The following article is based on a two week trip to Japan and contains only casual observations. None of this should be taken as a deep or in some instances even accurate depiction of any part of Japanese life.
Fighting games are my favorite genre. Not the mainstream Mortal Kombats and Street Fighters, but the painfully flashy and anime ones. If you follow that scene, you know that the best players are usually from Japan. You know that the games are released in Japanese arcades a year in advance, where all the professional players gather and play on a level someone like you can only dream of. It’s simply outside of the grasp of someone who plays games at home or online.
But it only takes half an hour of wandering through one of those arcades to actually understand what a Japanese arcade is. It’s not a romanticized gathering of a competitive scene, it’s an after-work activity.
Going head-first into an arcade to just check out the fancy and exclusive cabinets would probably be a disillusioning experience, but the way the gaming philosophy is interwoven with other, seemingly unrelated daily life designs makes the purpose and atmosphere of the arcade much clearer.
The main currency of Japan is the 100 YEN coin. The YEN may be the official currency, but everything is based on the actual coin. Japan’s cash culture means that you will have plenty of those coins on you at any given time and, of course, many business are designed to take them off of you. This is mostly apparent when you realize just how many damn vending machines Japan has. And while I tend to ignore them anywhere else as overpriced snacks and cold drinks, they are quite useful in Japan. The prices are competitive and the drinks come both ice cold and smouldering hot.
Of course, because vending machines aren’t enough, there are capsule machines (gashapon) everywhere too. They are essentially Kinder Surprise Eggs without the chocolate and with actual quality figures. And their price is, of course, in increments of 100 YEN (with the most expensive I’ve encountered being 500, which is, surprise, also a single coin you can get). To put it simply, there are a lot of things meant to rid you of your change on the way to and from work.
The “to and from work” is another aspect that ties into the arcade experience. While it was normal for us as tourists to go out every afternoon and evening for food and drinks, it was a bit odd to always see restaurants and bars packed with other Japanese people. We quickly realized that these people in suits were going out with their colleagues for the best team-building exercise: drinking. This also put into context why arcades I visited were packed on a random Tuesday. A lot of people just don’t seem to go home right away after a long day of work. If you think about it though, housing space is a known problem in Japan, so it’s not far-fetched to assume people would rather play video games in a social environment than their cramped home.
While arcades in the West kind of died out when consoles became as strong as arcade cabinets, that wasn’t really a factor in Japan. Arcades were “where you go to play exclusive stuff” for us, but for Japan it became another social space. Something that also reinforces this is the complexity of arcade games I’ve seen. I’m not talking about actual gameplay-complexity as much as a focus on persistence. Almost every cabinet will ask you for some card or account (I’ve noticed Nesica cards primarily, but there might be more). For fighting games, this will primarily let you keep track of your stats, rank, costume unlocks and other similar vanity things. But for other games, it can be your actual progress. I’ve also noticed plenty of card games, where I assume you either use real-world cards that are scanned or digital cards that you collect to your account.
What cemented the fact of how little people cared for playing at home versus at arcades was when I was told that Japan’s main Street Fighter game was still Ultra Street Fighter IV, simply because SFV didn’t have an arcade release.
Arcades also become cheaper the more you play them, or rather, the better you get at a game. For example, a single coin lasted me 2 minutes for shoot ‘em ups I was bad at, 20 minutes for fighting games and 40 minutes for Left 4 Dead (which I ended up quitting instead of game over-ing). If you’re smart about it, your entertainment for half an hour will cost you less than a can of coffee.
There is another aspect I’d like to touch upon that reinforces the very game-y philosophy of Japan: the borderline gambling. Much like the rest of the World, Japan is really good at pushing the limits of the law. When merchants in Kyoto were taxed based on how wide their store’s front was, they simply made extremely narrow and long houses in order to pay less. Keeping this little factoid in mind, you can imagine how far people will push the no gambling law of the country.
Let’s go over the obligatory pachinko parlors. The extremely simple explanation is that it’s a cross between pinball and slot machines that you probably know as Peggle. The more complex explanation is that it’s the only thing people will call gambling in Japan despite it technically not being gambling. You see, you pay money for tiny metal balls. These balls are what you feed the machine in order to win more balls. When you’re satisfied with the amount of balls you’ve earned, you trade them for something material, like a lump of gold. What you do with that lump of gold is your decision, but why not sell it to one of many stores for actual money?
Pachinko is the most blatant example, but there are many less-obvious ones, too. UFO catchers (or “those rigged claw machines” as you may know them) are also everywhere. The prizes in them are pretty damn absurd. From some very expensive figures and giant plushies, to actual real life oysters that may or may not contain pearls. And they can be yours. It’s just 100 YEN to try and win. Why hold on to that change when you can just spend it for something worth so much more?
You’re surely thinking how all these examples are quite clearly obvious ploys to take your money, but the gamey gambling design is also in things you wouldn’t expect. We visited the CapBar (Capcom’s gimmicky bar which we really loved despite all the negative reviews it has online) and there was a special Halloween menu. If you ordered anything off the Halloween menu, you got one of four random exclusive postcards. It sounds innocent, but it works. We quickly wanted the whole small set, but the employees weren’t allowed to just give us the cards we asked for. It was all purely random. So we ordered more drinks. Because those postcards would never be released again. And we wanted them. We really like Leon, OK?
And it’s this primal urge to have shiny things that a lot of the “not gambling” games take advantage of. The capsule machines I mentioned earlier? There’s hundreds of them. Each one has a different set of figures. There was one with glowing ice cream bears in cups. The other one had Pikachus dressed as other Pokemon. I had to have these things because they were just a few 100 YEN coins.
All of this contributed to why I was so disillusioned by finally visiting a Japanese arcade. After two or three visits, I was bored and it took me a while to understand why. It was my lack of social involvement in them. I did go with my friends there, but we were all strangers. It was that Wild West bar you dropped by and everyone looked at you suspiciously because you ordered a drink they didn’t have. If I lived there, I’d have a card, I’d go out with other regulars, I’d understand the culture of it. Maybe the 100 YEN life is more appealing when the YEN is from your paycheck.