I, as I’m sure like most of you, grew up on computer games. The green haze of Safari Hunt on the Master System being the only thing keeping me company on many a lonely night. I wondered, even at a young age, where on earth all of this came from. It certainly wasn’t Sidcup. Growing up, I was an avid reader of Sega Power despite its bias towards the Mega Drive (which I didn’t own until I was 15) and every now and then there’d be an article or featurette on Tokyo, considered by many to be the birthplace of video games (although some Americans may disagree…).
The articles would feature a blur of neon lights, hundreds upon hundreds of arcade machines and thousands of Japanese youths playing games we barely recognised. To a nine-year old boy this place looked like heaven. Finally, twenty-three years later, I managed to visit with my good chum Dave.
Tokyo is all you’d expect it to be, with treasure troves in every corner it’s impossible not to walk around, mouth agape, mumbling “Oh my god.” The place considered to be the hub of Tokyo’s geek culture is Akhibara (known fondly as Akiba to Tokyoites). The Lonely Planet guide I have suggested an afternoon there, ARE YOU FREAKIN KIDDING ME!
Dave and I spent a whole day there, and if time wasn’t a factor I could have spent many more days immersed in awesomeness. The first thing that struck me about Akiba (bar the lights, so many lights…) was how accessible it was and how much of it there is, all at your fingertips. There is a shop in the train station for heaven’s sake! The shops are all five-storey wonderlands. And my do they like their trading/battle cards. When you say “Japanese trading cards” in the UK what do you immediately think of? Pokemon right? Wrong! I counted over ten shops on one street in Akiba dedicated to selling all manner of trading cards. Did I have a clue what they were all about? Not in the slightest! Some of these cards, individually, retailed for near £100. I spotted some English language cards, simply with a few words on like “skip a turn” or something you might see on a Monopoly card, and they were over 40,000 yen (£200).
Before the hardcore shopping started we had to try some of these arcade machines and boy did they deliver! One problem, everything is in Kanji. Provided you can fluke your way through the menu screens there is a lot of fun to be had.
Dave found this cool Square Enix blast em up game but bad menu decisions led to him going through a ten minute tutorial. Not bad for 100 yen though (60p). Regardless of the game, everything is 100 yen a go. Remember those dance mat games? They love those here, but there’s no mat, no no, there’s either a touch screen which you have to smash with your hands or around ten buttons, which you smash with your hands. The hand-eye coordination of some these guys was breathtaking. I tell a lie, there was a dancing game but the kid was dancing on both sets of squares, nailing what two people would struggle with.
Japan’s love affair with the RPG has never been so prominent as it is here. Putting aside the ridiculous money in battle cards, 50% of the games in the arcade were RPGs, or at least action games with a strong RPG bias. Though games like the earlier Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star games were considered to be strong, neither range sold that well in the UK and only a small portion of the Japanese market was ever translated into English. It’s only over the last ten years or so that Nintendo and Square have bothered to treat the western gamer to the entire Final Fantasy series. If this type of arcade sounds too overwhelming, head to Super Potato (brilliant brilliant name) for lots of old school arcade machines including early versions of Street Fighter 2 and Golden Axe.
So now to the shopping. In my head I imagined rows upon rows of 8-bit, 16-bit games, consoles, bargain bins full of “classics” and you know what? It didn’t disappoint.
What you will need to get over quickly is the fact that only the handheld stuff is region-free, everything else is Japan only.
You also need to get stuck in, as casual game-spine perusing is rendered impossible by everything being in Kanji. You cannot move for all the Famicom (NES) and Super Famicom (SNES) gear, I mean, it is everywhere! You can pick up a second hand Famicom for around 4000 yen (£20) or a Super Famicom for a little more than that. Which seems completely worth it as you can get arcade/platform games that were never released here (as well as the streams and streams of RPGs which you’ll never decipher).
Here came my next revelation, the comparative paucity of Sega options. I saw around four Mega Drives for sale in all of Akiba and they retailed for 10,000 yen (£50) and the one Master System I saw was 20,000 yen (£100 – second hand, first version, boxed) with the games being nearly 3000 yen. My dream of picking up lots of MS booty died there and then… I’ll discuss Sega’s ups and downs in another feature but their lack of impact in the home entertainment sector on home turf could be explained by their focus on arcade machines which was very apparent in Akiba.
I could go on and on but the same applies as for any other adventure you take, Akiba is what you make it. Whether your preference is to raid bargain bins for Famicom games or to hang around the streets drinking canned vending machine coffee whilst staring at scantily clad Japanese girls in maid cafes, Akhibara is a must for any video game aficionado.