Japan seems to be one of the few countries where the arcade hall has yet to die. Quite the opposite, it feels quite bustling. In Tokyo, you are sure to find an arcade in almost any large city centre. One of the reasons why arcades have survived so well, compared to other countries, has a lot to do with its socio-economical context.In Japan people are living close together, the walls are thin, so going to an arcade to play video games where you don’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours, makes sense. Same reason as to why Japan has so many love hotels (where couples go to be intimate…).
Most Japanese arcades also have something for everyone, which gives it a broad appeal. There are the family-friendly sections on the lower floors and as you get higher up the games get more and more niched and for more aimed at hard-core gamers.

History of the Japanese arcade

History of the Japanese arcade, where did it begin? The modern arcade has its roots in the roof-top amusements parks. In the ’50’s and ’60s there were plenty of these places, commonly found on-top of big department stores. Where some of them still can be found today.

There were Ferris wheels, small train track rides, swings and other things to have fun with. During this time we also see some of the big names in gaming get established. Namco, who then was still called Nakamura Manufacturing, were building simple rides for these rooftop gardens.

The rooftops amusement parks also saw the first shape of what we now can recognize as arcade stands. These were the analogue first version of the later digital arcade games. Games were you physically interacted with objects that were in front of you, like a driving game where you had to with a steering wheel move a car left and right to keep it on the track that was rolling in the background.

In the ’50s Taito was an import-export company that, among other things exported pinball games to the USA. Taito saw that the pinball games were doing well in America and thought it would be a good idea to try these games on the Japanese market, this was a success. Taito started to create games on their own, which would have a significant impact on video games as well as arcades in the future. Taito that created Space Invaders in 1978.

This game became so popular that, if the legend is to be believed, it created a shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan (this myth doesn’t really make any sense, but anyway). This craze sparked “invader house” (JA: インベーダーハウス), places where you could only play Space invaders since that’s what everyone wanted to play.

The developer, Taito, sold more than 100 000 machines in Japan by the end of 1978. After space invaders, there were a string of followers, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Donkey-Kong and many more. This was the era of classic arcades, by 1981 it was an 8 billion dollar industry. There was a decline in the video game marke during the ’80s, primarily in North America, Japan, however, made it through in better shape.

In the ’80s there was a lot of games that built upon Space Invaders, and it’s essential premise, and the genre shooting games or “shoot em ups” (shmups) was created. The rules from Space Invaders remain the same, shoot the enemy, don’t get shot by the enemy. The shooting game genre peaked in the late 80’s early 90’s but never died. There are still a lot of gamers in Japan who love these types of games. Lots of arcades keep many of these games available for its patrons.

The next big step in arcade gaming was brought on by Street Fighter 2, the fighting game. The game introduced several playable characters and the ability to play against other players. Where shooting games only allowed you to play the game itself and you improve by trying to best your own high score, fighting games now allowed you to try to beat the person next to you.

After these, many variations of games started to show up, the first real 3D games appeared, racing games, dance and rhythm games.

Different types of arcade

One could categorize the different kinds of arcades into three:

  • The hardcore arcade hall
    • Where you have the really intense side-scrollers, shoot-em up’s and fighting games. As a regular tourist who just wants to experience a Japanese arcade, it could perhaps be intimidating and not that easy to find. At these places, there is the option to pay by the hour to play.
  • The family-friendly version arcade
    • The vast majority of arcades fall into this category. Here you find the big names, Taito, Sega, Namco, and others. These can be located in all major cities and the countryside a well. In the cities, these arcades usually span several floors. (Below is a break-down of the different floors).
  • The big attraction-site
    • Then there is the sort-of arcade, that is more than just an Arcade. One of the bigger ones in Tokyo is Joypolis, on Odaiba. This place has the traditional arcades, driving games, and shooting games, but it also has a lot of virtual rides, you know the ones with the big screen and the moving seats.

Having that said, one can find arcades in many different places, and they all look different. When you are in the big cities they span multiple floors, if you find them in the countryside they will in bigger one-story houses, it really depends on where you are. Like the photo below where I found an arcade in a garage, somewhere in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

The different levels/floors of the arcades

There are various ways of categorizing the games in the arcade. If you take a typical arcade from one of the more prominent arcade brands, in a big Japanese city, you can divide the games depending on which floor in the arcade you find them in.

The rule of thumb here is that the lower levels are generally lighter and easier, and the higher you get, it gets more involved and convoluted for the uninitiated. The lower floors are there to pull in crowds with easy to access games. You then move up the floors to get to the heart of the arcade and the really niched games you need some time to break into.

One could also divide the different games into categories, some of which are quite unique to Japan. Let’s do a combination of both. If we were to start at the bottom floor of a typical arcade and the work our way up, let’s see what kind of games we encounter.

  • The lower or bottom floors, crowd pleasers:
    • UFO catchers – uses a claw mechanism, a couple of different variations are available, but the end goal is to pick up a prize inside a big glass box with a big claw. DSC03226
    • PuriKura – not really an arcade game at all, it’s actually sort of a photo box where you can take pictures with your friends and with a computer in the booth change the images and add decorations. The machine will then print the photos as stickers. The term comes from the English word “print club” that is translated (プリント倶楽部) and is shortened to purikura. These types of machines are often found on the ground floor of the different arcades, together with the ufo catchers, very popular with high school girls.
  • The next couple of floors:
    • Rythm and music games – there is usually quite a significant section of these kinds of games. This is the type of game where you have to time music rhythm or notes to a physical movement. There are drum-games, guitar-games, piano-games, DJ-games, and even more abstract rhythm games.
    • Shooting games – not the old school side-scrolling kind, but the kind where you hold a plastic gun of some sort and try to stop hordes of zombies coming at you.
    • Simulation games – In this category, you could lump together a bunch of games. Here you find you driving games and bike games. But you can also see more immersive games, where you step into a pod, screens all around you and gain control over your own Gundam.
  • Top floors:
    • The old-school arcades, side-scrolling shooters, and fighter games – If you are into classic arcade games, this is the place for you. Even if you are not a hard-core gamer, it’s interesting to have a look at the people gaming.
    • Medal games, coin pushers – This is the sort of game where you have to roll coins or tokens in the right position to get things pushed over so they fall into the chute for you to pick up.
    • Virtual betting – This is a bit difficult to understand, at least for me. This is virtual horse race betting. People are sitting in chairs, all facing towards the same screen and bet on which virtual horse will win. To each his own I guess.
    • Strategy games – something that has become hugely popular is strategy games. Here you have a physical element in shape of a set of cards that makes up your army, these cards are the read through RFID on an individual screen/tablet that you have in front of you.

Where can I go to experience this, any recommendations?

There are a number of big chains, Taito, Sega, Adores to name a few that you can rely on. There are also a bunch of independently run arcades.

Use this link to get to a map with multiple arcades around the big hubs in Tokyo.


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