better days, there are rows upon rows of shmups new and old. New-school bullet-hell shooters bump shoulders with timeless classics like R-Type, while another corner contains nothing but retro beat-‘em-ups and brutal coin-munchers à la Ghosts’n Goblins. Better yet, you’ll often find that these hallowed games serve as stages for the deftly skilled, who draw onlookers with their one-coin escapades against insurmountable odds.

Rhythm and fighting games have always been a genre dominated by the Japanese market, and they often warrant entire floors dedicated to their digital greatness. Each rhythm title acts like a neon booth, entrancing expert players with a stall-like structure to contain their pounding beats while drowning out the ambient din. There’s more than the typical Bemani games (though those are always in high demand): Lesser-known titles like Sound Voltex, jubeat, and Reflec Beat all offer unique ways to tap in time to the pulsing rhythm. There’s even a Pop’n Music tailored just for kids, so they can earn their musical lumps before taking on the Beatmania IIDX big boys.

Next up are the fighters, in environments that sharpen the skills of the locals into razor-edged joystick wizards. The dozen-strong rows of head-to-head cabinets don’t force the opponents into cramped elbow-rubbing conditions; instead, they instill a Zen-like focus as you battle against a for-now-faceless opponent. Stumbling into a late-night BlazBlue tournament was like setting foot in a pixelated fight club: The already-large room was full to bursting with the laughter of bitter defeats, the ethereal heat of determined victories, and the cheers of pugilists encouraging their comrades.

Filling in the gaps are the novelty games, offering experiences no home console could ever provide. Elevator Action Death Parade puts a functioning elevator door between you and the screen, Gunslinger Stratos lets you dual-wield magnetic lightguns in style, and Kido Senshi Gundam offers panoramic, foot-pedal mech action in a fully-encased pod. If you ever get the chance to play these games, do so immediately--you may never have such a unique opportunity in America.

In fact, all American arcade lovers should make it a bucket list goal to visit a Japanese arcade. It’s like experiencing the gap between a burger and a perfectly-seared filet mignon steak. Yes, the former is undoubtedly gratifying--but the latter offers up a deeply resonant satisfaction for those that appreciate the medium. Go it alone or bring a like-minded friend, pack your pockets with 100 and 500 yen coins, and prepare yourself for a borderline-spiritual experience that will open your eyes to a different kind of arcade.

Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000
  • lazer59882 - November 13, 2012 10:51 a.m.

    yikes...i'd never go to japan, let alone an arcade in japan. talk about sensory overload...
  • Shinn - September 28, 2012 4:36 a.m.

    You should have mentioned that the Gundam simulators are multiplayer, and you can play against people from all over Japan, and you even pick a faction and assault group. You should check out the arcades in Ikebukuro next time, they're the best.
  • Thequestion 121 - September 27, 2012 10:43 p.m.

    Wow, what a great article! Someday, I will go to Japan and head straight to Akihabara!
  • yonderTheGreat - September 27, 2012 6:45 p.m.

    1)There are arcades in the US? Since when? Last one I remember was between 10 and 15 years ago and I was shocked to see it. 2)As has been pointed out here, don't paint Japan with the brush of one tiny and very famously specialized district in Tokyo. That's like going to Haight in the 60s and saying there are hippies everywhere in America or like going to Seattle in the 90s and saying there's a Starbucks on every corner. Scratch that last one.
  • nokeisoka - September 27, 2012 7:33 p.m.

    There used to be a pretty good arcade/sportsbar by me had a good amount of games old and new. It was the only place aside from some mall I went to once that had virtual on/ metal slug but it closed down and I've been sad ever since.
  • Shinn - September 28, 2012 4:38 a.m.

    Arcades are everywhere in Japan mate, they're like Starbucks in America. Most of the best ones are in the smaller districts and cities too.
  • DBNS - October 2, 2012 11:45 p.m.

    1) Agreed. I haven't seen a real arcade in Canada in well over 10 years either. 2) If you think 5 level arcades in Japan are limited to one district of Tokyo, then I'd venture to say you haven't been around Japan much. I haven't been around Japan a great deal myself, but even in my limited experience, I've been to a huge arcade in Osaka, & I even stumbled upon a sort of "game street" where each shop was owned by a different Japanese game company. Japan is jammed full of games, of all kinds, which are extremely popular with almost everyone.
  • closer2192 - September 27, 2012 4:31 p.m.

    How much of a demand is there for arcades here in the US, though?
  • bash street kid - September 27, 2012 1:49 p.m.

    Video-game travelogues, I love it. I can practically taste your excitement reading this. Great article, thanks.
  • garnsr - September 27, 2012 1:12 p.m.

    How are the arcades outside of Tokyo, or even Akihabara? You are talking about one of the most most densely populated areas on the planet, I wonder if the lesser areas of Japan are more like American arcades? The ones I saw here and there in Tokyo, outside of Akihabara, in '98 were about like the American ones of the same time.
  • JMarsella09 - September 27, 2012 1:18 p.m.

    Read my comment
  • JMarsella09 - September 27, 2012 1:09 p.m.

    Okay... Let me say this. The Arcades in Tokyo are amazing. However this previous summer I lived in Fukuoka with a family and was very depressed to find the lack off good arcades. Oh there were plenty to chose from. It is just most simply were loaded with Pachinko machines and UFO catchers. Some had a good racing game or a couple of good shooters, hell one even had a retro Super Mario machine. But overall I found that they lacked a sizable amount of quality games. That is until about a month in I discovered one not too far from one of my stops on the way to my school called "Taito Station". God it was glorious. Bullet Hells, rhythm games and finally, FINALLY after a searching through over a dozen arcades I found fighters. Needless to say, I spent the much of my free time there, made many friends including one rival I gained in Persona 4 Arena whom I still am in contact with even though I'm back in the states. Moral of the story. The arcades in japan are indeed awesome. Just be warned that good ones are hard too find out of Tokyo.
  • Redeater - September 27, 2012 12:34 p.m.

    "You can’t comprehend how much better Japanese arcades are" #1 Reason They still exist.
  • ZuzuPachulia - September 27, 2012 11:59 a.m.

    Heck, I don't even know where the closest arcade is around my college, there probably isn't one anywhere near here. One of the many more reasons I need to take a trip to Japan sometime.