Category Archives: game center

An Evening at Mikado

I visited many game centers since my arrival to Tokyo, but there is one in particular that deserves a dedicated post on this blog. That game center is Mikado, home to a thriving fighting game community as well as some unusual arcade games.

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Hiroyasu Katô, whom I featured in another blog post, was kind enough to introduce me to this unique venue along with a few other interesting game centers in the Nakado area of Tokyo. We both wrote notes and took many photographs to document these spaces as much as possible for future current and future projects. When we arrived at Mikado, we were fortunate enough to make full use of Prof. Katô’s personal network of fighting game experts; he had many acquaintances on-site that were in a position to introduce us to the overall social fabric of the place.

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Mikado is a retro-style game center specializing in titles that emerged during the 1990s fighting game boom. Top players from all over Tokyo gather here to learn, exchange and participate in the daily tournaments held in the venue, all commentated by the owner himself. The sense of community is strong; fans schedule weekly meeting around the machines to share techniques for specific fighting games (events called taisenkai), and fan-produced strategy guides for obscure games can be found amongst the various piles of flyers lying around. The staff is constantly working on the machines wether it is to change the setting of a cabinet or to fix a circuit board with soldering iron. All of that is being done at arm’s length of players and the tournament show-floor; while customers are usually kept at bay from all maintenance activities in most of the large-scale game centers, here, repairs are conducted in plain view. Tournaments matches are projected onto giant screens facing the main staircase to facilitate spectatorship as the venue becomes more crowded and walking around turns into a challenge in itself.

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But Mikado is more than just a hub for fighting game aficionados, it also curates a collection of unusual games that, despite their debatable ludic qualities, somehow carved a new place for themselves into this venue. Prof. Katô introduced me to an arcade version of the dating simulator Tokimeki Memorial in which players go on dates with various characters of the series. Interaction is limited; in key moments of the game, the user must quickly answer a tricky question from his date partner. The game features a pulse sensor onto which the player’s left hand need to rest. The “right” answers to all questions in the game change based on the correlation between the sensor’s reading and the “tone” of the reply’s line. Try to cover up a nervous state of mind with a detached reply, and its game over. Apparently, Mikado hosted tournaments of this game in the past; I can imagine very well how a game that is so perfectly unsuited to public performance could generate hilarious situations when the crowd gets involved.

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The other game that one again demonstrates the specific culture shared by Mikado gamers is a strange 1988 baseball game titled Moero!! Puro yakyû hômuran kyosen. Everything about that game screams kusoge (shitty game). It is basically a home run competition game that looks like something  straight out of the Atari 2600 era. The player must hit continuous home run in order to continue. Fail twice in a row, and it’s game over. The game has acquired a reputation for being the fastest arcade game to give users a Game Over screen. A typical game session lasts about 30 seconds, but, as I experienced, that system never fails to provide a big laugh. Mine lasted almost as long as the time I spent playing. Insert 100 yen, and then, sugu owaru (immediately over). Mikado gamers certainly have a great sense of humour and somewhat seem to enjoy being the laughingstock of that joke of a video game. I doubt that gamers in 1988 took the joke that well though. In a way, that game was salvaged from the great library of the forgotten video games of the 1980s to be repurposed as one of the multiple pillards of Mikado’s local gaming culture. According to a conversation with another of Prof. Katô acquaintances, Moero!! stands as that infamous “ridiculously unforgiving game” that everybody familiar with the venue needs to try at least once. There are even special buttons awarded to players who hit twenty home runs.

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These are just a few of the elements that set Mikado apart from other game centers. It reminds us that the experience of playing video game leans on so much more than on simply what appears on screen. Playing in public, specifically, exposes that experience to the influence of local factors that are sometimes very unique.

Le chaînon manquant entre Star Wars et Space Invaders

Eh oui, un autre billet à propos de Star Wars sur ce blogue.

