Videogame Tourism in Singapore

Videogame Tourism in Singapore

I had a little free time in Singapore recently and went looking for gaming. I’ve already recounted the jetlagged serenity of my real escape adventure, but once I’d adjusted to local time I went in search of videogames proper.

Where does this future city suggest gaming is going? From what I could tell in one long afternoon, games are a dynamic and sociable scene out there. However, there seems to be a sort of transition going on, and I wonder if it’s a glimpse of a future that could thrive in other cities too.

(If you’re going to Singapore, I’ve collected all the links at the bottom of this post.)



First on my list was to see if games arcades were still hanging on like they are in Japan. Short answer: a slightly hesitant yes. My evidence for this was Virtualand, in the basement of the Bugis Junction mall.

Virtualand was a big arcade with loads of machines fitted in tightly together. It wasn’t huge by Japanese standards, but it was absolutely the same kind of thing you might find in Tokyo.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were lots of Japanese machines in there, but what did surprise me was how Japanese they were. Things like Jubeat, for instance — abstract and demanding rhythm action — are very much a part of Japanese gaming. However, the fact that they were configured in English or Chinese suggested these machines were at least being actively sold to overseas markets.

Jubeat .  maimai  in the background there, too.

Jubeatmaimai in the background there, too.

In contrast, one cabinet required physical game cards to be placed on the play area to be detected by a camera. The machine was in Japanese, which I suppose was its only setting, so this particular cab was going to be played by Japanese speakers, presumably with imported cards. I don’t believe there’s a terribly big Japanese population in Singapore, but maybe it’s enough to justify such specialist cabinets — or maybe there are enough Japanese-speaking nerds to sustain them. I don’t know.

On more familiar ground, there were really nice selections of racers, fighters, and lightgunners, and a fair few non-standard, novelty, or very new cabs that I hadn’t seen before. The selection was so good that I expect a few bits will be appearing in my Tokyo Game Centre posts. If I don’t get back to Japan to top up my notes and pictures soon then I’ll have to rename the series…

There were also several banks of Sega City cabs holding up the simpler end of things and leaning cooly towards retro.

OK, who am I kidding about leaning cooly? This has fallen through the bar of retro. Five Sega Versus City cabs (back-to-back monitors with players on opposite sides), all running different 90s editions of Street Fighter. Beautiful.

Versus Cities have 1P control configs and monitors on both sides. The video is duplicated to both screens so any 2P game is compatible.

Versus Cities have 1P control configs and monitors on both sides. The video is duplicated to both screens so any 2P game is compatible.

Credits were inexpensive — something like two for a dollar, so about 25p each — and handled on a smart card topped up at the till. There were no coin slots on any machines. That and the total lack of cigarette smoke made for a slightly detached, sterile experience in a way, but on the other hand I didn’t stink when I came out and I had a cool souvenir smart card.

All in all, Virtualand represented a good sales pitch for Singapore arcades: like a Japanese game centre, but in English and with a fresher scent.

There was something else there, though, that I absolutely haven’t seen in a Japanese game centre. It was roped off in the dark while I was there, but took up about a third of the available space…


LAN gaming

A huge chunk of the Bugis Junction Virtualand was a LAN gaming space. What’s more, I’d stumbled upon two other dedicated PC gaming spaces just while searching the mall for the arcade.

The fist one, Colosseum, was open and full of people — more than the arcade. The guy at the counter told me they were running regular tournaments and doing very good business since opening in 2009.

The next one, Garena Stadium, was closed for Chinese New Year’s Eve, but looked really well set up.

These were clearly the places to be for gamers: new, clean, trendy, sociable. It made the arcade dwellers look like a bunch of dads in ironed jeans playing pinball and cueing jukeboxes.

But if the neat desks and upright seating of the LAN centres are too formal for you, Singapore has more options…


Rent a sofa

Just along from Colosseum in the same mall was St. Games Café. The price list sums up what was going on there:

You pay a very modest fee (SG$3 ≈ £1.50 for 30 minutes) and you sit on a sofa with your friends. If you pay a little more, the sofa’s in a private room. In front of the sofa is a massive, shiny television and all the consoles, and all the space and peripherals needed for Kinect games, Rock Band, etc.

You pay for the time spent and do what you want. It’s like a manga café but less grimy-looking and just games. (So, like a manga café but better? Or is it missing some of the downtrodden charm?)

You may have noticed that all of this stuff so far has been in shopping malls. Seeing it for the first time and only for a few days, downtown Singapore seemed to be about 50% shopping malls. Like in a lot of hot countries, malls in Singapore are places to hang out in free air conditioning. You browse the shops, you grab some snacks or a smoothie — or you play some games.

But a noisy, garish arcade would be a blot on the pristine ambience of the Singapore mall. Open, airy console living rooms and smart PC setups fit right in.


Real escape games

Real escape seems to be a thing in Asia these days. However, from what I’ve read, even a fairly competent Japanese speaker is going to have difficulty real-escaping in Tokyo, since so many of the puzzles are based on language and writing. Singapore’s KSP for the real-escape tourist is that the games are in English.

Like everything else in this post, you can real-escape right there in the shopping malls as an alternative to chicken wings, doughnuts, and window shopping.

Although the game I tried was spectacular, it was a one-off event covering a 250-hectare public garden. On the other hand, this Roomraider place — which I only walked past — has permanent premises and runs a range of games all the time. There are other companies doing the same.


Local perspective

When I noticed a colleague had a Boo sticker on his MacBook, I asked him if he was into gaming and whether there were arcades or game centres in Singapore. He and others nearby chorused an emphatic yes. However, when I suggested we go to one, they started talking about PlayStation 4. Not having seen the likes of St. Games Café yet, I was confused. Anyway, when they tried to take me to an arcade, we discovered it had closed down in the few months since they’d last been.

They explained that arcades were a business very much in decline and that experimental new enterprises had been springing up in their place. PC gaming centres were big and growing; console spaces were where more casual outside gaming was at.

So that’s why my “yes” to the arcade question is a hesitant one. If Singapore is the city of the future, things don’t look too good for game centres. Gaming as a whole is thriving though.


Singapore gaming links

In Bugis Junction mall:

  • Virtualand arcade — in the basement, but there’s another part of the basement that’s not connected to it. Virtualand is the only thing in its bit of B1, so if you’re in a food court then you need to go up and go down again.

In Bugis+ mall, connected internally to Bugis Junction:

In Orchard Central mall, a short trip from the Bugis malls:

And in various changing locations, Real Escape Games Singapore. No longer running Last Garden, but always more upcoming.



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