[Editorial Tuesday] Ge-sen: Inside a Japanese Arcade

While game centres and arcades in the rest of the world are few and far between, usually only found in big cities or the backrooms of dirty pizza parlours, in Japan they're still a major business. And while those dying arcades in the West are likely to only have a few old crane machines, pinball, and maybe a DDR booth if they're lucky (unless you find a proper amusement park), Japan is a world of all new games using the latest technology. Japanese game centres (also called "ge-sen" or "amusement parks" in Japan) are everywhere. In the big cities, you can find multi-story arcades with floors of different games, and also multiple arcades side by side! Even smaller cities and towns will host their own game centres, either in standalone buildings or contained within department stores and shopping malls. And with games that appeal to everyone, they're likely to be around for a long time.

If you've never been to a Japanese arcade and are curious about what kinds of games they have, you've come to the right place! And even if you're a veteran of the ge-sen, hopefully, you can find something new to try. Either way, sit back and enjoy our quick tour of the variety which Japanese arcades have to offer!


Rhythm Games

If there is one section of the Japanese arcade that is always expanding and getting new games (and updating existing ones) it's the rhythm games. And these games have no real match in the Western arcade system! Sure maybe you have tried your hand at DDR or Guitar Hero, but Japanese rhythm games take those concepts to all new extremes. And there's an overwhelming number of different types to choose from!

One of the most popular is called MaiMai. The point of the game is to hit the buttons around the edges of a circular screen as the circles reach the correct spot, and includes a touchscreen feature for special dragging notes. The number of songs is insane, with popular categories like anime theme songs, J-Pop, and VOCALOID. The system itself updates about once a year as well, changing the interface and adding more and more music.

Like many games in the arcade, MaiMai allows you to keep track of your progress using a scannable card. This lets you save high scores, rack of points, and unlock new customisation options for your gameplay. And if you have the skill to pass the songs on Expert difficulty with an SS rating, you can unlock Master difficulty. Larger game centres with have rows and rows of MaiMai machines, and most smaller ones will have at least one pair. The game always comes in a pair, allowing you to play against or cooperatively with your friends. This means you can try to best one another's score, or try to reach a 100% synchronisation rate. It's addicting and fun, and ¥100 gets you three songs (and sometimes a free bonus if you pass them all) at most game centres.

Another popular and distinctly Japanese rhythm game is Taiko no Tatsujin, or Taiko Drum Master. This game is based on the idea of playing large Taiko drums often seen at Japanese festivals. The rules are very simple; hit the middle of the drum for a red circle and the edge for a blue one, and use both sticks at once when it's a big circle. It sounds simple, and if you play it in the easiest mode, it is. In fact, Taiko no Tatsujin includes many popular children's songs like Ghibli music, Yokai Watch, and even the theme from popular kids' show Anpanman. You're likely to see even pre-schoolers trying their hand at this game.

But when you bump the difficulty up and put on your favourite video game theme or even real traditional Taiko drum music, that's when the fun begins for adults. Taiko no Tatsujin has four to five different difficulty levels depending on the song, and trust us when we say they can get really challenging. Diehard Taiko no Tatsujin enthusiasts can often be seen with their own set of real drumsticks they bring from home to play and watching them is almost as fun as playing yourself. The interface of the game may look cute and the concept a bit ridiculous, but it's a must-try for fans of rhythm games and Japanese arcade games. You can find at least an old version of the game at nearly every arcade in Japan.

Of course, there are many other rhythm games to try, and new ones are always coming out! They will always have a bit of a learning curve but after a few plays, you can generally get the hang of it. Rhythm games are also easy to try if you don't speak or read much Japanese, as you can usually figure out how to play by watching other people and the gameplay itself isn't complicated. It's definitely a floor of the game centre you don't want to miss!


Fighting and Strategy Games

Fighting games are possibly the easiest genre of the arcade game to export to a home console, but there's definitely something special about still playing the arcade version. Plus using the arcade controllers definitely makes doing combos easier and more fun, and it's great to play against your friends! This makes fighting games and other multiplayer strategy games an insanely popular part of Japanese game centres, often taking up entire floors of the arcade and bustling with people no matter what time of the day it is. And you're just as likely to see people there watching their friends play and offering tips and support as much as playing! So despite being able to buy games like Tekken and Street Fighter for your PlayStation, these kinds of games remain a huge part of Japanese arcade culture.

