Japanese Game Centers: How to Enjoy Arcades in Japan

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Misty Fujii is a Canadian who moved to Osaka, Japan, in 2019 and married her Japanese sweetheart. In 2022, they had a baby and moved to Fukui for the clean country air. She is a DJ who teaches English part-time and writes to share Japan with the world. She gets excited about collecting vintage vinyl records, food from all countries, travelling, and renovating her traditional Japanese house.

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Skip the meditation apps and find peak zen with laser focus, button-mashing beats, and the glorious clink of victory tokens. Welcome to the technicolor temples of Japan’s game centers, where nostalgia meets cutting-edge tech in a mix of lights, laughter, and pure fun! You’ll find claw machines with legendary loot, rhythm games to turn you into a J-pop idol, and enough retro classics to make your inner child do a happy dance. Forget about the real world, grab your squad, and prepare to unleash your competitive spirit in this neon wonderland for gamers of all ages. After all, hitting up a game center is one of the must-do things in Japan!

Ready to trade reality for pixels and prizes? Let’s explore Japanese game centers and learn how to enjoy arcades in Japan.

1. What is a Game Center?

Dick Thomas Johnson, CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Japanese game centers are neon-lit paradises of pure, unadulterated FUN! It’s easy to call a game center (aka gesen) a simple arcade at a quick glance. But a better question might be, what isn’t a game center? These multi-floor amusement parks, usually near train stations or in city centers, are a sensory overload in the best way possible. Forget just one type of game because game centers have everything from classic fighting games and racing sims to claw machines overflowing with plushies and even bowling alleys or karaoke rooms for impromptu singing sessions.

2. History of Game Centers

The origins of Japanese game centers offer a fascinating look into the nation’s unique entertainment history. Believe it or not, it all started in, or rather, on, department stores! Western department stores focused on retail, but Japanese stores featured even more with rooftop amusement areas. These open-air havens provided families with games, rides, and activities primarily designed for kids.

As the 1960s and 70s ushered in the golden age of video gaming, rooftop attractions quickly adopted this revolutionary technology. Early video games coexisted with traditional staples like Skee-Ball. Still, the immense popularity of new titles like Space Invaders saw video games take center stage. The rooftops transformed into vibrant playgrounds, ultimately leading to the relocation of these amusement areas indoors due to space and weather limitations. This shift marked the birth of dedicated video game arcades as we know them today.

3. Popular Games 

Dick Thomas Johnson, CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr

When it comes to games, plenty of popular picks line the floors! Genres usually separate the floors; you’ll find devoted fans on every level. Let’s dig into some of the attractions to spend your coins on. 

Classic Arcade Games

You’ll be guaranteed to find button-mashing greats from Street Fighter to Tetris. The popular classic games are all here with fighting, shooting, and puzzle games that really challenge your brain. You’ll also find exciting rhythm games like the pulse-pounding and Dance Dance Revolution. The best thing about these well-loved games is that they’re universal across all languages, whether you’re shooting bad guys in Time Crisis or banging a drum in Taiko no Tatsujin. 

Modern Arcade Games

Dick Thomas Johnson, CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Many games you may imagine finding in a Japanese game center are right up front! As far as the eye can see, you’ll encounter crane games, aka UFO catchers, teasing hopefuls with prizes from plush toys to anime figures. You’ll also get a chance to take games like Mario Kart to new and immersive levels with simulators that put you and your friends in the race. Say cheese for the camera in kawaii purikura photo booths, unleash your inner athlete with a sports game, and become a Guitar Hero when you try a music game. 

Unique Games

Japanese game centers rule because of their unique delights, like the iconic UFO catchers and purikura photo booths. But did you know many games will also let you earn medals you can redeem for prizes? A winning keychain may be closer than you think! And when you want a prize without the work, plenty of gacha machines are ready to dispense a capsule with a random toy inside. 

But most exciting? Games vary by game center, so watch for games based on popular anime, manga, or Japanese pop culture icons. These can be hidden gems unique to the region, making every city special. Game centers often host special events with limited-edition prizes or game modes, so check for seasonal offerings during your visit.

4. What makes them Unique?

The fact that arcades continue to exist in Japan is unique all by itself, but when you factor in their sheer size, there is so much to account for. Their enormous size is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else, and the number of games on offer is mind-blowing. What’s more, not only are there games that I grew up loving, but there are unique game center versions that I’ve never seen anywhere else!

Imagine racing down Rainbow Road in Mario Kart, not from your couch, but behind an actual steering wheel with your face plastered on the screen. That’s just one example of the unique Japanese spin these games get – a fitting homage to their birthplace. It’s not just the massive size and variety that sets game centers apart, though. These are cultural hubs, often boasting karaoke rooms, bowling alleys, and even food courts, turning them into vibrant social spaces where families, friends, and strangers bond over their love of gaming. 

5. Things to Enjoy Besides Games

We mentioned that Japanese game centers aren’t all typical video games, and that’s because they have so much more. Here are a few examples:

Claw/Crane Games (UFO Catchers)

Test your reflexes and strategic thinking as you wrestle plushie dragons and anime figures from their plastic prisons. Victory doesn’t come easy but grants you bragging rights and cool prizes.

Purikura (Photo Booths)

Strike a pose and embrace your inner pop star in these interactive booths. The cameras add Instagram-like filters only cranked up! Then, you can add kawaii stickers and backgrounds and even digitally enhance your features for the ultimate selfie upgrade. It’s the perfect photo souvenir, unique and memorable.

Trading Cards and Medal Games

Test your fortune and unleash your inner collector in the trading card and medal game haven. From limited-edition anime cards to iconic game character badges, there’s a treasure waiting to be found (or traded) for everyone. And those medals you earn from other games? Cash them in for exclusive prizes.

6. Where Can You Find Them?

With around 5000 game centers dotting the country, it’s easy to find one!

While even small towns have local gems, major cities like Tokyo and Osaka are your best bet. Akihabara in Tokyo and Den-Den Town and Dotonbori in Osaka are legendary districts teeming with arcades, each floor a universe of its own. If you’re craving an all-in-one entertainment fix, head to Joypolis or Taito Station, multi-story labyrinths of arcades, bowling, karaoke, and even amusement parks. 

And remember those nostalgic rooftop amusement areas? Some stores still offer tiny arcade corners. And when in doubt, head to a busy train station. You’ll be sure to find a game center or two nearby!

Now that you know about Japanese Game Centers, what are you waiting for? Go and have fun!

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