Culture

Game not over: Japan's amusement arcades tap community spirit to stay relevant

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

“Kana,” to call him by the nom de guerre he uses when he is competing in arcade game tournaments, is so good at The King of Fighters ’97 that he can beat most other players one-handed.

Even with that self-imposed handicap, the 37-year-old clothing company employee has made it through to the final of a competition being held on a rainy Monday night at Mikado, an amusement arcade about a minute’s walk from Takadanobaba Station on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line.

Kana’s mastery of the character Benimaru is just too much for the other players to handle, but his final opponent is made of sterner stuff. A shock defeat in the opening round prompts Kana to ditch the showboating and start using both hands, and the effect is immediate as he fights his way back into the match before sealing the title with a low spinning kick.

Arcade fire: Contestants play games in a tournament at the Mikado amusement arcade in Tokyo's Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Arcade fire: Contestants play games in a tournament at the Mikado amusement arcade in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The watching crowd — exclusively men, mostly in their 30s and 40s, with a smattering of office suits in among the scruffy casualwear — cheers as Kana struts over to the other side of the game cabinet to shake hands with his vanquished opponent. The heavy cloud of cigarette smoke that hangs over the machines briefly wafts upward amid the flurry of noise and movement before lazily settling back down again.

“If you’re not in the mood for a battle, don’t come to the arcade,” says Kana. “If you want to practice, stay at home. When you want to compete against other people, that’s when you come to the arcade.”

Despite its tatty decor, gloomy lighting and overflowing ashtrays, Mikado is a world-famous venue. Since opening in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district in 2006 and relocating to Takadanobaba two years later, it has built up a global following and is now seen as something of a mecca for arcade enthusiasts. A second branch opened near Ikebukuro Station in October last year.

Mikado’s tournaments, which are held every day, are largely centered around the arcade’s vast collection of classic one-on-one fighting games, including titles such as Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown. The action is streamed live over the internet, and has lured gamers from all over the world to Tokyo just to compete.

Mikado is, however, part of a dying breed. There were 51,520 arcades in Japan in 1995, but that number had dwindled to 13,013 by 2017, according to figures provided by the Japan Amusement Industry Association (JAIA).

The number of actual game machines at Japanese arcades has fallen over the same period, but not by the same proportion — 831,369 in 1995 to around 435,000 in 2017. That means a greater concentration of machines in fewer, bigger establishments, with small independent arcades falling by the wayside.

“There used to be a lot of arcades, some good, some bad,” says JAIA Executive Director Ken Shibata. “Then more and more started closing, and now the number has fallen to about a quarter of what it was about 25 years ago. There are a lot of different options now when it comes to spending your leisure time.”

Classic titles

Arcades occupy a special place in the history of Japanese popular culture.

From humble postwar beginnings as bowling alleys and amusement areas on top of department store roofs, arcade culture exploded in 1978 with the release of Space Invaders. The iconic title gave the Japanese public its first real taste of video games and sparked a nationwide craze, with dedicated “Invader house” establishments popping up all over the country. One urban legend even claims that the game’s popularity triggered a national shortage of ¥100 coins.

Mikado owner Minoru Ikeda sits in his office at the amusement arcade in Tokyo's Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Mikado owner Minoru Ikeda sits in his office at the amusement arcade in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Arcades in Japan thrived throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, when shooting games such as Defender and Galaxian, then fighting games like the epochal Street Fighter II, captivated the nation’s youth and horrified worried parents.

Arcades had acquired a reputation for being dingy, intimidating places where gangs of delinquents would hang around getting up to no good. For many young people, however, they were places of exotic wonder.

“I was lucky enough to grow up as games themselves were growing up,” says Mikado’s 45-year-old owner, Minoru Ikeda, who first became hooked on arcade games when he played the 1983 classic Xevious.

“Every time I went to an arcade, there would be a new game,” he says. “Just going there was fun. I was only a kid so I didn’t really have the money to play games so much, but a lot of the customers were adults and they used to treat me to game credits. I have lots of great memories of arcades from when I was a kid.”