Depuis que j’étudie l’histoire des jeux d’arcades au Japon, j’ai toujours eu un doute par rapport aux liens étroits établit entre la notoriété de Star Wars et la folie Space Invaders de 1978, malgré les nombreux témoignages abondant en ce sens. Il reste que le concept d’influence en est un qui est difficile à démontrer de façon formelle, et considérant la flopée de films dérivés du concept “d’aventures intersidérales” produit dans les années 1970 aussi bien aux État-Unis qu’au Japon, il est difficile de pointer Star Wars du doigt de façon spécifique.

Cependant, je suis tombé sur ces quelques pages en feuilletant d’anciens numéros de Game Machine.

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Plus de place au doute maintenant.

Le fait que ces publicités pour des jeux dérivés de Space Invaders utilisent de flagrantes copies de certaines icônes du film de Georges Lucas pour communiquer avec le lecteur suggère que l’univers fictif de Star Wars eu une certaine importance au niveau de la mise en marché du jeu vidéo en 1979 (moment de la parution de ces publicités). Star Wars fut présenté dans les cinéma japonais en Juin 1978 pour la première fois, ce qui coincide avec la sortie de Space Invader… en Juin 1978 également. Leur sortie simultanée est probablement la raison pour laquelle ces deux oeuvres furent étroitement liés de 1978 à 1979, année où le Space Invader boom n’était plus qu’un souvenir. Il est donc plausible que les fabricants de jeux furent tentés de reprendre directement les codes visuels de Star Wars afin de vendre leur version de Space Invader.

Fuji Enterprises’ Kamikaze

While going through old issues of Game Machine, I stumbled on an add that picked my interest. The add in question was published in February of 1976 and dedicates a full page to a game called Kamikaze set up in an upright game cabinet, a standard a time when most video games were still either imported or consisted of blatant copies of Atari’s products.

Here comes Fuji Enterprises, publishing a game that is presumably about crashing your Mitsubishi A60 (also called Rei-shiki) against various naval vessels. The cabinet itself is a recreation of a cockpit, complete with a control stick and some pseudo-flight instruments. Most cabinets of this type during the 1974-1978 period where racing games, which makes this specific game quite unique in its design and (somewhat dark) subject matter.

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There is very little information about this game or its reception at the time; the only thing I was able to find is this advertisement. Game Machine never ended up writing about the game itself. If you know something about that game, please share it with us.

Public Talk at RCGS on March 11

I will be giving a talk about my thesis project during the last week of my stay at Ritsumeikan on March 11. This presentation will be part of the ongoing conference series that RCGS hosts regularly to showcase new research in game studies. I will present a summary of my research objectives as well as some case studies of arcade video games that require an understanding of interactive games as the synergy of software, cabinet and space.

This will be my very first official public talk in Japanese and, needless to say, this is making me very nervous. I will spend the next week brushing my vocabulary up so that won’t have to rely on English too much.

Wish me luck!

Will Japan’s Elderly Population Save Game Centers?

Last week, I attended a small student conference at Kansai Daigaku organized by a research group entitled Pluralistic Gaming Research (tagenka suru gêmu bunka kenkyûkai). The highlight of the day was a presentation by Prof. Katô Hiroyasu, a sociologist and communication scholar who wrote extensively about socialization patterns in game centers. Since his work constitutes a big part of the backbone of my thesis, I was looking forward to meet him in person and find out about what is going on in game center research in 2016. I took a few notes about his talk.

Katô covered the emergence and evolution of the media discourse surrounding Japan’s elderly population spending some of their free time in game centers. He started by demonstrating that the connection between elderly and video games has been present in the press since the late 1990s when therapists realized that video game held great potential to be used within rehabilitation programs. In 1997, game centers specifically targeting the elderly demographic started to appear, and while they were financially sustainable for a while, by the year 2000, the majority would close down. However, the topic would appear throughout the years until now and monopolize a lot of media attention.

While it is true game centers are sometimes frequented by elderly people who predominantly like to play coin pusher machines, Katô suggests that, in fact, this proportion is infinitely smaller than what mass media often suggests. Citing a 2012 survey, Katô states that, while there is interest in spending time in game centers, it seems that only about 0.2% bother to go. Other more traditional spaces like supermarket, cafés, malls and social community centers are still much more attractive to this demographic.

