Are 90s videogames a place?
Shinjuku, dead-centre Tokyo, Guinness World Record holder: World’s Busiest Station. Politest chaos on Earth. Two worlds: west of the station, pristine business blocks stretching up and comparing sizes; east, cramped alleys of bars and karaoke selling themselves to the night.
You’re neither a workaholic nor a party addict; you grew up with a Master System. Yours is the lost space in between east and west, secretly visited by both the school-skipping punks and the straight-suited finks.
In those deep and narrow streets lit by shopsigns and vending machines, is a temple. The gate is illuminated in square white panels with big blue letters: S-E-G-A. It’s the Master System box in the top of your childhood wardrobe. It looks you in your tired adult eyes with the realness of a Disneyland Mickey on a smoke break. It invites you inside.
Are 90s videogames a place? This is Club Sega.
Inside Club Sega
Heartbreak: It’s just UFO catchers. Around and around and there’s nothing but another door outside. Not much of a Sega club – where are the games?
The thing about shops in Tokyo is that they just grow in. They’ll have whatever space is going, whether it’s the shape for shops or not. Where each ends or starts is indeterminate. So don’t give up: Club Sega doesn’t stop at the doors.
I can still detect that Master System odour
We’re apparently outside again. We’re in a corridor, but it’s open to the street. There are stairs up – aha! A whole floor of games: a row of Pokken‘s with their console controllers tied on, trading card games, free-to-plays, etc., etc. Fun, I suppose, but a bit glossy and modern. There must be more – I can still detect that Master System odour.
There is more: Club Sega has a basement. Final Fantasy posters lead right down the steps like breadcrumbs. Huge red letters slide top to bottom: “VIDEO GAME”. How did we miss it?
Look again. Ignore the entrance doors. Ignore the gashapons. Ignore that weird outside corridor. The basement steps just go right down from the street, where they’re labelled with photos of lunch sets from the restaurant next door. Welcome to Tokyo’s overlapping shops – and welcome to Club Sega’s basement “Battle Arena”. Are 90s videogames a place? Push the door.
Presumably, you did not bring your dignity to the “Battle Arena”
On a dark back wall are rows of terminals, lit in green, with half-hearted dividing walls between them, like urinals. Men squeeze into the line, close but facing strictly forward, hands on joysticks. Above each receptacle of attention, a robot face leans out and frowns down at its patron and his piddling existence. Presumably, you did not bring your dignity to the “Battle Arena”, but if you did, time now to fold it neatly into the plastic basket provided for your valuables. Border Break Scramble knows no shame. Hidden between the splashguards though each guilty pleasure may be, the next praying player sees yours clearly in his own.
Border Break Scramble: It’s All About Nude
The story, seemingly portrayed only through Border Break advertising materials, goes like this: It’s AD 2037 and Earth has run out of resources. In immediate contradiction to that point, an organisation called GRF builds a colossal, orbiting research facility that sends a multitude of unmanned reconnaissance vessels on a decades-long search for new resources. When they find a mysterioius, green-glowing new substance, the copywriters bizarrely call it “nude”.
Before long, competing mega-corporations send their giant mining robots into the nude mines, where they fight “in the nude” as it were. The various iterations of the game over the last 7 years have introduced such evocative terminology as nude drives, nude pollution, nude vents, nude tolerance, nude sniper rifles, a nude scramble and, no doubt very importantly, nude blow-outs.
This is all the stuff of dreams. Old dreams, from the nineties, grown out of now, surely. Giant humanoid space robots, faked-up solitary cubicles in the world’s biggest crowds, impossible tits on hand-drawn girls, escape, sadness, death, and life. Please return your spilling ashtray to the pile. Please take a fresh one and stay longer. Last game’s at midnight. Reality will be swept under the dark by then.
The game is actually fantastic
Dig into this sweaty locker room of mingled fantasies and the game you find is actually fantastic. Fast, fun, complex but accessible, and a bottomless pit of otaku-feeding detail. Your role in the world is familiar, your interface with it a delight. It’s team deathmatch, basically, with something of the feel of Xbox Live Halo 2. 1
The control scheme is perfection. Joystick, yes, but also a mouse! The mouse is on a short leash, its tail disappearing into a wrist-rest lump, but it lends a fluidity and precision that nothing but a mouse can manage. Your left hand does movement on the joystick, and the commands for jetpack, running, jumping, switching weapons, regenerating shields, and more soon stack up. The tutorial carries you at an idiot-proof pace and by the time you finish your first match you’ll have got close to 20 minutes from your ¥100.
But there’s more. Layers and layers of interest wrap endlessly around this solid deathmatch core. This is where yet another input device comes in: a touch screen. You will fly through menus of menus and options under options nested deeper than sanity’s patience. What for? Upgrades.
It’s “free-to-play” except it’s not even free to play
The mouse came from the PC, but this is from your phone: You buy upgrades with points and you earn points by playing – but hey, if you really want that new colour of armour, why not buy a few points to get there quicker? And of course the payment system is right there – a coin slot on the machine – because you’ve already paid to play the game in the first place. It’s “free-to-play” except it’s not even free to play! Ka. Ching. Actually, no, the right sound here is the smashing roar of a fruit machine payout, except the torrents are flowing out from the players’ joysticks, splashing gold at the feet of Sega’s approving robots.
Just how extensive is the catalogue of available upgrades? Well, it is literally in a catalogue, and that catalogue is in multiple, heavy volumes. I leafed through one of the glossy tomes in the Taito HEY reference library. It was almost entirely full of hairstyles.
Be warned: we have a rabbit hole here that’s been digging since 2009 and is still going. 2016 saw version 5: Border Break X. ¥14 billion2 collected to date and I’ve never seen an empty row.
There must be a hundreds-of-thousands-strong community of loners seeing if they can drag out the dream of bouncing robots and weaponised boobs until they die. Waiting and waiting for the end to come, pissing their lives away.
Last game at midnight.
See you tomorrow.