Looking At The Past, Present, And Future Of Arcades In Japan

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Arcades or “Game Centers” as their known in Japan are a curious topic. Beyond Space Invaders and Street Fighter you have medal machines, card games like Square Enix’s Lord of Vermillion, and Mahjong games – a topic few cover in English. Brian Ashcraft, Night Editor at Kotaku, gave all of them a look in his book Arcade Mania. We spoke with him to hear his perspective on the evolving culture of Japan’s arcades and his thoughts on DJ Max Technika’s US launch.

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Congrats on finishing your first book.


Brian Ashcraft, Author of Arcade Mania!: Well, thank you very much.


How long did Arcade Mania take to write?


Let’s see… So I started writing it early fall and finished up this past Spring. I was doing about a chapter a month.


A rough schedule, sure, but since I’m used to writing online, and online, as you know, moves fast. I enjoy working on a tight schedule, and the metabolism of Japanese publishers is quick. It was a good fit. 


How many arcades did you visit?


Oh tons. Tons and tons. I’ve always visited arcades and still do whenever I pass one by. I love popping in, seeing what games they have and paying a couple rounds of whatever catches my fancy.


The nice thing about big cities like Osaka and Tokyo is that there are usually game centers near big train stations. So, while you’re out shopping or having dinner, you can always duck into an arcade for a snap.


It’s quite a different gaming experience than simply carrying around your PSP or DS while you’re out in the city in that you don’t enter an environment dedicated to gaming. For example, you’re instead gaming on the train while the guy next to you is reading the paper.


But in a game center, you’re surrounded by people who are, well, gaming. Granted, they’re all going to be playing various games, but there’s something to be said about a group of strange convening in the same place to play arcade games together — all without typically ever uttering a word to each other! It’s a silent camaraderie. That’s the magic of game centers.


There are two arcades within walking distance from my house, which I’ve been frequenting for a couple years now. So while writing the book, I’d head over there to do “research.” Best research ever. 


If you had to pick one must see arcade in Japan where would you go?


I love shooting games — especially those from developer Cave. For me, shoot ’em ups are so firmly grounded in the arcade experience.


Arcade games have such a rich and deep shooter history. Horizontal shooters are designed specifically for arcades, arcade cabinets and the arcade experience. They’re meant to be played with joysticks. It’s difficult to reproduce that at home. I’ve been playing “Ketsui” on my DS. It’s fun, but not the same whatsoever.


That’s why I’d recommend Taito Hey in Akihabara. As Kenta Cho pointed out, it’s one of the best game centers in the world for shooters. Hey has a truly impressive collection of titles.


If shooters aren’t your thing, there are tons of other arcade games there. It’s no surprise that arcade developers like SNK love doing location tests there. Yeah, Taito Hey is a corporate arcade and not some Mom ‘n’ Pop hole-in-the-wall game center nirvana. But it’s arcade gaming’s equivalent of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and definitely worth a look for those visiting Tokyo.


For Osaka, I’d recommend “Navel” near Esaka Station. Now this is more of a hole-in-the-wall for those hungry for the grimy arcade experience. I’d recommend Navel for those into fighters. Like shooters, fighters (and well, rhythm games) are are so arcade. They bleed game center.


But I’m not recommending Navel because it has an amazing selection of titles — they’re okay. But instead, because the arcade is right down the street from SNK’s headquarters.


SNK staffers have told me they head over to Navel to see what people are playing and to play arcade games themselves. So there’s an off chance that the guy beating your ass in “King of Fighters” might be an SNK employee! That, or just some random dude.


For those interested in other genres, there are solid arcades mentioned throughout Arcade Mania. 


arcadea What inspired you to write Arcade Mania?


I’ve always liked arcades, especially Japanese arcades. I love the vibe — the way game centers buzz with activity on a Friday night, and the sleepy feeling they have mid-week early morning. I’ve always wondered why someone hadn’t done a book on Japanese arcades. It’s a fascinating subject matter.


Jean Snow, who acted as a contributor for the book, had heard that Kodansha was keen to do a book on video games. Jean and I are friends, and he asked me if I had any video game book ideas, and I said I wanted to do an Japanese arcade book. So we pitched it to Kodansha and got the greenlight.


From the get go, I wanted it to be a cross section of Japanese arcades. What’s more, I wanted to peg the book to developers and players. Developers are obviously essential in creating the game, and players are that keystone which completes the game and fulfills its purpose. Arcades are a great place to explore this as people are playing games in a public space. Game writing needs more of a human element, I think. The emphasis has long been technical, and that’s only half of the story.


Did you learn anything new about arcades from writing the book?


Tons — mostly from the interviews with developers and players. The devs and the players told us stuff that had never been reported (in English or Japanese) about them or their games.


You have a section in the book about UFO catchers… are you a claw master? Give us some tips on how to win plush toys and snack packs.


Oh man, I stink at crane games. My wife is great at them. When she goes to arcades, she usually has to get a big plastic bag from the arcade to fill with the candy, chips, and stuffed animals she wins. No joke.


