The Unique and Thriving Culture of Japanese Arcades

Arcades may seem like the places of yesteryear, but they are still a very popular and lively scene in Japan! Arcades dot cities and towns, and contain a wide variety of games, with everything from luck-based crane games offering alluring prizes, to skill-based rhythm games where practice makes perfect, to "purikura" photo booths, where you can make yourself as kawaii as you want! At the Japanese arcade, there's a little something for everyone.

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The Japanese Arcade Scene

Where arcades’ golden years may be behind them in the West, in Japan they are still going strong. From multistory complexes in bustling city centers to single-room buildings in small towns, arcades are everywhere. If you happen into one on an evening after work or school, don’t be surprised if you see office workers wearing suits side-by-side with high school students in school uniform, both going at rhythm games or UFO catchers or other fun video games. While Japanese people also enjoy games on their phones and home consoles, arcades still play a big role in certain gaming scenes, and new machines and merchandise are released regularly.

History of Arcades in Japan

The history of arcades can be traced back to the development of department stores. In Japan, like the West, the turn of the 20th century saw the blossoming of department stores, or large amalgamations of local stores underneath one giant roof. While initially just a place to shop for a variety of goods and clothing, department stores began to branch out into new styles of entertainment come mid-century. In Japan, this included most prominently rooftop amusement areas. These would contain a variety of small stands, kiosks, and games primarily aimed at children, while some of the bigger stores could support small rides as well.

With the development of video gaming technology in the 60’s and 70’s, these department stores were some of the first places to snap up the new machines, placing them on the roof along with all their other games. Eventually, and especially after the release of the extremely popular Space Invaders, video games came to dominate these rooftops, and soon the entire amusement area was moved inside. It was only a couple more steps before amusement parks dedicated solely to video games appeared, and thus the first arcades. That being said, you can still find vestiges of this rooftop arcade in many department stores in Japan today, in the form of small arcade corners near the top floors of the store.

Why Are Arcades Still Popular?

This is a multifaceted question, and it largely comes down to preferences among Japanese gamers and company support. Arcade games, when they made their first appearance on the world stage, were an instant hit in Japan. This created an ingrained culture of playing at arcades, and while the same thing happened in the West, it didn't go away with the introduction of home consoles. While many American or European gamers preferred to play at home once they had the ability, Japanese gamers saw them as separate systems: arcades were for one type of game, while home consoles were for another. In this vein, the culture never disappeared, and many gamers still regularly visit Japanese arcades to play games they can only find there.

Along with this is widespread company support. Big names, like Konami and Bandai, still regularly put out new arcade content. These are often sequels to old games, new variants of an established genre, or simply new games. In turn, gamers in Japan have a slew of new arcade games to play on a regular basis, and this keeps arcades fresh and fun. Gamers, young and old alike, never run out of reasons to head back to the arcade after work or school to while away their evenings.

The Best Arcades in Tokyo

When you're going to an arcade in Japan, and specifically Tokyo, there are really three big options to choose from: Sega, Taito, and Round1. Although on a general level you will find the same sorts of games at each place, along with similar layouts (games of chance on the lower levels, games of skill on the higher levels), there are minute differences among the brands that can help you choose which one to visit. 

For Sega and Taito, each arcade carries its own games. Sega is of course owned by the Sega company, while Taito is owned by Square Enix. Therefore, if you head to Sega, you will only see games and franchises published and made by Sega, while Taito will only hold Square Enix games. If there's a particular series you prefer, then you'll want to look up the publisher to find which arcade will have it.

On the other hand, Round1 carries all brands and publishers, making its own unique mixture of games for you to choose from. If you want a wider variety of games, Round1 may be more up your angle; however, there's no guarantee that the game series you want will be at a Round1. Along with this, Round1 will also carry more traditional arcade games, like billiards, darts, and even bowling.

In all arcades, you can also purchase membership cards that will only work at the arcade. These cards may be specific to an arcade, such as a Sega membership which will give you save access to all their games, or may be specific to a certain series of game. The membership cards never run more than 300 to 500 yen.

Most arcades are owned by these three big chains, but of course, many smaller and local arcades exist as well.

Japanese Arcades Today

Arcades are host to a wide variety of games, everything from skill-based games like rhythm or sports games, to luck-based games like UFO catchers and other merchandise machines. No matter your interest, there’s usually a game out there for you. These are the kinds of games you'll find in a typical arcade in Japan. 

Purikura

Less of a game and more of an activity, Purikura are public photo booths where people (often kids and teenagers) can dress up in costume, put on makeup, and take pictures together. The most basic machine is essentially a small cubby where you can gather together with friends and take pictures. You can choose the number of pictures as well as the size, though most are small enough to fit in your wallet. After following the prompts and taking your pictures, you will be guided outside to a computer attached to the machine where you can edit your pictures, adding text, effects, or anything else you desire. From there, it will print, and most arcades will have a small stand with scissors and glue that you can borrow to cut up your pictures and hand them out to your friends.

