Dearest readers, remember the time you spent in an arcade game centre? Now it’s time to declare your undying love for arcades since they are very much alive and kicking! For the new Arcade Mania! book published in English by Kodansha International, American Brian Ashcraft from Osaka — with the help of our dearest friend Canadian Jean Snow from Tokyo — went on an extensive trip into Tokyo’s cherished arcades. In the book, they talk to the original game designers and feed you with all kinds of delicious insight into the Japanese retro game universe, a world where it’s totally normal for schoolgirls to frequent sticker machines after school, or housewives heading for the UFO catcher. PingMag had an exciting chat with Brian Ashcraft.
Written by Verena
Soichi Nagasato, the CEO of “Robo Catcher” producing company MechaTraX. From Arcade Mania! Photo courtesy of MechaTraX. Courtesy of Kodansha International
First and foremost, do you remember the first time you played in an arcade?
One of my early memories of playing in an arcade in America was a Star Wars game where you flew an X-wing fighter and it had vector graphics. Memories like that really stuck out! I was born in the 70’s and, like many people my age who grew up in the States, Europe, or Japan, all throughout my childhood until I was 13 or 14, I spent a lot of time in arcades playing games like Street Fighter II and others. A lot of people like me had the Nintendo Entertainment System as their first console and they can probably remember playing games like Pac-Man or Mario Bros in the arcades. That’s that generation experience!
The interesting thing is that when I came to Japan and met my wife, her office was in a building in Umeda, Osaka. And when I would wait for her to finish work, I would go to the arcade in the basement of the building and kill an hour there. There were a lot of nice memories of going to arcades and spending my time — but not necessarily wasting my time, and then going to see my girlfriend who later became my wife.
In Japan, the arcades exist in many different places and are readily available. Whereas when I was a kid in America, you needed a car to drive to arcades or you could go play the one or two games that were at the convenience store or pizza parlour near your house. That was a really big difference and some of the reasons why arcades haven’t survived in the US — because you had to drive places to get to them.
So it was more of a problem of infrastructure… Let’s get to Arcade Mania!! A great part of your book is about the people behind the games. How did you select them, such as the genuine Sakurina the Sticker Model Queen from the sticker-picture booths?
The thing is, talking about video games is interesting, but talking about people and their interaction with these games or why they made them is much more interesting! Some people can read about the nuts and bolts arcade games, and that information is there for them; other people are more interested in the pop culture angle and what it means for society. So, that is also in the book and it was a matter of balancing those two different angles.
Being a contributing editor at Wired, I thought that the best way to do that was find somebody to tell that story. For each chapter I wanted to find someone who would be a good representation of that genre. For example sticker pictures, who would be someone who knows a lot about that? There was this model, Rina Sakurai, who has been in advertisements for sticker-picture machines and she has worked for a company designing the machines. From her, we could branch out to other people…
What a good concept!
It made for a more compelling and lively story to say that we have this main character and she’s going to introduce us to this genre as opposed to only talking about sticker pictures, for example. And there’s a lot of research into things like that that had never appeared in English before. Or, for example, the UFO catcher lady — there was this woman who was on Japanese TV who was a genius at playing crane games. So we said we have to talk to her! The great thing was that, if i couldn’t go up to Tokyo for an interview, Jean could step in and do some of the interviews and it really helped shoulder the workload.
Nice! And who in the arcade industry left the biggest impression on you?
In the chapter about shooting games I talked a lot about Kenta Cho, a great game programmer. In that chapter I also interviewed Minoru Ikeda who runs Insanity Naked Hunter. They film players who are really great at arcade games playing and make these super play DVDs. He was the nicest, most unbelievably supportive person I dealt with as he was very generous and went out of his way to help us line up other interviews.
I wondered why he was so helpful and it seemed like it was just out of the good will of his heart; there was something very pure about his willingness to help us. He said that he really wanted the faces of arcade players out there because they don’t really get monetary rewards for what they do, though some of them go to tournaments and win some money at them. These are people who really like something so much that they’ll invest sometimes thousands of dollars into getting really good at it, and its just so that they can walk into an arcade and beat the crap out of anyone at the game.
Another person that really stood out was Yu Suzuki at SEGA. He has been around in the game industry for so long and created most of it, and he still thinks about ways he would like arcade gaming to grow, like maybe use somebody’s cellphone as game controller in an arcade game. Or he talks hypothetically about what if somebody got an implant chip. The impressive thing about him is that the wheels are still turning in his head and it’s so inspiring that he still has that passion, that desire. Because after a lot of designers get to a certain point, a certain age, they more or less just check out. The games they produce seem to get less sharp.
