Your Guide to Japanese Game Centers

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When I was a kid growing up in Tokyo, I spent a good deal of my time in Game Centers (known elsewhere as arcades).  Back then, they varied from large complexes with multiple floors worth of games to small mom-and-pop shops filled with cigarette smoke, a handful of key games, and hardcore gamers who were almost joyless and workmanlike in their play.  Back in those days, fighting games were all the rage, with Street Fighter, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Soul Blade, and others, but times have changed.
Today, games have evolved, and so have game centers.  Gone are most of the mom and pop game centers.  You may still be able to find a few that specialize in fighting games, but as arcade machines have become more elaborate and fighting games have been replaced by gun games, trading card-activated challenge games, UFO catchers (claw games), and Purikura (Print Club) machines, the only places that seem to afford to keep up are the big places like Taito Game Station and Sega.  Still, Taito and Sega game centers can be found in a great many urban areas in Japan, so I would like to take you on a quick tour of what to expect from a modern game center in Japan.

The Basics

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Each game in a Japanese Game Center is going to cost you at least 100 yen, with the most expensive costing 400-500 yen.  Don't expect a manned counter to handle money exchange transactions for coins--machines will do that for you.  Most game centers are laid out by types of games (see below), with the things for casual gamers more easily accessible, and the things for hardcore gamers in the back areas.  Games of Chance are typically kept in less trafficked areas. 
With that, here are the types of games you'll find...

Traditional-style Arcade Games

For old-school gamers like me, it can be exceedingly difficult to find traditional arcade units that give you a chance to challenge rivals in fighting games or to play co-op in order to get through a side-scrolling adventure game.  I suppose we have PC and console games to thank for that (now people can simply enjoy that sort of fun from the comfort of their own homes), but every once in a while you'll find the latest fighting game available to challenge other intrepid gamers in combat.  The most popular are Capcom fighting games (Street Fighter) and Tekken.

Trading Card-compatible Games

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One of the new trends in Japanese game centers is to see arcade games that respond to customer-derived trading card input.  Dragonball Z and Pokémon are two examples--in each of those, gamers can bring in their own cards and deploy them over the course of a computer-driven dual.  It is a personalized experience, but it certainly can be daunting for the casual (non-card carrying) gamer.

Gun Games

House of Dead and Time Crisis were revolutionary gun games when I was younger, and they remain ever-relevant and popular today.  Of course, now there are gun games that will have you handling simulated sniper and assault rifles instead of cheesy plastic pistols.  

Music Games

In the States, Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution have become a popular console games to enjoy at home, but in Japan, they still draw legions of gamers to the game centers.  Guitar Freaks and Beatmania were the predecessors to the countless variations that you can find in Japanese game centers today, including the Taiko game pictured above!

UFO Catchers

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Anybody who has been in an arcade or has seen Toy Story knows about claw games.  Of course, Japan takes it to another level.  The merchandise in UFO catchers can range from the relatively worthless to items that could fetch upwards of 5000-10,000 yen if purchased in a store.  Further, UFO catchers have transcended merely the claw, as there are number other mechanisms (springs, pulleys, etc.) that some machines will let you manipulate to try to liberate some toys or other goods from the inside of the machine.


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Anybody who has traveled to Japan or followed Japanese pop culture at all in the past ten years is likely to know about Purikura, or Print Club, machines.  In the past, you were lucky to find one or two machines, but nowadays, a game center can't stay in business without at least three or four.  Some places will even have changing stations.  Be aware that some game centers have "women's only" purikura areas, so all you male readers out there, mind your surroundings!

Games of Chance

Although there is a push to make casinos legal in Japan, gambling with money is still illegal. However, that does not mean that games of chance of illegal, provided they have you use something other than real currency.  In game centers, you'll exchange money for tokens.  Those tokens then are used for games like Slots and simulated Horse Racing.
So there you have it--the basics for a Japanese game center.  Hopefully you faithful readers out there (both the gamers and non-gamers) will now feel comfortable going into Japan's game centers and enjoying some of the fun and unique games!

Mike B