Click here for more fun facts about purikura!

UFO Catchers

By far some of the most common and popular machines are the UFO catchers, also known as claw machines. Just like in Western arcades, these machines will have a variety of prizes that must be grabbed and dropped into a chute which leads to the outside.

These machines take on a few different forms in Japan, but most will have either 2 or 3 claws and will work on a 2-press system. Instead of guiding the crane to your desired location and pressing the button to drop, you get two buttons to press. One will tell the crane to stop moving on a left-right axis, and one will tell the crane to stop moving on a front-back axis, so there’s a level of timing involved compared to the joystick/one-button method. These machines offer a large selection of prizes: everything from plush dolls, figurines and games to blankets, clocks and more. 

Rhythm Games

Rhythm games are some of the most dynamic of the arcade games, both in their usage and their turnover. New rhythm games are released on a constant basis, and while some may stick around for months to years, others are replaced regularly as they fall out of popularity or new releases take precedence. These games share a legacy with games like Dance Dance Revolution, though not all of them involve the full use of the body.

Most will only require your hands, but they require a stellar amount of coordination and skill to score highly. You may be playing a keyboard, striking at bulbs in a circle around the screen, or even playing taiko (traditional Japanese drums), but in all cases you need a certain level of regular practice to master it. To this, you will see players, especially high school students, spend their evenings practicing these games, often donning gloves due to the repeated tapping required over the course of a heavy session. 

Some of the more popular rhythm games include Maimai, Taiko, Wacca, and Pop 'n Music.

Traditional Arcade Games

This is a catch-all category for a variety of games that don’t really have their own categorization but will still exist in some form in all arcades. These include the ever popular air-hockey tables, basketball hoops, racing games like Mario Kart, shooters, enclosed games, and more. These are the kinds of games that require skill like rhythm games, but not to the same physical extent, relying on reflexes in addition to just muscle memory and spectacular timing. These kinds of games will be the most accessible, and will usually take up a good portion of the floor space in any Japanese arcade.

Card Games

These games are almost entirely unique to Japan. The country still has a very active trading-card scene, and many kids and teenagers still play collectible-card games on a regular basis. These arcade card games are their video-game cousins. While the game itself is a video game—you pay for it and play it on a screen using a controller or buttons built into the cabinet—upon victory or finishing your session, the machine will give you trading cards to keep. These cards can then be used in future sessions, increasing the size of your hand or powers in the game, allowing you to attempt harder or more difficult missions.

In addition, they often give you a special card that will save your progress, so you don’t have to start over from zero each time you begin a new session. This way, they’re akin to a home console, except they also incorporate a trading-card element where you can buy and exchange powers with friends outside the game.

Tips for Games at Japanese Arcades

For most of the skill-based games, there’s not much more strategy other than playing the game over and over again until you’ve built up a natural skill. For rhythm games, this will involve hand-eye coordination and a great sense of timing, while others will mostly involve the same skills that video games require, i.e. a certain sense of knowing what’s going to happen and planning around that.

How Do You Play Claw Machines, Anyway?

Crane games do have certain strategies that can be applied. One of the most basic is that the machine is programmed to give out an item after every so many plays, meaning that if you keep at a machine, at some point it will strengthen the claw and get you the prize. Of course, this could involve spending far more money on the machine than the actual item is worth, and thus is a strategy of last resort. 

It might also be wise to work in increments. Don’t expect to move the prize the entire way to the drop-chute in one go; rather, use several tries to reposition the prize closer, or at an angle that will make it easier to grab before going for the winning drop. Corners on boxes, and boxes in general, can be deceptive and are usually very hard to get; they involve a lot of prep work moving the prize around. When dropping the crane, don’t aim for the center in between the two arms, since there's a gap and they don’t connect in the middle. Rather, aim off-center, so that when the arms open and then close, the section of the prize you're grabbing is centered on the middle of a single arm, which guarantees contact.

The most important tip is to know when to give up! As mentioned above, it’s very easy to get so stuck in a loop of trying that it actually becomes cheaper to just walk outside and buy the item than to continue trying to win it from a crane game. Certain items, and certain items in certain positions (like a box that isn’t angled against the crane), are almost impossible to grab without the assistance of store staff to reset the item. Go into a game with a certain number of tries in mind, and leave after that. This will save you hours and yen in frustrated attempts.

Japanese Arcades: A Must-Visit Cultural Experience!

Whether you’re going for the prizes, the pictures, the rhythm, regular games, or even just to enjoy the noisy and chaotic atmosphere, Japanese arcades are as lively as ever and are worth a visit on your trip to Japan. Take part in the unique and thriving Japanese culture of public gaming!


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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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