These spaces are much more accommodating for many reasons (easier access, drink service, etc.), but with medal games’ continuous drop in popularity in recent years and the increase of market share that networked games (a general term that points at all arcade machines connected to the internet) continue to acquire every year, it is easy to see why game centers are not such a popular option for elderly. Their presence in this space is one that needs to be negotiated. They need to co-exist with plethora other machines that appeal to different demographics, and at different times. The audio-visual frenzy that rythm games and UFO catchers provide clashes with the monotonous and laid back atmosphere of medal game sections in most game centers. Without the proper spacial structure, the fantasy of arcades’s economic revival through customers over 60 years old is an illusion.

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Kyoto’s Plaza Capcom, late at night

While parts of this discourse also reach us through thought news outlets such as The Japan Times, it is important to bear in mind that this whole situation is more of a project than a reality.

Virtua Fighter: A Tale of Two Cabinets

Released on December 6 1993, Virtua Fighter was the most popular fighting game of 1994; it was far ahead of its competition (Super Street Fighter II) on the technical front, and made a big impression amongst gamers and journalists. However, the game was what we can call a “late bloomer” in the game center industry. While typical successful titles hit the top position in popularity charts almost at the moment of their release, Virtua Fighter staying under the radar for about a month after its release. A lot of factors may explain this, but according to some research in RCGS’s archives, the design of the cabinet into which the game was installed played a significant role.

It has become clear to me that Virtua Fighter is a good example to put emphasis on the relation between social affordances and cabinet design; the game ran onto two different cabinet designs implemented at different times, but that were still present in games centers in parallel to each other. One can make the case that each had its own role to attract different audiences, and that these cabinets generated different affordances that resonated well with certain crowds. In other words, the play experience and the social affordances that these two models generated were completely different.

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Super Megalo 50 (picture from Virtua Fighter Maniacs)

Virtua Fighter was first released on a modified version of the Super Megalo 50, a very large cabinet made of two distinct parts: a 50-inch screen and a separate installation that combined both the commands and the seats. The two parts could be placed at various distances from each other. Essentially, two players would sit side-by-side and battle each other within a relatively close space. When the game was first released in this fashion, advertisement campaigns publicized the cabinet’s impressive screen size as much as the game’s technical innovations (the first polygon-based fighting game).

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Astrocity 2 (picture from Virtua Fighter Maniacs)

A month later, Sega released Virtua Fighter for a modified version of the Astrocity 2 cabinet, a standard competition cabinet (taisendai). The screen was much smaller and a separate bench was required to play, and while two sets of controls were installed on the machine, it was more commonly in tandem with another similar unit installed directly behind the cabinet. Both machines were connected via network, and players could play together on two different units. It is at this point that Virtua Fighter took game centers by storm, and dominated the fighting game scene until November of 1994.

According to Game Machine (which ranks games according to the number of machine sold and the general “impression” expressed by the operators surveyed), the evolution of the bimonthly raking of Virtua Fighter is very different according to the cabinet it was shipped in. The Super Megalo 50 version started in first position in the first week, but dropped to second place two weeks after, never to recover again. Game Machine ranks games according to cabinet type and provides a better idea than Coin Journal‘s monthly ranking, which does not make any distinction between them (its ranking system is also very subjective, but that’s a story for another day). However, the latter conducts more precise interviews with operators, and in a specific interview, the reporter states that the introduction of the Astrocity 2 version of the game, along with a slightly better presence in game centers, turned the title from a moderately interesting game to a great crowd pleaser, and that, a month after the release of the second cabinet. A look at Game Machine‘s 1994 ranking confirms that the Astrocity 2 version remains in top position during the year, while the Super Megalo 50 gradually drops lower in the top 15 in its category (it would come back in first position only for two weeks in June of that year).