One of the most popular multiplayer games right now is Lords of Vermillion. It's actually a card collecting strategy game, where the point is to collect and use combat cards to defeat the enemies' arcane stones. You develop and customise your own avatar, which you control along with three other units on the field at any one time. One of the coolest things about Lords of Vermillion (aside from the screen you play on which arguably looks like something out of a science fiction movie) is the number of crossovers and tie-ins this game has. You can expect to see favourite characters making appearances from loads of other titles like Final Fantasy, BlazBlue, and even Magic: The Gathering. While Lords of Vermillion does have a single player story mode, playing multiplayer either locally or online makes the arcade game really special. Be warned that the learning curve is pretty steep though!

While you can still find many classic fighting game titles in Japanese arcades, get ready to see a huge number of machines for Final Fantasy: Dissidia right now. This popular title lets you pit characters from Final Fantasy against one another in a 3D arena, where you can use all their special abilities as well as the environment to defeat the other player. You can find both heroes and villains from this popular game series, which makes it really appealing to Final Fantasy fans. It has a gameplay style that is complicated to learn at first, but once you start to understand you can't deny that the fast-paced, beautifully rendered fights are addicting. It makes Final Fantasy: Dissidia almost as much fun to watch as it is to play! And you can probably figure it out even without knowing much Japanese after a bit of trial-and-error.

Be warned that this is one of the smokiest areas of the arcade typically so if you don't like second-hand cigarette smoke, it's best to bring a mask with you. But most of the games have seats while you play and space to keep a drink on hand with vending machines nearby, so you can hang around and play with your friends for a long time!


Simulators

Simulators in Japanese arcades are a really unique experience. They're more than just a ride, but rather an immersive game. They're easy to spot by their huge pods or booths that they are played in, so don't worry about accidentally missing them. There usually aren't very many of these big games in the game centres and smaller ones may not have one at all, but head to the big ones and you're sure to find one to try. And as virtual reality becomes more commonplace in the gaming industry, you can bet the number of VR simulators in Japanese arcades will continue to grow and spread as well.

One of the most famous and widespread simulators is Kidō Senshi Gundam: Senjō no Kizuna which allows you to pilot a Gundam from the famous anime series. Step into the pod and it's like stepping into a cockpit, which screens on three sides of you that simulate your view from inside the robot. It is complete with hand controls and foot pedals, and a large seat. You have to use a pilot card when playing which can be printed from a terminal always near the pods, and this will record your progress in the game. Each game session is about ten minutes long, and you can play with other people at the same game centre as you - and you play online against people from across Japan that are also playing simultaneously, which is a really cool and unique experience.

Most arcades have at least four Kidō Senshi Gundam units but where the game is popular there might be even more. Skill levels range from beginning to advanced, and it's advised to play with others around your same skill level. Be warned that the entire game is written in kanji, hiragana, and katakana, so you might need someone to teach you how to play if you can't read Japanese. But once you figure out the game and underhand how to play, you can enjoy a truly special simulator experience. Playing costs 100 or 500 yen depending on what you want to do.

Of course with the continuing rise of VR, you can count on seeing it more and more in the game centres. For now, it's pretty limited to a few shooting games or short experiences like viewing a concert segment, and quite expensive if you want to try it. But in the last year alone VR has really started taking off in the game centres, so keep your eyes on it for the future! VR may well be shaping a lot of what we can experience at game centres.


Shooting Games

Of course, at any arcade in the world, you can expect to find some kind of shooting games. The idea of holding a controller shaped like a gun of some kind and pointing it at enemies on a screen in front of you is nothing new, and a classic game idea for game centres. And while Japan has no shortage of this kind of game, it has a few special ones that are a bit different from your average shooter!

One that has been around a couple of years now (and slowly has been making it to America, too!) is the arcade version of Luigi's Mansion. Step into the game booth and you're greeted with decor paying homage to the original games. You'll be arming yourself with the nozzle end of a Poltergust 5000 backpack, which is basically a gun controller that is shaped like a strange vacuum. Don't worry; the rest of the backpack is sitting in the booth too, so while you can't properly strap yourself into it, it still feels like you're using the weapon from the games!

As the ghosts appear on the screen, get ready to stun them and then pull the trigger and suck the ghost into the vacuum. Follow the on-screen prompts to know which way you need to be moving the controller! It's not too hard to figure out how to play even if you don't speak much Japanese. One of the most appealing parts of Luigi's Mansion Arcade is that it does a great job of paying homage to the original Nintendo game. The levels are in the same locations, and the monsters are familiar. But even if you aren't playing for the nostalgia factor, you have to admit it’s fun to wield a ridiculous vacuum and not just another gun.