Things started to change when a slump hit the arcade industry around the mid-1990s. Home game consoles began to overtake arcade machines in their ability to produce superior titles with cutting-edge graphics, and arcade game manufacturers and operators were forced to diversify in order to survive.

Arcades in Japan became more family-friendly places that relied less on traditional video games and more on other forms of entertainment, such as photo booths that produced digitally touched-up stickers, crane games where players tried to pick up real prizes with a mechanical grabber, and rhythm-based games that required players to dance, drum or play guitar.

Hitoshi Hagiwara, president and chief executive officer of Bandai Namco Amusement Inc., believes the image of arcades as simply places to sit down and play video games has been outdated for some time. | ANDREW MCKIRDY
Hitoshi Hagiwara, president and chief executive officer of Bandai Namco Amusement Inc., believes the image of arcades as simply places to sit down and play video games has been outdated for some time. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

According to Hitoshi Hagiwara, president and chief executive officer of industry heavyweight Bandai Namco Amusement Inc., the image of arcades as simply places to sit down and play video games has been outdated for quite some time.

“If you don’t give customers a variety of things to do, they will look at it as just a run-of-the-mill arcade,” he says. “If there’s nothing new, there will be nothing to fire their imagination.

“We don’t want to give them just one standard thing,” he says. “We want to make all different kinds of things and try them out to see what people think of them. We’re always watching to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Bandai Namco, which produced classic arcade titles such as Pac-Man, Galaxian and Tekken, operates more than 250 “entertainment facilities” around Japan. These offer a dazzling range of activities, from indoor adventure playgrounds and theme parks to virtual reality activities and trampoline areas.

With their family-oriented focus and bright, welcoming facades, Bandai Namco’s establishments are about as far away from the traditional image of arcades — which first seduced Mikado owner Ikeda — as it is possible to get.

“Arcade machines in the 1980s made a lot of money,” Hagiwara says. “As long as you had the space, the machines and electricity, you could make money. It was similar to operating vending machines. You just needed to plug them in and leave them.

“Because of that, a lot of arcades didn’t have staff or were dark with lots of shadowy corners. Incidents happened. Now there has been a big shift toward making arcades safe, wholesome places. They’re much lighter and cleaner, and they always have staff keeping an eye out. It’s a big change.”

Bandai Namco amusement arcades offer family-oriented facilities with bright, welcoming facades. | © BANDAI NAMCO AMUSEMENT INC.
Bandai Namco amusement arcades offer family-oriented facilities with bright, welcoming facades. | © BANDAI NAMCO AMUSEMENT INC.

While Bandai Namco has taken the path of gentrification, Mikado has gone in the opposite direction.

Decades-old games in their original, battered and stained cabinets line the grubby walls of the two-story building, smoke fills the air and the lighting is as low-key as any self-respecting jazz bar. In short: retro arcade culture in all its grungy glory.

Ikeda’s decision to stock his establishment with classic titles, however, was born more out of economic necessity than any reverence for the past. At the time, retro games were still considered unfashionable and Ikeda was able to pick them up for a price within his limited budget. Now, the same machines would cost substantially more.

Ikeda knew he would have to do more than just plug them in to make Mikado a success, though, and he struck upon the idea of organizing regular tournaments and harnessing the power of the internet and social media to publicize them. The arcade gradually built up a regular following, with players coming from all over Japan and beyond just to compete.

“I live in Kobe, and I always come here and enter tournaments if there’s one on when I’m in Tokyo,” says one entrant to the King of Fighters ’97 tournament, who goes by the gamer handle “Heni Yamazaki.”

“This place is famous all around the country,” he says. “It’s known as the No. 1 place to play in competitions. We have tournaments like this in Kobe but on a smaller scale. I first started playing games when Street Fighter came out in about 1991 or 1992. I’ve been playing King of the Fighters ever since I was a schoolboy, and now I can make friends with other people who play it and enjoy playing with them.”

