Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 5: Game Centers]

By | August 26, 2015

For some time now Japan has been one of the top countries for manufacturing of electronics and automative products, evidenced by the presence of several Japanese companies in this list of top manufacturing companies by global revenue. For automotive, Toyota and Nissan are in the top 10, with Toyota topping the list at #1. Honda comes in at #18. For electronics, we see many well-known companies such as Hitachi, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and Fujitsu.

Though Samsung of South Korea grabs the #3 spot on this list, becoming an acknowledged name for everyday products such as washing machines and TVs, there are only two other companies from South Korea in the top 50 manufacturers. China has only 4 companies in the top 50, all companies I’ve never heard of (the highest is Sinochem at #28).

Turning to the business of video games, a related industry I have a great personal interest in, we see that Japanese companies dominate the market for both TV-based game consoles (テレビゲーム機) and game-specific mobile devices. According to this list of worldwide sales for video game consoles, Sony and Nintento dominate 9 of the top 10 with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 #6 on the list.

Given this background of superiority in the fields of electronics and gaming, one might be curious about Japan’s video arcades, called game centers (ゲーム・センター or shortened as ゲーセン). I definitely was and decided to check out the latest state of the art at Japanese game centers on our 2015 Japan trip.

Put simply, they’re totally amazing.

In America, arcades were booming in the 1980s with games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, but declined significantly by the late 1990s, facing competition from home video game consoles and networked gaming on home PCs. In Japan, for whatever reason (possibly because of less PC gaming) video arcades retained their popularity. Put this together with cutting edge technology and you end up with something that would blow the mind of most American gamers. Japanese game centers are superior in their size, variety of games, and leverage more of the latest hardware and software technologies.

Here is a list of a few game genres to give you an idea of what these game centers are like.

Rhythm games

Japan has been at the foreground of rhythm games, with the original Dance Dance Revolution released in 1998 by Konami. This has expanded to other games such as Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko master) where you beat a classic Japanese drum in sync with the rhythms shown on screen. In our trip we discovered a similar game using a set of digital drum pads arranged up like a traditional kit, complete with hi hats and kick drum. I played this game and completely loved it, partially because the fact it used real drum sticks which were not connected via wires. In America, peripherals for games like this are usually tied down with a rope or cable and I was surprised the sticks (ばち) for this game were not.

There are other games where you touch a piano-like surface in time with music which look pretty fun. I’ve seen a vaguely similar game in American arcades, but the keys were much bigger, more awkward, and it seemed to be targed more at a younger audience.

Driving games

There are many games that derive from a Japanese Anime or Manga series, and I played a driving game based on the classic Manga Initial D. The graphics were pretty good but the great thing about this game was it had a full story where dialog frequently appears on the screen during the game as you race, something I’ve never come across in America. At first, it was tricky to read and drive at the same time, but as I got used to it I become even more immersed into the experience.

Free trial games

I was surprised that several games allowed a completely free trial without putting in coins, with no commitment. I’ve never seen a game in America like this, at least not in recent history.

Sports games

While I think America has some games like horse racing and fishing, Japan takes these games to the next level with a bigger scale and better graphics. For example, one arcade I entered into had a who room of networked horse racing (競馬, keiba) games.

Giant Robo games

Japan will never give up their love of Giant robots as the many modern arcade games in this genre proves.

Innovative games

A few games I saw in Japanese game centers struck me by their creativity. One of these was a game where video was superimposed on top of ‘magic sand’, so children could play with the sand while bugs and other things ran around. This game was actually free to play with the sand without the video component, without any time restrictions! The game is called ‘edel sandbox’ and you can see more about it here.

Another game was a hybrid of the typical American games where you throw balls to hit a target. This game adds a large screen and you have to throw balls to hit enemies during a castle raid. You can throw as many balls as you want and I really enjoyed grabbing four balls at once, hammering the enemy with two hands at once while my son ‘battled’ alongside me.

One of my favorites was Gunslinger Stratos, published by Square Enix, which is a shooting game that uses two physical prop guns. The awesome thing about this game, besides the graphics, is that you can physically connect the weapons together in several different ways to change the type of attack. The game has a bit of a learning curve, and for your first play it steps you though a detailed 13-step tutorial. After I started getting the hang of things I felt like the main character from Hellsing. You can see a video of this game in action here.

Card Games

Japan has a whole class of games that don’t seem to be available in the US – those which use physical cards (think Yu-Gi-Oh!) in conjunction with a screen. Because I didn’t have any of these cards I didn’t try out any myself, but these look to be a great extension of the collectible playing card genre.

Cutesy Games

Japan has a plethora of games where you play a princess or some other cute young girl. I haven’t tried these either but they seem to be pretty popular.


Japanese Purikura take photo booths to the next level and allow extensive garnishing of these group pictures, plus special effects that modify the faces of everyone to make them look like they have makeup on. At least I think that is what they are supposed to be – when I see these modified faces they remind me of aliens.

Networked Games

I saw at least one game in Japan that allowed you to play against someone in another arcade anywhere in Japan.

Crane Games

Crane Games, where you guide a robot arm to grab an item of your choice, are super popular in Japan. You can get items from popular Anime or Manga series, like One-Piece, or some other cutesy figures. It’s not uncommon to find a game center with a large portion of it dedicated to these games, 30 or more.

I’m sure if you do enough hunting around in the remaining arcades in the US you can find a few, if not many, of these games. But the amazing thing is many of the above games are pretty common in Japan, at least within the game centers in major cities like Tokyo and Sendai that we visited. There is also many other games I haven’t mentioned here – this is just a small sampling of what Japan has to offer.

There are some other differences between American arcades and Japanese game centers. In Japan, some places still allow smoking which is not too great if you are concerned about second hand smoke. I also didn’t spot any places that used the ticket system to buy toys as is so popular in the US. Some of the games in Japan had support for some type of digital card, either to track your character, for payment, or both.

Sure, some great games available in US arcades, like Fruit Ninja, are missing in Japan, but there are similar games where you swipe your hands across the screen in a frenzy. While I can’t say that Japanese game centers are necessarily better for everyone, they are definitely different enough to make a pilgrimage to one a necessary mission for any gamer or anime/manga fan visiting Japan.

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