Hirakata, Osaka | Winter, 2005 | 20 years old

The first thing you notice when walking into a Japanese arcade for the first time is that it isn’t actually an arcade, and that you walked into a Pachinko parlor by mistake.

A lot of people have been wondering, no doubt, when I would actually write about Japanese arcades. Well, now seems as good a time as any, now that I’ve been here for over two months, particularly given that it was one of the cultural phenomena that I promised to write about way back when I started this whole spiel.

Once you actually track one down, which is rather harder to do outside of a major city than finding a Pachinko place would be, you’re immediately assaulted by loud noises of the same caliber as Pachinko, but of a different variety – they’re usually at least somewhat focused and often even serve some sort of purpose outside of simply being there for the sake of loud noises (though I’ve taken to wearing headphones with no music simply to protect my hearing of late), since Japanese arcades aren’t generally too big on setting machines to be muted during the attract mode demos when there’s no money in play.

The arcades here tend to come in two varieties: smaller “game centers” which tend to have a section with UFO Catchers (that’s “crane games” to the Americans, though they often go well beyond the average “grab a small prize with a claw”) and photo booths, and a section with the newest games, usually mostly 2D fighters like Guilty Gear or King of Fighters or shoot-em-ups with some sort of flying craft being piloted for the express purpose of destroying ships which have the express purpose of flying in formation in order to be destroyed. There’s also usually a variety title or two, like Mojipittan, a Scrabble-like game, and often some Mah-Jong games (often softcore pornographic).

Alternately, you have the much, much larger “amusement centers” which often have buildings as tall as ten stories and contain an entire floor of UFO catchers, photo booths, and simple, easily accessible videogames, an entire floor of redemption games where you can win “medals” to exchange for, no doubt, prizes that can be sold off quasi-legally for under-the-table “we’re totally not running a gambling operation” money, an entire floor of more expensive videogames (with sections of music games, racing games, typing games, and other such delightful novelties), and then several floors of bowling, batting cages, billiards, darts, and karaoke. The entire structure strikes the average American as what Dave & Buster’s should be like.

Given the distressing slump (or perhaps “complete destruction”) of the American arcade industry, what, exactly, is keeping Japan’s arcades afloat? Well, there are a few major reasons for it, to be honest.

1. Tradition. Japan tends to have a rather strong fixation on “quick fix” purchases – CD singles actually sell even though they’re priced at a thousand yen (about nine dollars, almost as much as an album in America) for anywhere from one to, if you’re very lucky, six songs, because albums are three times as expensive as singles are. On the other hand, Japan’s arcades are still around, if nothing else, for the same reason the United States still has movie theaters. If they didn’t already exist, it’d be a pretty difficult sell given the general preference for entertainment in the privacy of one’s own home, though Japan’s arcades have the benefits of homes being too small for some of this stuff, very specialized and very cool cabinets (like the futuristic hovercar-racing game F-Zero AX, which has a seat that rotates when you turn your car), and…

2. Competition. At least when it comes to Japan’s ultra-popular fighting games, competition is generally regarded as being as totally essential as constantly smoking. The machines are usually designed to have two monitors and two separate control panels on opposite ends of what looks for all the world like two cabinets placed back-to-back, so you don’t usually see your opponent, but in Japan you go to the arcade for competitive games to see if you’re better, not to make friends (though noncompetitive stuff, like music games, does tend to foster some sense of community). The Japanese aren’t generally too big on visitors, particularly not complete strangers, so the arcades are essentially a kind of arena where players come to see how they stack up against the rest and test their skills and strategies.

3. Image. Generally speaking, arcades in the United States have a sort of “den of sin” image, and whether this is fairly deserved is immaterial, because it’s damaging to the industry as a whole. Similarly, in America there is a very clear-cut demographic of “males under the age of thirty or so.” In Japan the situation couldn’t be any more different: it’s not entirely uncommon for a Japanese salaryman to drop by the arcade by the station on the way home for a quick game of Street Fighter or video Mah-Jong, and far more importantly, girls intentionally go to arcades in Japan, though to be fair most of the time it is for the photo-sticker booths (purikura, from “print club,” which makes just as little sense to English speakers) and games that are intended to be easily approachable. In other words, though Japanese girls do play videogames at the arcade, as there’s no clear stigma nor general assumption of “videogames are for boys only,” they’re almost infinitely more likely to pick Pop’n Music over Beatmania IIDX, or Puyo Puyo over Guilty Gear. Of course, those games are quite popular with both genders, which is why at least Pop’n Music is utterly ubiquitous.

4. Maintenance. Japan’s arcades are almost always in perfect condition, leading to higher customer satisfaction and, in turn, more return visits and, in turn, higher revenues. Indeed, Asian arcades in general are well known among those who concern themselves with such matters for being kept in as good condition as they generally are – a well-maintained American arcade is usually on par with a mediocre Japanese one at best, unfortunately. That brings me to the most important reason why Japan’s arcades are so healthy:

5. Pricing. The going rate to play a videogame in one of Japan’s many arcades is about a hundred yen. Some games, like the more popular simple-cabinet kinds (fighters and shoot-em-ups in particular) can cost as little as fifty yen, but the average is a hundred yen. As I’ve explained before, it’s a lot easier to spend a hundred yen than a dollar simply because it’s just one small coin, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s all that bad. I would gladly start paying more than the going rate of “fifty cents is kind of steep” in America if it meant that my favorite arcade stayed afloat and got new stuff on a regular basis, rather than watching those businesses go under at an alarming rate nowadays.

All in all, it really does seem like a lot of it is just cultural (and I rather imagine that online play at home will erode at least some of the competition base’s need for arcades), but the basic things like “Japanese arcades are maintained much better, as a general whole, than American ones” and “Japanese arcades charge enough to be financially viable without alienating patrons” seem like they deserve at least some consideration in America. I’m going to miss Japan’s arcades more than nearly anything else about this nation, to be perfectly honest, and I can only hope that the United States gets a collective clue before the industry goes completely down the pipes.

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