Arcades still the craze in Japan
The place was crammed to the hilt with machines and people. The noise was deafening, but it wasn’t coming from the young men and women who packed Sega Akihabara, a large arcade located in front of JR Akihabara Station in Tokyo.
No, these folks were zombie-like, fixated on the screens in front of them as the machines blared music and commands in the dimly lit man-made cavern. Whether they came with friends or by themselves, these gamers were alone in their own world, oblivious to their surroundings and focused only the task at hand: playing a game.
Yes, I had ventured into a game center, or as the Japanese say, “geesen (gae-sen).” Although a dying breed in the United States, arcades are alive and well in Japan. From the northern island of Hokkaido to the southern island of Okinawa, Japanese and foreigners escape the real world to get their game on, whatever their poison may be.
“The basic charge for playing a game is only 100 yen; anyone in any age bracket can enjoy arcade games easily and casually,” said Keiichi Kouno, managing director of All Nippon Amusement Machine Operator’s Union. “We have kept this ‘one-coin’ policy for 30 years.”
Of course with inflation, Kouno added, some of the latest games require 200 yen or more to play.
Who likes what
According to Kouno, arcade games in Japan can be categorized into five groups:
- Video - fighting and romance experience games
- Simulation - Racing, biking, shooting and music games
- Gambling simulation - slot machines, mahjong and horse-racing
- Prize –Use a crane or lever to grab stuffed animals, stickers and candy.
- Photo booths – Get pictures taken with friends and pay for photos or stickers.
I noticed at Sega Akihabara that who played what games depended a lot on age and gender. Most young males challenged themselves on a variety of video games, while males in their 40s and 50s tried their luck on gambling-style games. (Note: Unlike pachinko parlors in Japan, players in arcades cannot win money.)
While a majority of gamers I saw were male, some female middle and high school students were enjoying music games, including keeping the beat with a Japanese taiko drum. Others were obsessed with posing for photos at popular sticker photo booths, aka purikura (print clubs).
“Purikura is especially popular among girls,” Kouno said. “Although it is not a game machine by the strictest of definitions, purikura was originally introduced as part of the arcade scene and continues to be a favorite. The latest CG technology enables them to modify their face and hair to their tastes before printing.”
UFO Catcher and other prize games (or crane games) seemed to be enjoyed by both males and females of all ages at Sega Akihabara. Prizes ranged from stuffed animals and plastic cartoon figures to scarfs and wrist watches. But don’t be fooled by the expensive-looking prizes. By law, the prizes can only have a value of 800 yen or less, according to Kouno.
Another popular game is “maimai,” a game where you dance to music in front of a screen. A camera located on top of the machine captures you and the people in the background. It’s like you’re dancing on a stage. To rack up points, you have to follow the characters by using the touch screen on the game.
“Doing games in the arcade is just like enjoying live music,” said an employee at Sega Akihabara. “It is fun to share time and space with other game lovers.”
When it all started
The Japanese arcade goes back to 1978 when the country welcomed Space Invaders and Pacman, the epoch video games that also devoured the attention of youth in the United States. Arcades soon popped up everywhere in Japan.
Arcades hit their peak when popular Street Fighter series were introduced in the 1990s. These games enabled a gamer to “fight” another player.
Then, the arcade industry started shrinking a bit.
According to Kouno, there are many reasons for the decline, such as economic depression, the rapid spread of mobile games and social networking. But Kohei Suzuki, 35, a salary man in Tokyo who enjoyed arcade games in his high school days, believes frequent updates and changes to video games played a part.
“When new video games were first developed, the existing machines became obsolete and got replaced by the new ones” Suzuki said. “So, when I mastered how to win a game, I would often see the game removed to give space for new games. Then, I had to start learning a new game from scratch.”
Video games are usually replaced every half year, Kouno said.
“So, gamers were not able to catch up with the rapid turnover, and it frustrated some because they couldn’t master the games,” said Suzuki, explaining how a lot of the games got so complicated that companies started publishing manuals on how to play the games.
“These state-of-the-art video games became the pastime for otaku (maniacs),” Suzuki said. “I can hardly consider video games as a steady pastime anymore.”
Although past its peak, the arcade industry hauls in 450 billion yen a year, according to Kouno. Although it lags behind the 19 trillion yen pachinko industry, it goes far beyond manga and Internet cafés that generate 150 billion yen annually.
Kouno said arcades have introduced more diversified and simpler games so that not only game enthusiasts but anybody with their friends and families can enjoy arcades.
“Now, I go to a arcade in large shopping malls with my 7- and 5-year-old kids once a week,” Suzuki said. “We stay there for about 30 minutes and spend 500 to 1,000 yen on shooting on Mario Cart or UFO Catcher.
Today, there are 5,772 licensed arcades in Japan, according to data from the National Police Department (2014).
“Most of these licensed arcades are run by major game machine manufacturers, such as Sega, Namco and Taito,” said Keiichi Kouno, managing director of All Nippon Amusement Machine Operator’s Union.
There are 10,297 small game spaces located in shopping malls, hotels, theaters and bowling alleys. Game spaces that share less than 10 percent of whole facility can be operated without a license, Kouno said.
Laws and regulations control the licensed arcades in terms of hours of operation and age limits. Arcades can only be open from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and laws prohibit those under 18 from entering an arcade after 10 p.m. On Okinawa, those under 18 can’t go to an arcade after 8 p.m.
Major game arcade chains
The following three game arcade chains have branches throughout the nation.