Tokyo Game Centre #27: Derby Day

Last time, I said I would need to do some research on this one. Two weeks later, though, I  haven’t found much out.

Searching for “Sega Derby Day” returns scrappy results of various Sega machines that have gone under that name. There’s a 1960s pachinko machine, and reference to a coin-op arcade item too, but no pictures confirming whether that’s the right thing.




So why do I need to research this? Why did I photograph it without even playing it?

I snapped it because horse racing is a very distinctive part of Japanese culture. It’s as Japanese as baseball, golf, or apple pie. OK, not apple pie. But horse racing, baseball, and golf are all things that are so un-Japanese that the peculiarities of their Japanese incarnations serve to separate out a bit of what Japanese-ness is. Baseball I dipped into for the Yakyuuban arcade game, and golf I covered in my discussion of F355 Challenge. (Yes, golf was discussed in relation to the Ferrari simulator. I needed to do a site search for that one myself to be honest.) What’s the deal with Japanese horse racing, then?

First thing to note is that horse racing has been the subject matter of Japanese videogames since forever. Apart from Sega’s machines going back to 60s electromechanicals, Nintendo’s first ever videogame release was a 1975 horse racing arcade game, and when they went online with the Famicom Modem in 1988, it’s most popular use was online horse betting.

Second thing to note is that in Japan, horse racing = gambling. Maybe that’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true when the only four things you can legally gamble on are bicycle racing, powerboat racing, speedway motorcycle racing, and horse racing.


So what have we got?

What we have here, then, is a gambling machine. Watching the screens for a while I thought maybe there was some opportunity to invest in horses, determine their training, and so on, but ultimately it’s about gambling. A horse betting machine still may not seem particularly Japanese — when I worked in a bookkeeper’s in the UK, the Virtual Racing machines were all the rage. You feed in some big notes, you pick a horse and the machine shows a fake race to communicate to you the result of a random number generation process completed in the first fraction of a second. It was a way to fill the unbearably long non-betting minutes between the real events running on the shop’s TVs.

Love these chairs.

Love these chairs.

But wait: that’s different. Yes, horse racing’s OK for betting on in Japan, but videogames are not legal gambling fodder, regardless of the subject matter. So how exactly are people betting? Welcome to the world of “medal games”.

Medal games are games where you insert medals in place of coins. You then stand to win more medals, which you can use to play the game some more, until you’ve lost all your medals. The medals are bought by players for cash, but can’t be cashed in at the end. They’re just medals. Pointless, futile, life-sucking medals. The old printed-out sign stuck up in the top-left of the picture explains that this machine is for amusement only, not gambling (and that medals from other game centres can break it, so please don’t use those).


A continuing presence

I wish I could find this thing online so that I could put a date on it, but the fact that the home-made sign’s in English dates it to at least when this holiday resort was seeing international visitors, which can’t have been more recently than 1995.

However, almost any modern game centre still has some version of horse racing like this, with banks of individual consoles, cushioned seats, and built-in ashtrays and cup holders to help you settle in for the long haul. The set-ups are more modern now, and more spacious with bigger screens, but it’s still Loserville — the dark end of a late-night basement dotted with suited men who either don’t have anywhere better to go, or do. And these days, the player consoles don’t face each other like they did in Derby Day. Medal gambling’s a game for private down-and-outs surviving on the weak fumes of hope that linger when they’ve shut away their real lives. Seeing another sad sack across the cabinet’s only going to remind you that you exist, which would be the worst fucking thing that could happen.

Well, like I said, I didn’t play it. Perhaps it’s a lot of fun!

Next time, a look at a cool game centre where a lot of these postcards have been sent from.



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Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people