That community spirit is an essential part of Mikado’s appeal. The competitions are noisy and boisterous, with an emcee providing commentary over a microphone and plenty of good-natured verbal sparring between the competitors.

“You can only experience the pleasure of competing against other real people and winning and losing at an arcade,” says Ikeda. “Going to a concert and listening to a CD at home are two completely different things, even if the song is the same. It’s the same principle with arcades.

“You don’t need to spend money getting on a train and going all the way to an arcade if you just want to play a game, but you do if you want to play with friends. Whether it’s playing in a tournament, seeing what new games there are, being praised in person for something you’ve done or telling something to someone else — you need other people for these things.”

An emcee holds up a bracket for a tournament at the Mikado amusement arcade in Tokyo's Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
An emcee holds up a bracket for a tournament at the Mikado amusement arcade in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Human connections

Arcades provide a home away from home for a wider range of people than just the middle-age fighting game fans at Mikado. JAIA Executive Director Shibata says weekday mornings at arcades around the country are popular meeting places for older people, who used to socialize at osteopathic clinics but now spend their time playing medal games and chatting.

Children who feel they do not fit in at school may also find a sense of belonging at arcades. In the past, schools would ask arcade operators to chase them away, but Shibata says there has been a change of thinking in recent years.

“If you throw kids out of the arcade, they’re more likely to withdraw from society,” he says. “Educators are worried about kids who play smartphone games alone at home all the time. They’re worried that if arcades throw them out, they’ll just hole up in their rooms and play smartphone games on their own. Kids have the chance to meet people at arcades and educators want them to have those human connections.”

Children under 16 used to be forbidden by law from staying at arcades past 6 p.m., but a new regulation that came into force in June 2016 now allows them to stay until 10 p.m. as long as they’re accompanied by an adult.

JAIA organizes courses in Tokyo and Osaka instructing arcade operators how to give guidance to children, including how to deal with those who are playing truant, smoking or causing a disturbance.

“Arcades used to be known as places where delinquents hung out,” says Shibata. “Now school principals and education board members want arcades to look out for kids and make sure they’re alright. The regard in which arcades are held has changed a lot over the past 20 years.”

But what about the next 20 years? Given the large number of arcades in Japan that have gone out of business over the past two decades, will any still be around in the future?

Hagiwara thinks arcades will need to continue to innovate in order to keep customers interested, but he believes that “people will always have a need to play, and that will never go away.”

An emcee commentates on proceedings during a tournament at the Mikado amusement arcade in Tokyo's Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
An emcee commentates on proceedings during a tournament at the Mikado amusement arcade in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district earlier this year. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Shibata thinks arcades could benefit from tighter restrictions on pachinko, the popular ball-bearing-based game in which players can win prizes they can then exchange for cash. A new regulation came into force last year reducing the maximum payout allowed by the machines, and Shibata believes disillusioned players may turn their attention to different games instead.

Ikeda, meanwhile, is aware that Mikado cannot survive forever in its current incarnation. All the games in his arcade are originals, with some dating back to the 1980s. Keeping the machines in working order presents a constant challenge.

Some contain components that are no longer available, meaning Ikeda and his colleagues have to buy them from overseas auction sites or even make their own using 3D printers. An information-sharing network among the arcade community provides enough know-how to solve most problems, but Ikeda admits there is a limit to how long the monitors and circuit boards can last.

He is not tempted, however, to go down the same route as many modern arcades and replace his classic machines with prize games or any other form of entertainment. For Ikeda, the magic of arcade games is just as strong now as it was when he first dropped a coin in a Xevious machine at the age of 9.

“You don’t need to spend much money at an arcade, and you can share in people’s enjoyment there,” he says as he sits amid the detritus of cardboard boxes and machine components in his chaotic office.

“I think that’s the beauty of arcades,” he says. “If you were to spend ¥6,000 on a home console game and you didn’t like it, that would be expensive. But in an arcade, if you see a game that you think looks interesting, it only costs ¥100 to find out.”