From the game, sweet Seseri! Photo courtesy Cave Co. Ltd. From Arcade Mania! Courtesy of Kodansha International
Which would get us to the next — what makes a good arcade game?
The really nice thing about a lot of arcade games is that you have one ¥100 coin and you’re going to see whether or not you like that game based on that coin. As soon as you put it in, the fun has to start immediately. If it’s not new or exciting, you won’t put in a second coin and that game will wither up and die. That’s very interesting as a business model, and also an interesting way to engage with something because you actually have the freedom to invest how long you want to spin with this. Whereas, for example, if you’re watching a movie, you wouldn’t watch the first twenty minutes and then decide whether you want to watch and pay for the rest of it. Arcade games, in a way, offer people that choice.
Also, because of that, arcade games must be well designed since the first impression is so important. With arcade games, they can’t release a half-finished product and then release a patch to fix it. That’s fine for home games, but not for arcades. If something is not working, people would just walk away; Japanese game design has been improved by that. But to release a game with glitches, that’s something maybe more Western designers are willing to do. They come from a background of personal computer game design where they can go back and fix problems with the software. Whereas in Japan, there is traditionally a strong arcade game culture and companies like Namco, SEGA or Taito have their roots firmly in arcade games. To release a finished product is part of their corporate DNA.
Apart from that, one of the distinctions of the strong Japanese game culture in general is its utter acceptance in society since it’s so much integrated in the mainstream. What do you think?
There is a long history of game developing in Japan, a tradition so to speak. It’s a domestic industry, and, for example, you see a lot more advertisement on regular TV for gaming. It doesn’t seem marginalised. And when you go to the arcades, you see a nice cross-section of society where you have older businessmen, students and kids, all together mixed in the same space.
A very egalitarian feel…
An arcade would be something like your neighbourhood bathhouse, the sento, where pretty much anybody can go in and congregate. In comparison, a Pachinko parlour is a much more closed environment than an arcade centre because younger kids can’t just walk into one. Moreover, at a Pachinko, you don’t get your money back.
Speaking of the places, it was so much fun to read about Shibuya Kaikan Monaco, a retro arcade centre in Shibuya, and its staff! They seem to be dedicated gamers who keep running around tirelessly to fix stuff. And when something is broken, they use tape to fix the machines!
The thing that is so nice about retro arcades is the upkeep which is often very impressive. You can find a game there that is 15 or even 20 years old — and it still works. The cabinets are usually in a really nice shape, the buttons don’t stick, the joysticks work. Stuff like that matters! In places like Monaco, you see the guys at work, between plays, going to a cabinet and dusting it, or using wet tissues to make sure the buttons and joysticks are clean. And even though the place smells like an ashtray, like human sweat and canned coffee, there’s a great deal of love and care put into the upkeep. I think that’s indicative for the culture in Japan where people tend to put pride in.
There’s something to be said about getting off the train at a place like Akihabara and walking into an arcade like Taito Hey, putting a ¥1,000 note into the money changer, getting a stack of coins and sitting down in one of the best places of shooting games on planet Earth. Or going to a place like Club SEGA on a Friday, seeing groups of people watching players beat the crap out of each other in Virtua Fighter. It’s like the difference between watching a movie on DVD and watching a movie in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, a very historic place.
Very true! So, which arcade game impressed you the most?
That’s easy! My favourite game is not out yet — The King of Fighters XII! Because it is made by Osaka-based SNK and they are really well known for arcade fighting games and this is almost like their undying love letter to arcades. They actually went in and had their artist hand-draw every single pixel in the game. Instead of just having, for example, a program and them using some sort of middle ware to create the game, some person in their Osaka office went through and drew every single thing in that game, even the opening credits and the company logo. That’s amazing! That’s the hardcore, old-school way of making games… But today it’s not cost productive, it’s nuts! However their argument is, “This was the way it has been and we do this better than anyone else, and we want to make the greatest arcade fighting game ever!” To see that dedication and very concentrated commitment to game design as an art, it warms your heart!
Another company who impressed my was CAVE based in Tokyo. They said, “We want to make the best arcade shooting games on Earth, and that’s all we’re going to make!” It’s not like that game genre is really expanding. But they said, “It’s a niche, but there are people who want to play these games and expect high-quality products and we will deliver that!” That’s their identity and if they suddenly stopped making shooting games, the Japanese game buying public would be a little confused.
Oh my! We hope arcades will be lasting forever! Thank you, Brian. Folks, Arcade Mania! (in English) is out already in Japan and will be released around December or so in the States and on Amazon, of course. Grab one!