Tokyo's underground game bars

How much will it cost?
About ¥4714.5 - ¥14143.5
About $50 - $150
About £30 - £90

Across the street from Castage is a building that hosts a myriad of naughty nighttime entertainment venues. There are hostess clubs, where business men pay ridiculous fees to chat and drink with young ladies. You’ll also find lots of so-called “massage parlors.” But amidst these dens of sin, you’ll also find the plainly named Shinjuku Game Bar on the fifth floor.

Above: Shinjuku Game Bar provides Saturn, SNES, Wii and PS2 games for its customers to play

Shinjuku Game Bar is huge, and sports five cushy couches surrounding a console equipped with a projector. Opening around the same time as A-Button, Shinjuku Game Bar feels like it was made to be a typical Kabuki-Cho watering hole. For a reference point, think of the few quiet bars portrayed in Sega’s Yakuza for the PS2.

According to Rikapo, one of the two hostesses who work at Shinjuku Game Bar, the place usually starts to pick up around eleven at night, when Japanese business men start filtering out of their official postwork get togethers and continue drinking at their less formal “2nd parties,” as they are called in Japanese.

When asked whether any game developers come to play and relax, Mr. Haratake, the owner, looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “No, just normal salary men, usually in their thirties,” he said. For Haratake, there’s nothing unusual about Shinjuku Game Bar. It’s just a typical Kabuki-Cho joint... that just happens to have two massive cabinets filled with hundreds of games to play.

Above: The bar looks inviting and is loaded up with several clean ash trays

How much will it cost?
About ¥1885 - ¥4714.5
About $20 - $50
About £12 - £30

Akihabara may be where the games are, but the remaining bars on this pilgrimage lie in Shinjuku, home to the heart of Tokyo’s business world as well as its “entertainment” district, Kabuki-Cho. It’s in Kabuki-Cho that you’ll find Castage: Actor & Game Bar. The establishment is less than a year old, and is distinguished from others in that it’s not a game bar seven days a week. Instead, each of Castage’s bartenders have regular nights and are encouraged to create an atmosphere suitable that caters to their patrons’ tastes. At one point, the bar became the hangout of a small group of animators, so for a few days a week, Castage transforms into The Board of Animators. On Tuesdays it becomes Game Bar Super Robot Spirts, and on Saturdays it becomes Gundam Bar Haro. But no matter what day you visit, there are always games to play.

The bar, which opened in April of 2008, is sparsely decorated. No tacky posters or figurines here. The actual games available at Castage are limited to whatever that night’s bartender brings with him. When we last passed through, it was Gundam night – and a Famicom, Super Famicom, and PS2 were available to play.

The bartender, a parttime voice actor and model, chatted us up, while the Saturday night regulars huddled around a netbook, laughing at YouTube videos. He explained that most of Castage’s clientele were average people and worked outside of the game’s industry. If A-Button is a great place to chat about the newest games with industry insiders, Castage should be your destination for a serving of nostalgia with your Gundam-inspired cocktails.

How much will it cost?
About ¥2820 - ¥7051
About $30 - $75
About £18 - £45

Located away from the sleaze of Kabuki-Cho, past the gauntlet of high-end department stores that draw shoppers to Shinjuku, is the 8-Bit Cafe. The small plaque for this fifth floor bar makes it is easy to miss. But once you do find it and make your way upstairs, a stylish and spacious bar packed with gaming paraphernalia of every sort awaits.

Above: A small plaque indicating the entrance to 8-Bit Cafe. Don't blink or you'll miss it

Chiptunes (sometimes spun by a live DJ) and videogame music provide a casual atmosphere, while alcohol, a Famicom, and Super Famicom offer more hands-on entertainment. Early in the evenings, 8-Bit is a popular dating spot. Couples start arriving as soon as the bar opens at seven, and apparently no date at 8-Bit is complete without at least thirty minutes of Super Mario Kart. Later in the evening, the couples disappear and are slowly replaced by developers and hardcore fans (about a 50/50 mix), who start piling in for serious all night drinking.

Above: The 8-Bit Cafe’s “Dr. Mario.” Be careful. It’s a lot stronger than it looks!

The cafe is packed with people until five in the morning, and the excellent Indian curry place across the street is good for settling down a stomach that’s been subjected to too many Dr. Marios during the evening. Once the booze starts pouring and games start rolling, you won’t want to leave. If you plan to embark on this pilgrimage, make sure you set aside an entire night (and a good part of the next morning) to enjoying the 8-Bit Cafe.

Above: The interior of 8-Bit Cafe

Above: The bar is littered with figurines

Above: The 8-Bit Cafe’s Famicom and Super Famicom. Show your date a good time with a few rounds of Mario Kart before buying her a drink

Above: The owners and operators of 8-Bit Cafe, Nao (left) and Kojo (right)