Video Game Cuisine in Tokyo Is Seasoned with Tech Nostalgia
The author in Tokyo. All photos by the author.

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Video Game Cuisine in Tokyo Is Seasoned with Tech Nostalgia

Fun, sophisticated, and outright stupid, Tokyo's video game-themed cuisine is based on nostalgia fused with pop culture and food.

I'm staring at a giant meatball wrapped in bacon with a rib bone sticking out at a weird angle. Which rodent is this? I think to myself before the waiter comes to my rescue:

"It's manga-niku. With a laser-cut seaweed cat based on the character Felyne."

Manga-niku—manga meat—is a dish based on the food in the Playstation mega-hit Monster Hunter. This is the art of pixelated fantasy food, dreamed up by game designers and cartoonists, then drawn back into "meat space" by gamer chefs. I grab the rib-ball and take a bite. Finally, I get to eat meatballs with my hands.

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As I forage Tokyo for culinary tech stories for my MUNCHIES show Food Hacking, the subculture of video game cuisine has blown my mind. Fun, sophisticated, and outright stupid, the scene is based on game nostalgia fused with pop culture and food. It's given me some of the most profound eating experiences in Japan.

manga-niku

"Manga meat" based on the food in the Playstation mega hit Monster Hunter. All photos by the author.

When McDonald's Japan partnered with Pokemon GO and turned every McDonald's in the country into a Pokéstop or Gym, they set a precedent for the level of havoc a game and a restaurant can raise. The monster-catching, burger-munching frenzy had McDonald's Japan's shares climb 20 percent. It makes me wonder whether a future game-food scene would be about playful, nostalgic dishes or about dystopian corporate fusions.

I finally find the glass door to Capcom Bar, arguably the most famous of Tokyo's many video game-themed restaurants. With multi-million-dollar franchises like Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and Mega Man in Capcom's back catalogue, the place is packed with figurines, all-you-can play flatscreens, and gamer cocktails. I take a seat in a black pleather booth, next to a terrarium full of iridescent dragons. Part of me feels like it's the 1980s and part of me feels this is so now.

I start off with a drink from the hack-and-slash game Devil May Cry, a strawberry vodka with ice cubes shaped as the hero's semi-automatic pistols. It looks better than it tastes.

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The "Devil May Cry"-themed cocktail at Capcom Bar.

We settle for a plate of the brutal samurai Keiji Maeda's octopus carpaccio from the beat-em-up game Devil Kings. It comes with fluorescent pink seaweed, purple orchid petals, and pink-dyed salmon roe. Maybe it's the artificial-looking algaes or the futuristic roe with the perfect chewy octopus—it just tastes exquisite. When the waiters come to serve the Streetfighter cocktail, they reenact a fighting scene, complete with screaming sound effects and hadoken-fireball shooting. This really takes me back in time.

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For dessert we order the Brain Cake—much hyped in internet lore—based on the Licker Monster in Resident Evil. In the game, the Licker is a slimy, mutated monster freak with its brain on the outside. He kills you all the time. The restaurant's version, however, is a sweet sponge cake shaped as a brain, flooded with raspberry blood. It comes with a tiny samurai sword, and I have to admit I haven't had so much fun slicing anything in a long while. This has to be the goriest dish the zombie franchise has put out since they hired Sharon Baker to carve out that brilliant meat sculpture of herself to promote Resident Evil 6.

It's not just Capcom's dessert menu that's aggressive. With Pokemon GO's totalitarian aggregation of your camera and geolocation, who knows what sensitive data future fast food chains will end up with? We may be debating how Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix use our data but what will happen when food producers get access to it? How will McDonald's use my Gmail inbox when Pokemon Go shares it with them? Will a future Minecraft share my medical records with Monsanto?

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Gundam-themed pasta.

When Takahashi Meijin managed to hit a button 16 times per second in the game Star Soldier in 1985, he became the undisputed face of gaming in Japan. Working for Hudson Soft he became a franchise of his own as a game character, anime figure and—in a universe where Japan played more games than anywhere else in the galaxy—generally the most famous gamer in the world. He was the man with the world's fastest trigger finger.

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I hop on the Yamanote subway line to Akihabara, Tokyo's geek heaven. Hidden away in the outskirts, A-button is one of the smaller indie game bars, where thriving gamer subculture melts into Tokyo's barlife. Game developers, industry people, and devoted gamers meet up here for 8-bit nostalgia and a glass of sweet potato shochu in a jungle of tech memorabilia. I'm here to try Takahashi Meijin's remix of the classic tamagokake gohan recipe, a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine to some and not even a dish to others.

"His secret is this aged, microbrewed soy sauce," says the bartender. I put a vintage deck of hanafuda playing cards, based on Nintendo's first game, back on the counter. Withering joysticks, retro game consoles, and vintage cords climb the walls around the bar. "When we asked Takahashi Meijin to come up with a dish for our menu, he chose this simple egg-on-rice tamagokake gohan. But he specifically chose a high-end, complex soy sauce." He cracks a raw egg in my bowl and ceremoniously whips it up before he pours it over my steaming rice.

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A brain cake themed around Resident Evil.

"This is Izumo Murasaki's twice-brewed soy sauce, from the sacred mountains of Shimame," says the owner of the bar. He gently pours a few drops over my coagulating egg and points at a faded photo of himself and the bald Takahashi Meijin, next to a dusty Pikachu figurine on the wall. As I take a bite of the egg and rice the YouTube clip of the 1986 film Game King plays back in my head.

It's a Japanese spoof of a Rocky movie. The defending champion Takahashi Meijin is furiously training for the arcade heavyweight title match. He stops a speeding motorcycle with his index finger. He crushes a watermelon with his trigger finger. The clip nails so many of my childhood joys, it puts a dumb smile on my face. And come to think of it, I can't believe how amazing this classic working man's dish tastes, perfectly balanced with that fermented punch of the twice-brewed soy.

Who knows what the future holds for video game cuisine? Will fast food chains use games to geo-track obese kids to promote Happy Molecular Meals packaged in cardboard VR-headsets?

Or will some vegan Pac-Man force global agribusiness to farm ecologically resilient produce? Regardless, if game cuisine ends up as organic fan cuisine or corporate marketing schemes, it's a peek into what your kids will be eating. Whether you like brain cake or not.

There are more great places to eat video game cuisine in Tokyo—don't miss the "Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom-tomato salad" at the legendary 8 Bit Café. Just stay away from the White Curry at Gundam Café.