Game Arcades

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Masatoshi Tamura

    Main guest

    Main guest Masatoshi Tamura is an executive of a major game company. In addition to developing game machines, he also engages in various other activities related to the gaming industry, including store management strategy and human resource development. A key player in the game business, he’s been involved with game arcades for over 40 years.

  • Tomohiro Nishikado

    Guest

    Video game designer Tomohiro Nishikado is best known for creating the "Space Invaders" game that took the world by storm when it was first released. He helped lay the foundations for the dawn of video game arcades. Nishikado currently acts as a product development advisor for a large game company.

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February 13, 2018

Game Arcades

*You will leave the NHK website.

When exploring the streets of Tokyo, you won’t have to go very far before running into some type of game arcade with an interior full of flashing lights and people of all ages. The ubiquitous nature of arcades isn’t just noticeable in bustling areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, or Akihabara—with about 5,000 locations nationwide, you’d almost have to try to not see one. As at-home game consoles and smartphones reshape the global gaming industry, brick and mortar arcades still remain popular across Japan.

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Inside a modern day Tokyo game arcade.

The Japanese gaming landscape has rapidly evolved over the last 60 years or so in order to keep up with changes in both technology and the economy. Before arcade games became popular across Japan, they were available in places where people typically socialized, making them easily accessible to all. People would stop by to blow off stress after work or school, which is still a common reason to visit arcades today. Children could play small games at dagashiya (penny candy stores), where they usually congregated to buy candy or toys for 5 to 10 yen. Additionally, due to rapid industrialization, places to play outside were becoming scarce. That made it harder to play games such as hide and go seek or “Daruma-san ga Koronda” (similar to Red Light, Green Light) with friends, so shops became the location of choice for children to spend their free time.

As mentioned in the program, the industry truly started flourishing due to Tomohiro Nishikado’s creation of Space Invaders in the late 1970s. With the game’s release, the floodgates opened, and game machines invaded every inch of Japanese society. As the economy strengthened and demand grew, locations specifically for playing games became necessary. Because of this, there were 44,000 game arcades in Japan in the mid 1980s.

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Peter talks with Space Invaders’ designer Tomohiro Nishikado.

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The original Space Invaders, the game that changed Japan’s gaming industry forever.

While interest in game arcades is nowhere near as high as that 1980s peak, they still continue to thrive in Japan due to a combination of old-school nostalgia and new, innovative products that appeal to a wide range of people. In the 40 years since Space Invaders’ release, the range of game genres has expanded to include music games, dancing games, coin games, and fighting games. Some of the equipment for music games is too large to have inside one’s home, meaning a visit to the arcade is necessary to play. Other games that are hard to replicate at home are sports simulations, air hockey, or crane games.

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Matt Alt gets ready to tackle his crane game certification test.

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Arcades offer fun for the whole family!

Another staple feature in many Japanese arcades is purikura, or sticker picture booths. It’s not surprising to see a large group of young friends cram themselves into a tiny photo booth and then crowd around a small screen to embellish their pictures afterward. These pictures also make for unique, commemorative souvenirs for visitors to Japan. If that’s not up your alley, some facilities offer bowling, karaoke, indoor catch and release fishing, and arcade games—all under one roof! There is even a location in Tokyo that is mainly known as an onsen, but the building has a mixture of traditional festival style games and arcade games spread throughout. Also, as seen on a previous edition of Japanology Plus, manufacturers take advantage of the newest available technology to update their offerings, leading to things like virtual reality games. Convenience is also carefully considered: customers can use their train fare cards to pay for games, and foreign currency exchange machines can be found on premises. Various additions such as these help game arcades appeal to a wide audience, not just middle-aged Japanese salarymen looking for a trip down memory lane.

Overall, while it isn’t uncommon to see Japanese playing games on smartphones or handheld controllers when riding on trains or walking around the city, game arcades seem to have a special appeal here. Japan has an international reputation for its video games as well as the characters that appear in them. Some tourists travel to Japan specifically for certain arcade games, such as the people Matt Alt meets during his crane game class, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dressed up as a famous game character to announce the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It will be interesting to see how an increase in international visitors will affect the Japanese arcade game scene going forward and what innovations game makers think of next. While you wait, go check out the nearest arcade for yourself!

*You will leave the NHK website.