Entertainment in Japan
In most Western countries there is an unspoken age limit inside the arcade world, where only young teenagers (mainly males) spend most of their free change. Although there aren’t any signs outside in bold demanding that “NO ADULTS!” enter, there still remains a foreboding atmosphere that prevents us from moving past the doorway. Currently, in both Canada and the United States, arcade centers are in a serious decline, disappearing from the local malls. Most of the arcade games, which have up until now enjoyed a cozy corner in the neighborhood convenience shop, have also been removed.
The arcade centers, as I remember them in Canada, were usually packed with young males under the age of sixteen. I’d rarely entered them at that age because females weren’t a welcome competitor in those days. Of the few times that I did work up the courage to wander inside and drop a quarter (25 cents) into my favorite game, along would come some older boy that would take all of sixty seconds to totally decimate my character. And any hopes I had of ever getting through to the next stage.
As I grew older, and eventually exceeded the unspoken age limit inside the arcade world, I began to grow a bit braver. Sometimes I would interrupt a game in progress to see if I could possibly hold onto my loonie (dollar – inflation had hit the arcade industry pretty hard over the years) for longer than thirty seconds. As luck would have it, my lack of skill worked pretty well against any opponent. Random attacks are so much more difficult to predict as opposed to 24-hit combos. I would usually only go in for around an hour so as not to attract attention. Two or three friends would accompany me, splitting up according to our personal interests at the time. None of the others happened to be into fighting games so I was quite often abandoned to the crowd of younger boys.
One day, after a particularly fortunate winning streak, I was approached by a youth who complimented me on my playing ability. He then asked my age, at which point I cautiously suggested that he tell me his first. He replied “sixteen” with all the pride that a Canadian who has just reached the minimum age requirement for learning how to drive a car would have. I grin and trade a conspiratorial look with one of my friends. As we are exiting the arcade, I respond “much older than you think.”
Those Canadian arcades, even if they hadn’t been full of unspoken rules, were very small and limited in variety in comparison to the ones in Japan. And whereas North America is suffering from a lack of interest in the old arcades, fueling an insatiable appetite for home game consoles instead, Japan’s arcade frenzy is still on the rise. With 9500 arcade centers throughout the country, there is no question in my mind that they are here to stay.
When I first began to explore the Japanese arcade centers, I realized that they were very unlike their Western counterparts. One of the most startling differences was the wide range of customers. Not only were there quite a good number of females roaming about, but they were also in their mid 20s. Many of the males were around the same age but perhaps the most interesting discovery I made happened after 4pm. I was in there enjoying a game with a friend when a man in a suit walked in. He made himself comfortable in front of game involving the use of a fake guitar. Nobody so much as batted an eye over what I thought was an unusual turn of events. To me, having come from a society where no adults (and never anyone wearing a suit) ever entered an arcade center, this man looked completely out of place. However, after another few minutes, a few more men in suits turned up, some of them going upstairs to where the coin machines lay. Still, none of the younger, casually dressed crowd paid any attention to these newcomers, just as they had allowed me my privacy when I had entered.
For many people who are not familiar with arcade centers, it is perhaps difficult to envision the lure and excitement. To better visualize the appeal of arcade centers, I think it would be best to pick the main attractions and describe them from the first floor up.
1st floor: UFO Catcher…
For those of you who have never been in an arcade and are reading the bolded `UFO Catcher` while creating a vacuum inside your brain trying to figure out the meaning of this term… please stop! There’s no need to panic or injure yourself. In answer to your unspoken question, NO – UFO Catcher is not a secret device invented by the government in a desperate attempt to catch intergalactic aliens. Nor is the game itself shaped anything like a flying saucer. Come to think of it, I have absolutely no idea why these games were given such a strange name but if I tinker around with my imagination somewhat, I’m sure that I will have no trouble coming to a conclusion myself.
UFO Catcher games resemble spacious vending machines with everything from stuffed animals, to household items, or electronics waiting inside to be won. This game requires either a lot of skill or twice as much patience. It may look fairly simple from the outside but is actually very challenging depending on the type of value of the item you are trying to win. Most games are set with two buttons, one for moving back and forth, and the other from right to left. These buttons control a mechanical claw that is positioned over the prize and then drops down in order to `catch` your desired item. If you are highly skilled or incredibly lucky, you might just get the prize on the first try.
I try to steer clear of UFO Catcher games because they are highly addictive for me. But for holidays or birthdays, the rare items that sit inside those plastic cages are just perfect for friends and family. And on days when I just can’t avoid them, I find the idea of trying to snare a new bathroom towel too irresistible to pass up. Whether I win or lose a couple of coins, the fun and anticipation of playing this game are far worth my time.
