In 1978, Tomohiro Nishikado (a video game designer from Osaka) developed the most famous video game of all time; Space Invaders. He worked for Taito, a video game company which came to fruition in 1953 manufacturing pinball games. Over the years, Taito moved further into the arcade market to become a huge player in the coin operated video game industry.
Fast forward over 35 years later from Space Invaders, and Japan’s downtown areas are now clustered with arcades. Upon leaving a main train station, you’re never more than a stone’s throw away from an arcade or ゲームセンター (“Gemu Senta” Game Centre). These incredible structures are normally broken up into categories and different floors. They’re owned by many different companies including Sega, Capcom, Namco, and as previously mentioned, Taito.
The arcades are set out in a very specific way for various reasons. The UFO catchers (toy grabbing machines) are usually found on the first floor, the second floor will often be comprised of semi-casual fighting games, and driving games. As we climb higher, the third floor is normally a space for rhythm games such as Dance Dance Revolution, whilst the higher floors are reserved for more serious gamers and gamblers. Obviously every arcade is different, but you’ll normally see this similar layout. Sometimes the hardcore gambling games are kept to the basement levels rather than the top floors.
In Kyoto with Sakura Panda Tea Time
The staff are always on hand to help with any malfunctions (trapped prizes, or faulty buttons) and sometimes will even lend a helping hand if they see you’re struggling. I remember one occasion in Osaka when I had my heart set on a Hatsune Miku statue, and even after pumping in over ¥800 (¥100 a turn) I still wasn’t any closer. The attendant was watching the entire time chuckling to himself. Eventually he opened the cabinet, moved the figure to the edge, and made the game 90% easier for me. It seems the staff work there, because they enjoy what they do, as they’re also damn good at the games.
After three weeks inJapan, I’d barely scratched the surface of arcade culture. I’d spent most of my time playing Taiko No Tatsujin, a simple rhythm game comprised of a large drum, and two wooden sticks. Obviously I never went higher than “Normal” mode, however there is an advanced level known as “Oni” mode which draws in the insane level gamers.
Japanese arcades are so innovative, I can’t imagine half of the things I saw there ever catching on in the west. There are rhythm games which make Guitar Hero look like a primary school education tool. With multiple screens, literally rows upon rows of buttons which have to be mashed in sequence, with a display which looked like a July 4th celebration with explosions of colours and numbers. I saw a shooting game involving two guns, both with analogue sticks on the backs of the guns for movement of the character on screen. Not only this, but the guns would “snap” together in different combinations (side by side, on top of each other) to form extra weapons. Other nice touches included arcade cards which could be purchased, and registered online, so that on your next visit, you could continue with your progress instead of starting over again.
So what is it about the arcades which draw the Japanese to them? Simply put, there’s something for everyone. Casual gamers like myself, can jump into one of the arcades, spend ¥2,000, and leave with a few prizes and a sense of enjoyment from the cabinet games. Older gamers (I saw plenty of Japanese salarymen relieving stress after a days work) can go to the gambling floors, bet on horses or other virtual sports, or find some classic games from the 1980’s at the back of the rooms.
But then there’s the hardcore gamers. These guys can spend hours upon hours inside these amusement dojos. I don’t say dojo without grounds for it, as these guys train on these games. World champion Street Fighter player Daigo Umehara is a testament to this. It seems some Japanese communities have taken this culture from being a hobby, to a lifestyle. There seems to be a constant state of being good, isn’t good enough, with high scores being printed in magazines such as “Arcadia” for all to see, and try to beat.
This competitive element is only to be found in arcades. It’s something that can’t be attained from playing online at home. Many players talk of a different feeling when trying to beat someone that’s sat on the other side of the cabinet you’re on. Because the player is paying to play, they take on a new attitude and play differently as they don’t want to waste their money. They’re playing to stay alive.
The popularity of arcades in Japan in comparison to the rest of the world is easy to understand. In the west, we have fairly large homes with enough space for a huge TV and multiple gaming consoles, gaming nights, and lots of noise. In Japan, the apartments are very small and often packed together with lots of neighbours. So big parties are pretty much out of the question, which leads people to head on down to the arcades, to make as much noise as they like.
In the west it seems video games are seen as a time wasting hobby, while in Japan it’s a widely accepted lifestyle. I also find it strange that anime has become immensely popular with foreigners, but arcade culture hasn’t caught on. Will it catch on in the future? Will we see a return of arcade culture in the west? If it’s done right, and people support it, I think we will.