One Night in the Insane Video Game Arcades of Akihabara

Akiba is Japan's sprawling strip where J-Pop blares constantly, girls dressed as French maids entice you up to 5F to play GameCube games with them, and everyone's lost and found at the same time.

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Jul 13 2015, 3:30pm

Akihabara in a blur. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I can still feel the magic of the Great British Video Game Arcade. During the late 1980s and early 90s, when I was a mere whippersnapper, they were pretty much everywhere. Big, black, blinding ballrooms with bus-seat carpet and a cloud of Rothmans cigarette smoke lingering just underneath the strip lights on the ceiling. It was a constant cacophony of roars, chatter, thumping techno, manic button pressing, coins falling, shoryukens, and naughty words being shouted. Intimidating gangs of lads with Helter Skelter bomber jackets clustering around the beat 'em up du jour, probably Street Fighter II, kept you firmly at the four-stick side-scrolling Simpsons where you belong, at least until you were a few inches taller.

Then there were the games themselves, the best versions of Samurai Showdown, Toki, Rampage, Final Fight, Aliens, and Double Dragon you'd ever play. It was all there to be enjoyed by anyone with a handful of thick ten pence pieces and a fair amount of skill. Time in the arcade always felt precious, the constant threat of an interrupting arm pull from mom or dad during a sweaty game of Metal Slug left our nerves rattled, and our Turtles T-shirts moist with pre-pubescent perspiration.

An increasingly rare sight: classic arcade games in Jamma-style cabinets at Astro City in Southend. Photo via Facebook

At pretty much the exact same time as games like Time Crisis started appearing in the hallowed halls of the British arcades, its commercial future began a downward trajectory from which it would never recover. Gradually, bigger-budget gimmick games like House of the Dead, Prop Cycle, and Daytona USA began to elbow out the Jamma cabinets, and the arrival of Dance Dance Revolution was pretty much the final nail in the coffin. Games for people who didn't like games were coming, and games at home were getting better, too. Once we were spoiled by perfect arcade versions of Virtua Fighter 2 or Tekken 3 in our own living rooms, there was pretty much no reason to brave the smog anymore.

And so, the one in the airport closed down. The one in the newsagent disappeared. The ones on the pier and at Butlin's remain, but now home single Dance Dance Revolution cabinets, a Time Crisis 4, aisles upon aisles of conman claw machines, fruities that never pay out, and those ones where the pennies get pushed over the edge.

There are few things more desperately sad than the demise of the Great British Video Game Arcade. The last of them are clinging on for dear life, or already dead. And it's a privilege to be able to replay memories, however cloudy, of their anarchic heyday.

Mopped up those salty nostalgic tears yet? Good. There's hope out there and I've seen it. Because a few weeks ago, just as Waitrose Britain was re-electing the Tories, I flew off to Japan. A lifelong dream realized. And let me tell you, oh faithfully disillusioned VICE readers, nothing can meaningfully prepare you for the insanity of the video game arcades of Tokyo's Akihabara district.

The dazzling Akihabara via Go! Go! Nihon

When you first see the towering neon inferno of Akiba's main strip, the first you think is: holy shit. Ho. Ly. Shit. It's really crowded, very loud, garishly bright, and immeasurably exciting. Colossal posters featuring imagery and characters from the world of manga, anime, and video games leer at you from the dwarfing skyscrapers, inviting you to explore every single nook and cranny. And when you do, there are floors upon floors upon buildings upon buildings of figurines, posters, DVDs, new video games, old video games, unreleased video games, and porn ranging from the mildly disturbing to the utterly terrifying.

Akiba is a city within a city, a sprawling strip where J-Pop blares constantly, girls dressed as French maids entice you up to 5F to play GameCube games with them, and where everyone's lost and found at the same time. You could spend hours and hours and hours here. It's amazing. It's a place that caters for you, for me, for everyone who got picked last for football at school and for everyone who actively avoids eye contact with other human beings. Introverts, bring lots of money, and make yourselves at home.

Tonight, though, we were here to see the arcades. Pockets bulging with soft packs of Seven Stars cigarettes and 100 yen coins, we escaped the muggy evening air and stepped into Hirose Entertainment Yard, the first stop on our Akiba arcade odyssey.

HEY, like most of the arcades we visited during our time in Tokyo, houses mainly claw machines and gumball dispensers on the ground floor, and upon seeing this you could be forgiven for feeling that dull sense of British familiarity. Ascend the steel escalators, however, and you'll learn that this is so, so far from being the case.

This and further photographs courtesy of the author.

Rows upon rows of SEGA Astro Boys creep into view, each with a smoking, suited, seated, surgical-masked participant. Well-known for its community of hardcore gaming experts, this is where you come to see some of the world's best danmaku players descend into bullet hell. They've forgotten things about Ikaruga you never even knew in the first place. Sat there, steely-gazed, utterly locked in concentration, we hovered awkwardly and in awe as players racked up insane combos and scores on games like DoDonPachi, Mushihimesama, and Battle Garegga. Cave shooters are the order of the day here, and it was overwhelming to see a niche genre attract such a devoted following.