This story is confirmed in many players and journalist’s accounts of the era where one can read that sitting on a single bench at a machine was a little embarrassing with strangers, especially when matches were one sided. While no sources directly confirms it, it is reasonable to assume that a very different type of crowds made use of the Super Megal0 50 version of Virtua Fighter, people whose purpose in going to the arcade (their “trajectories” as Doreen Massey) was much more compatible with the social affordances of the machine (users’ responses to close-proximity play and its high potential for performing to a crowd is more adapted to players familiar with their opponent). These would have been very different than the socialization patterns that normally characterize game cabinets when the identity of the opponent is often unknown. This is most likely why “power gamers” and beginners felt uneasy using the bigger cabinet; while the game was similar, the social affordances of the cabinet designs were very different.

 

Les problèmes de l’été 1984

Mes collègues du RCGS (Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies) me permettent d’accéder aux archives du centre de recherche dans lesquels j’ai pu faire quelques bonnes découvertes au cours des derniers jours. Notamment, le RCGS possède une grande collection de magazines d’affaires dédiés à l’industrie du divertissement, incluant le magazine Coin Journal se spécialisant dans tout ce qui touche aux game center. Outre plusieurs articles de fond sur l’industrie et de nombreuses annonces pour la vente et l’achat de machines usagées, on y trouve une petite section qui relate la situation générale de l’industrie, et ce directement sur le terrain en visitant quelques salles d’arcades et en posant des questions à leurs propriétaires. Je vous résume la chronique de l’été 1984 où l’on peut constater que les variables affectant la viabilité économique d’une salle ne sont pas tous entièrement maîtrisable.

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Un game center en 1984

Durant l’été 1984, plusieurs établissements visités par l’auteur semblaient avoir beaucoup de difficulté à attirer des clients. Une raison importante semble avoir été le marasme général qui affectait les salles d’arcades depuis quelques années. En fait, la plupart des jeux les plus populaire comme Super Mario, Galaga et Elevator Action étaient des produits vieux d’environs deux ans à l’époque. Évidemment, une certaine monotonie s’installe lorsqu’on retrouve toujours les mêmes jeux installé dans les bornes… Une discussion avec le propriétaire d’une salle révèle que, en fait, sur la dizaine de nouvelles machines faisant leur apparition sur la marché, un établissement ne peut qu’en acquérir une ou deux en raison des limites de budget. En effet, les nouvelles bornes ne cessent d’être de plus en plus dispendieuses alors que le temps qui doit s’écouler avant qu’une nouvelle acquisition devienne rentable est de plus en plus long (de trois à quatre mois). La dite machine cesse alors d’être prisée par les consommateurs généralement à ce moment là. De plus, les manufacturiers se permettent de produire de nouveaux titres plus souvent étant donné que le coût des composants diminue, mais les opérateurs ne profite pas du tout de ces économies. Au contraire, ce flot de nouveaux jeux impose plus de pression et génère d’avantage d’attentes de la part des consommateurs, ce qui s’additionne à une autre grand facteur qui tire leurs revenus vers le bas…

En effet, l’article souligne l’effet de la canicule de 1984 sur les habitudes des consommateurs. C’est simple, mais dévastateur: plus il fait chaud, moins les enfants veulent quitter le confort de l’air climatisé et sortir dehors. L’arrivée de la Famicon l’année précédente signifie qu’il n’est plus nécessaire de s’exposer à la chaleur écrasante de l’été japonais pour aller jouer à Space Invader. En guise de solution, les opérateurs de salles baissent leur prix à 50 yen, 30 yen et parfois à 20 yen pour une partie, et offrent parfois même des boissons gratuites pour attirer les clients. Certains vont même jusqu’à organiser des concours dont les prix incluent bicyclettes, radios et même des ordinateurs personnels pour attirer les joueurs (paraîtrait-il que des sous-vêtements furent aussi offer à un certain moment). Selon l’auteur de l’article, les meilleurs vendeurs pour mai et juin furent des jeux de sport et les jeux VS System, alors que ceux de juillet et août furent des jeux comme Lode Runner et Heiankyo Alien, des titres offrant des expériences beaucoup moins grégaires.

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Les problèmes auxquels font face les game center sont multiples, mais il faut admettre que la température semble avoir eu un impact significatif sur la gestion d’une salle à cette époque. Je vais définitivement garder l’oeil ouvert pour trouver d’autres exemples de ce genre de problème dans d’autres magazines.