2nd floor: General Arcade Games…
On this floor, many of you may recognize such popular games as Initial D, Street Fighter, King of Fighters, and Dance Dance Revolution. Add to that list at least twenty more with names that I can’t remember. There are shoot -‘em-up games, ones requiring you to whack creatures that appear at random from a maze, snowboarding, dirt bikes, a world of zombies, air hockey, and more UFO Catcher games.
There are people here at all hours of the day, from all possible backgrounds. Some are having fun, others are passing the time, while others still are using the games as an outlet to relieve stress.
To one corner, a young girl is beating the drums in rhythm to a J-Pop song while her boyfriend cheers her on. Along a stretch of wall are a row of racing cars that are packed with a 20-ish crowd of males and females. The Dance Dance Revolution game is flashing and blasting away a techno-dance song as a man around my age performs some fancy footwork to keep up with the hectic pattern of arrows on the monitor. He has a pretty faithful fan following surrounding him, and some of them even take pictures with their cell phones.
The fighting games are more discreet, attracting serious gamers who sit down and make themselves at home for a long game. All in all, this floor is alive with activity and it is indeed contagious.
3rd floor: Purikura (aka `Print Club`)…
This game was first released in 1995 with the name being [Pu-ri-n-to Ku-ra-bu] or `Print Club` in Katakana English. Since then, it has been shortened to the catchy `Purikura` and can be found in just about every arcade center. Back in Canada, I had come across a similar, outdated machine, in a hard-to-access Asian mall. My sister and I had taken a few pictures, and although the quality hadn’t been too exceptional, we were thrilled to have found such an amusing device. The Purikura machines in Japan are many years more advanced and easy to find.
What is Purikura? In my opinion, one of the most convenient and exciting photo booths ever invented.
Have you ever met some new friends and wanted to take some pictures of your new memories, only to realize in dismay that you’ve forgotten your camera? Or maybe that casual meeting at the mall with that guy/gal that you have a crush on turns out to be a real date? What are you going to do without your camera?
No need to worry. Just follow the crowds until you find a collection of Purikura photo booths and pick the one that has the neatest backgrounds. Or maybe you would prefer the one with the extra icon set. Whichever you choose, you are sure to come away with some very pretty eye candy. Not only do these photo booths take pictures, they also convert them into stickers. And before that, you and your companion(s) will have a great time doodling all over the various poses that are to be printed out. In a Purikura booth, you can perform a variety of functions. There are animals, dozens of font sets, pre-installed slogans and dialogue that can be inserted over your head in the photo itself, glitter, hats, aliens, and much much more. So your photos are guaranteed to be quite remarkable. Definitely nothing that your regular camera can pull off in 5 minutes.
And for the more daring, in the area of some Purikura booths, there are also a bunch of costumes available for usage. Most of the time, these are free to borrow for the Purikura experience. These booths are usually concentrated on a floor higher than the other games probably because of the crowds that they attract.
4th floor: …
If there is ever a 4th floor, it most likely contains whatever wouldn’t fit on the first three floors. There are a few major arcade centers in Japan. What is on the fourth floor is determined by the company running the building. In some cases, including Round 1, a very large bowling alley is situated on the fourth (or highest) floor. Much larger than any of the bowling alleys that I was accustomed to in Canada. In other cases, there are more Purikura booths or a few UFO Catcher machines that weren’t popular enough to make it on the main floor. The Namco in Umeda hosts an assortment of gyoza (fried dumplings) and chocolate stands in a food court like setting. The most popular or delicious dishes are listed on a menu that includes what is available on the entire floor. Definitely a must-see for anyone that has a weakness for either gyoza or chocolate.
Either on the highest floor or somewhere in between are fake pachinko games, fake slot machines, and mechanical horse racing. These are based on the premise of gambling minus the high stakes and accompanying pressure. Depending on which game suits your fancy, this section might be for you. I have never done very well on any of these, mainly because they don’t interest me as much as the more active games. However, I think that if you win enough coins in any of them, you are eligible to win something… I’m just not sure what that something is. If I were to base the enjoyment of these games on the people that eagerly flock to them and then stay for a better part of the night, I would be hard pressed to deny their significant impact on the arcade center in general.
To play or not to play?
When one considers the amount of stress that an adult encounters daily, why not give into the occasional whim and give it a try? Why be confined to the unspoken restrictions of your age group? Japan doesn’t seem to have any set age limits on the visitors of their arcade centers according to what I’ve seen. If you have ever wanted a little more freedom and an hour or two to escape your workload, this is the place for you to be.