Ascend another flight, and there are beat 'em ups you know, beat 'em ups you love, and beat 'em ups you've never heard of. Salarymen and schoolchildren cluster around entire areas dedicated to fighters like Tekken 7, Street Fighter IV, and Virtua Fighter 5. There are tens and tens of sit-down cabinets for 2D fighters as obscure and diverse as Guilty Gear XX, BlazBlue Continuum Shift, and Persona 4: The Ultimate. Each and every machine is being played to stony-eyed death by somebody, shirt unbuttoned, cigarettes burning away in the ashtrays, an absolute racket rendering normal conversation all but impossible. For the first time in years, decades, I felt the electrifying sense of place offered by the British arcades of old, but this was something else entirely. There were precious few arcades in Blighty I can remember that featured DoDonPachi cabinets, even in the height of their commercial success. We finished up at HEY with a couple of games of our own, and it was time to pop over the road and check out another arcade.

You're looking at one of the flagship branches of Taito Station, a multi-story arcade and one of the most popular in Tokyo. And if we thought HEY was home to the hardcore, Taito Station was about to take it to another level.

Pushing our way past the claw machines and up the stairs, on first impressions it's more of the same. Same noise, same smoke, same thick, obsessive atmosphere. But move a little closer, and you'll see styles and levels of gameplay you've never seen in your entire life.

Scores of younger players were sat up at the Lord of Vermilion cabinets smearing cards all over the tabletop, inexplicably interacting with an impenetrable top-down tactical RPG. My guess is that players collect cards from other retailers, build their decks, and bring them to the arcades for tactical advantages over opponents/the CPU. Fucking amazing, but I had no clue what was going on.

In the corner of the next floor we discovered Kidou Senshi Gundam: Senjou no Kizuna, a mech game that takes place in After Burner-style pods that feature panoramic displays and fully sealable doors. They're all connected via LAN, and players duke it out in unbearably hardcore Titanfall-like battles that require all participants to scribble on a sign-up sheet before play. Yet again, I had no idea how to even imagine beginning the game, but it was undeniably cool nonetheless.

On our way up to the top floor, we lurked behind some players of batshit Time Crisis-but-better shooter Gunslinger Stratos, had yet another bash on the insanely addictive Taiko: Drum Master, and sank some yen into another WarioWare-style game with gameshow buzzers, which was gleefully bonkers and utterly brilliant, but with a Kanji title that I have yet to decipher. All new, all surprising, all memorable experiences. But the best and craziest was yet to come.

The rhythm action floor of Akihabara's Taito Station features some of the most mind-boggling video games I've ever seen. Like me, you probably thought you were pretty cool the first time you bumbled your way through the "Freebird" solo on Guitar Hero II, or got that perfect "S" on Elite Beat Agents. How does it make you feel to know that you are a mere mortal, and utterly nothing in comparison to the finger-twitching, wrist-flicking skills of the rhythm action gods and goddesses in Akihabara?

Trust me, until you've been there, you've never seen anything like it. Sound Voltex III: Gravity Wars is a million-miles-per-hour blast of noise and neon, which apparently requires absolutely pinpoint, lightning quick levels of accuracy at its higher levels. And we saw it happen, players all standing casually, wrists a blur, eyes fixated, as the demented techno-splashed orgy of Konami's game exploded on the screen. Elsewhere, we were introduced to the thumping bombast of the catchily-titled beatmania IIDX 22 pendual, a rhythm game with DJ decks and players with levels of skills so high the Taito Station threatened to ignite and blast off into the atmosphere. And that's without mentioning the guy perfecting every single inch of every single move on the hardest difficulty of DDR.

On Motherboard: Inside Britain's New National Videogame Arcade

Sucking down a Coke in the Super Potato, the museum of video game memorabilia over the road, we ended our evening with a couple of calm, normal games of Metal Slug and Super Pang.

And soon thereafter, it was back home. Back to the foggy memories of Britain's arcades past, now shadows of their former selves, ghosts of the bomber jacket gangs, all lonely on precious few street corners now packed with House of the Dead 4 cabinets and Club Kart machines that no one wants to play. Brits prefer to stay home with Geralt, Bruce Wayne, Father Gascoigne, and the Inkling kids. It doesn't really seem to bother us that we've let our arcade scene fade into obscurity, and Britain will likely never see its resurgence. And somehow, perversely, that's OK. We still love our games, just not in the same way.

Japan's arcade scene, however, has no intention of going quietly into the night. And when you you're asleep, dreaming of what was, what might have been, and what could be, they'll be there, playing games you've never seen, sliding cards, sealed in pods, and racking up scores beyond your wildest imagination.

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