This article was commissioned by Nintendo Life and became one of the most shared features on the site.
It is excerpted here with permission.
Text and photography by Arcade Tokyo.
“I know Tokyo arcades are dying out, but are they easy to find?” I was asked this question recently by an author researching a Street Fighter book. Dying out?! Maybe – but there’s a long way to go.
That’s not just some generic arcade icon – Space Invaders is Taito’s game
Stand with me outside the Shinjuku Minami-guchi branch of the Taito Station arcade, next to the world’s busiest train terminal. It borders one of Tokyo’s seedier districts but, by British standards, the street is clean and the teeming crowds polite. The streetlights shine a soft green that suits the sultry night air. An enormous Space Invader hangs over “GAME” in huge letters. That’s not just some generic arcade icon – Space Invaders was Taito’s game back in 1978. Tokyo is still lit by the afterglow of the 1980s boom and the arcades have been part of it since that peak.
But is real gaming dead in Tokyo? Is it all crane games and Print Club? Hardly: there’s rhythm action, tate shmups, fighters from different decades sitting side by side, trading card games, insanely elaborate coin-pusher machines, intricate online mech battlers, machines you climb into, machines with console controllers hanging off the front, horse betting games you play in a reclining easy chair, traditional genre pieces and wacky bids to be the Next Big Thing.
This is Tokyo. Let me be your guide.
This is Tokyo – not anime-and-manga Tokyo, not temple-and-shrine or skyscraper-and-shopping Tokyo, but arcade Tokyo. Let me be your guide.
The ground floor of Taito Station is open to the street so that passers-by might drop in and drop some coins (or tap their e-money cards used on public transport). For that reason, you will see neither battered retro cabinets nor the latest otaku craze. Here you will find casual games – accessible, appealing, and sociable.
The only actual games on this level are date-friendly affairs
Invariably, UFO catchers (“yoofo catchers” – crane games) will be front and centre, with schoolkid lovebirds trying to grab each other prizes ranging from the predictable (soft toys) to the thoroughly bizarre (plastic models of spoons full of food).
The only actual video games on the entrance level are date-friendly affairs like the Let’s Go series of two-seater benches in dark booths behind curtains. These are often pleasingly retro or sport an interesting gimmick like glasses-free 3D (Let’s Go Island) or vacuum cleaner controllers (Luigi’s Mansion).
There are no hardcore players on ground level – except maybe on Taiko Drum Master. (They’re the ones who brought their own drumsticks.) But the most important thing on the ground floor is the lift. Let’s go up and find some proper games.
Teleport: to Ueno, a youthful district in the north-east of Tokyo. We’re in Sam’s Town, a game centre in the non-Sega-non-Taito minority. It’s dingy, smoky, and cacophonous. Now we’re getting real: if you’re on the first floor then you weren’t just passing by; you’ve come in on purpose, probably to feed some sort of unseemly addiction. Sure enough, this floor’s for medal games.
The most sophisticated games are virtual horse betting – luxurious, but it’s Loserville
For a medal game 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 for cash, but can’t be cashed in. They’re just medals. Pointless, futile medals. The most sophisticated set-ups are for virtual horse betting, featuring banks of individual consoles, reclining seats, and built-in ashtrays and cup holders to help you settle in for the long haul. Pure, private luxury, with a wall-to-wall screen showing the races in which you participate anonymously.
Luxurious, yes, but it’s Loserville – at the sad, daylightless end of the floor, dotted with suited salarymen who either don’t have anywhere better to go, or do. Let’s move on.