If you're looking for a more traditional shooting game, don't worry, the game centre will have you covered. With everything from classics like Resident Evil to new titles like the Walking Dead, you can shoot at plenty of things with the traditional gun-shaped controllers aimed at the screen. Most games cost ¥100 to begin them, and you can continue to add money to keep playing if you die or want to continue to advance. It makes them fun games for a quick and casual break all the way to a more intense gaming session.

And if you're looking for a real challenge, try Gunslinger Stratos by Square Enix. You get the chance to wield not one gun, but two! And to switch between the various weapons in the game, you need to combine the two pistol-like controllers in your hands in specific combinations. Plus you can destroy loads of landmarks in Tokyo on the screen as you fight against friends. If that doesn't sound like an exciting challenge to shooter fans, we don't know what does!


Unique Games

Japan always has its fair share of unique and interesting things that you can only find in Japan. While many of the games at Japanese arcades are exclusive to Japan, some are downright strange. And by strange, we mean incredibly interesting! The concepts behind these games and the way you play them are so different from other games it's hard to easily put them into a category. Rather, they stand alone as special games that give you a truly one of a kind gaming experience.

Cho Chabudai Gaeshi is just the kind of game we are talking about. The name means Super Table Flip! in English, and that name couldn't be more accurate. The game itself is set up with a screen and a large controller that actually looks like a table. You can choose from four different scenarios you would like to play - a father with his family, an office worker, a bride at her wedding, and a customer at a host club. When the game begins, you have 60 seconds to bang on the table to get everyone's attention on the screen and cause nearby items in the virtual room to fall on the ground. This is how you score points.

But the real fun happens when 60 seconds is up. Now get ready to flip the table! You literally can flip the table controller up towards the screen and don't worry, it has massive hinges to keep it from actually flying. But it does lift up quite satisfyingly and loudly, and you can watch the virtual table on the screen flip in response. Talk about a great way to let off stress! And in Japan, where people are notoriously overworked and stressed out, it makes perfect sense that a game like this would show up. Cho Chabudai Gaeshi is a bit hard to find at the game centres these days, but if you do see it, pop in ¥100 and let off some steam!

Another unique (and weirdly table-themed) game you might find on your adventures is mysteriously titled The Tablecloth Hour. It has a large screen and a tablet controller with a sheet of firm cloth laid on it. The point of the game is simple - you need to pull the tablecloth out from under everything on the table without making the items break or fall. It's just like the magician's trick that you see in movies! So if you have ever wanted to try, you can have a virtual simulation without all the associated mess to clean up if you fail. Pull on the real tablecloth and watch your progress on the screen! You can decide for yourself if it's as simple as it sounds.

For better or for worse, a lot of these strange games are disappearing from Japanese game centres leaving behind only more popular and widely known games. Hopefully, Japan will always have a place for unique gaming experiences though, but be sure to try these kinds of games out when you're lucky enough to find them!


Final Thoughts

If you like playing arcade games, you can easily kill hours hanging out at a Japanese arcade. There are so many different kinds of games that there is something for everyone. Whether you want to play something casual, be more competitive, or find a hardcore challenge you can find it. There's nothing quite like the atmosphere inside the game centre either, with all the sounds from the games, the laughter and cheering when someone wins, the frustrated yelling when someone loses, the bells the staff ring when someone gets a prize from a claw machine, and more.

From the moment you walk in, you're hit with a stimulation overload of sights and sounds, lights and screens, and people of all ages and from all walks of life. It's an experience unlike anywhere else in Japan and something you shouldn't miss, whether you're just visiting or living in Japan for years.

Have you ever been to a Japanese arcade? What was your favourite part, or what is your current go-to game? Would you like to visit one someday? What kind of game are you itching to try? Do you have any questions about Japanese game centre culture? Let's talk about everything ge-sen in the comments below!

Jet Nebula

Writer

Author: Jet Nebula

Living the dream in Tokyo, where you can find me working at a theme café catered towards women. When I’m not writing for Honey’s, I’m working on original dystopian science fiction or blogging about Tokyo’s trendy coffee scene. I spend my free time in Harajuku and Shibuya wearing alternative Japanese street fashion. I love video games, J-rock, tattoos, and Star Wars.

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