If you like your games (and if you don’t, why are you reading this?) then Japan is just about the perfect country to spend some time in. In addition to just about being the friendliest and most polite people you could ever hope to meet, the Japanese absolutely love their games, something that is evident wherever you look, particularly in the metropolis of Tokyo. In this article I will be looking at the wider gaming culture in Japan, and suggesting why you should make a trip there your next priority!
Firstly the commuters. It has long been said that the Japanese love their handheld consoles, arguably because a lot of Tokyoites live in extremely small apartments, where a full console setup might be impractical. Even knowing that however, it still surprised me just how many people play handheld systems in public, compared to the UK. I guess as hardly anyone plays games in public here it is difficult to see just how well the Vita is doing for example, but certainly in Tokyo, I would say about 85% of people playing handheld games (not on a phone) were playing 3DS. The rest were playing either PSP or the original DS. The only Vitas I actually saw being played were two at the Tokyo Game Show itself, and one of those was by a western gamer playing Killzone.
I had read the figures, but it really only hit me whilst I was over there just how much Nintendo owns this market. Sony is still extremely popular (witness the queues to play PS4 at the TGS) but it still seemed like there aren’t many gamers who are 100% bought into the PlayStation ecosystem. Perhaps it was mainly down to the Monster Hunter effect, but people from all walks of life seemed to be playing 3DS on the trains and subways, from middle-aged salarymen, to attractive twenty-something women. Maybe the 3DS is more suited to the ‘pick up and play’ style of handheld gaming, that it works well for 5-10 minute gameplay sessions on a train, whereas the Vita possibly plays host to slightly more involved games? Either way you only need to spend an hour or so riding the trains in Tokyo to see just how successful the Nintendo handhelds have been over there.
Whereas the arcade scene in the US and Europe has pretty much died over the last decade or so, in Japan it is still flourishing. As well as the ubiquitous drumming and dancing games, Beat ‘em up’s are still probably the biggest genre. Several arcades I visited had several units of the same game (Tekken Tag Tournament 2 for example) only labelled with different difficulty levels, all the way up to ‘insane’ – these guys want a challenge! Some recent console games, for example Virtua Fighter 5, have boasted an ‘arcade mode’ with actual gameplay styles taken from the major arcades in places like Shinjuku, Shibuya and Akihabara, proof that these fighters really are the cream of the crop. The other popular game in the arcades I visited was a kind of very complex strategy-type thing, using a giant touch pad as a control method. In it the player seemed to control a Japanese medieval army from an almost top-down perspective with a multitude of buttons at their disposal. Needless to say I didn’t jump in and try the game out, although the patrons seemed very happy playing it, happily smoking away in something that would never be seen in an arcade in Europe!
The best arcade I visited was probably Taito HEY in Akihabara, which is built over several floors. Whilst the usual UFO Catcher machines and drumming titles took over the ground floor, and the Mah-Jong titles populated the higher ones, the first floor is an old-school gamer’s delight. Mainly dedicated to shoot ‘em ‘ups, there were also a large amount of retro titles, housed in some very interesting cabinets. I treated myself to a play of Ninja Warriors, the 1987 classic with the awesome soundtrack, played on an original three monitor cabinet, along with headphones. In addition to this little treat, other games available included Darius, Dragon Spirit, Ghouls and Ghosts and Final Fight – most in brand new cabinets with super comfortable seats. Finally I challenged a Japanese gamer to a game of a racing title based on the anime series Initial D, drifting around the streets of Yokohama – I’m happy to say I did my bit for western pride and beat him! I could quite happily have spent several hours in that one arcade alone, as well as several thousand yen!
The other major difference between the gaming culture in Japan and the western world is in the retro gaming scene. Whereas retro gaming in the UK particularly is limited to Ebay and a few niche websites, in Tokyo particularly it is everywhere. I visited a multi-level entertainment chain store called Tsutaya in Shibuya, which sold everything from gig tickets to used books. The basement level contained the gaming section, and as well as the usual large displays for PlayStation 3 and 3DS, I noticed a small section devoted to retro games – containing several Famicom and Super Famicom (SNES) games in particular. Imagine your local GAME store or BestBuy selling those!
If you are into retro gaming however, the holy grail must be the Super Potato store in Akihabara. Again built over several levels, the top floor contains a small arcade (along with a life-size Snake figure, and a chair made of NES cartridges), whilst the two lower levels sells consoles and games from every format imaginable. Famicom, MSX, Neo Geo, Saturn, they were all here and crammed into the floor space of potentially the most amazing shop I have ever visited. The stack of Famicom disk drive units alone were enough to send my fan gene into meltdown! A few units are also set up to play, so I managed to get my first ever go on a Virtual Boy as well! Unfortunately, although the stock levels were fantastic, nothing in the store was particularly cheap, foiling my plan of buying up several consoles and then selling them on Ebay to fund my next trip to Japan!
I hope you guys have enjoyed my articles on the Tokyo Game Show, and Japan in general – if you have any questions at all then please ask away in the comments section below. For the final time, Sianara!