I’m fairly decent at a certain type of these games, but not very good at SEGA’s UFO Catcher. The good thing about SEGA arcades is that if you ask staff to move the prizes to a more favorable spot, they typically will. So my advice? Read Arcade Mania for tips! Because there are some good ones in it. Advice from me: Try to get the staff to move the prize near the slot and then knock or push it in with the crane instead of trying to pick it up.


What’s the most obscure arcade game you played?


Tough question. Like if I say, just for example, “Wonder Momo”, that game might be obscure to some, but totally not to others. Personally, I don’t think it’s obscure, and people into Namco arcade games or beat ’em ups or even PC Engine games (it got a port) would most likely know this title.


I’d say, and I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here, the more obscure arcade games for Western players would be mahjong games. The reason for this is obvious: Mahjong is not as widely played in the West as in Japan. For that reason, few of those titles get released in North America or Europe.


There is a wide variety of mahjong titles: from sexy to serious and everything in between.


Since you need to know how to play mahjong to play mahjong arcade games and since most Westerners do not play mahjong, these titles do not get much attention by players outside of Asia. Anyone who has been to a Japanese arcade know titles like SEGA’s “MJ” franchise or Konami’s “Mahjong Fight Club”, two very famous recent series, exist, but how many foreigners actually play these games? Unless you’re into mahjong, you’re probably not into mahjong arcade games.


There hasn’t been much written about Japanese mahjong arcade games in English for this very reason. 


cavec Who was your favorite person to interview?


No doubt, Tsuneki Ikeda at Cave. I’m a huge, huge fan of his work. The rigor and dedication in what he does is inspiring and refreshing. It was great interviewing him about how he started in the industry, how he studied programming. 


He truly loves shooters, and I couldn’t help but feeling that he was making them so he could play them. His target audience is very, very small. But also very, very dedicated and very, very supportive of his work. It was tremendous fun to talk to him stuff like this — he’s extremely humble. Good humored as well.


Outside of an influx of medal machines arcade business seems drying up in Japan. Why do you think this is happening?


I don’t know if I’d use the word “drying up.” A better word, I believe, would be evolving. Japanese arcades have evolved over time. This is something I tried to show in the book in a roundabout way by focusing on arcade game genres instead of a typical (and sometimes dry) timeline structure.


Arcades in Japan started on the roofs of Japanese department stores in the Post War Era. People played mechanical games. During the 1970s, kids were playing mechanical games in bowling alleys. And when Space Invaders exploded, they were playing video games in coffee houses.


Japanese arcade games that were popular in the early 1980s are different from Japanese arcade games that were popular in the early 1990s. The concept of game center in Japan is not the same as it is in the West, which is why we get things like sticker pictures becoming big business for arcades in the late 20th century.


Fact is, medal games are fun. You can play longer for less money if you win. You can then store you winnings in an ATM-style medal bank at the arcade and then withdraw them when you return. This keeps players coming back to play, and that’s good for arcades.


It’s simply another evolution for game centers here. Japanese arcades are places were people gather and play. Medal games offer some players just that.


But, I’d say more than medal games, card based games seem like the big thing for many players. Card based games are much more expensive to play, but do let players take home pieces of the game (cards). Also, some of them are terrific fun as well. 


Do you think arcades will be a thing of the past in Japan like the US?


Not anytime soon. For so many companies here, arcades are part of their corporate DNA. Companies like SNK, Cave, Namco, SEGA, Capcom, Taito and so on. These companies have rich arcade histories. Compare that to American developers. Sure, we had our Midways and whatnot, but, over time, there were many more PC developers.


Many Japanese developers have a strong base in arcade development, which is why you see more polished titles from Japanese developers. You cannot put a buggy game in arcade cabinets. People won’t play it, and you can’t patch it on launch day.


It’s apples and oranges. 


Why do you think arcades failed in the USA?


I don’t think they failed. I think they were, for a period, highly successful. But things like location hurt the industry over time. If you have to drive to an arcade, that hurts it’s business. Because that means you must plan to go there. You cannot just pop in for a quick game and then go on your merry way.


The Japanese arcades that are struggling are the ones that you must drive to. These are the arcades in the suburbs. They’re probably far from the notion that Westerners have regarding what a Japanese arcade is. 


Print While Capcom passed on officially releasing Street Fighter IV here Konami and Harmonix seem optimistic with their Guitar Hero arcade game. Oh, and PM Studios is pushing DJ Max Technika in the US. How do you think these machines will do in the US?


Good, I hope. I’d love a rebirth of arcades in America. We are seeing a rebirth of sorts in America — or at least renewed interest. There are pockets of arcade gaming, like UFO Arcade in Austin or Ground Kontrol in Portland. Whether or not arcade gaming will return to the mainstream like in the past remains to be seen. 


Where do you see arcades in the future? Are they going to be virtual spaces like PlayStation Home?


No, virtual spaces cannot capture what make arcades special. You need to be in the same room with other players. I’d say that in the West, that (fingers crossed) we’ll see more revival specialty arcades. As more and more gamers lament the decline of arcades in the West, there is a need, not a vacuum, but a need for their presence. So I’d say I see them more like revival cinemas that play mostly old movies, foreign and independent films.


Japanese arcades will evolve, like they always do. But into what? Can’t wait to find out. 


Images courtesy of Cave / Kodansha International.

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