Kill Time and Zombies: Four of Tokyo’s Most Exciting Game Centers
This article is part of a new collaboration between FT Globetrotter and Nikkei Asia. FT Globetrotter will feature the best journalism from Nikkei Asia writers on cities across the region, starting with Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. You can read more about Nikkei Asia here
Tokyo is a frenetic city. With a population of around 14 million, it is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. So, as you can imagine, there are plenty of options when it comes to entertainment. But for many of its inhabitants, arcades (called game centers in Japan) are a favorite pastime.
Japanese arcades, commonly called ge-sen and usually located near train stations, are the epitome of fun mixed with convenience. Game centers first appeared in the 1960s, located in movie theaters, department stores, and bowling alleys. They became hugely popular, even more so in the late 70s when the Japanese shooter space invaders become a global phenomenon.
Games range from solo games to group games for friends and usually start at ¥100 per game. Each center has its own vibe, from those with blaring anime music to older, more low-key establishments that still allow occasionally smoke. There are centers with the latest virtual reality technology where you can wrestle with zombies, and those with nostalgic arcade games that date back to the 70s and 80s. Players are just as diverse: families, teenagers, young couples in appointments, foreigners, (white-collar) employees, people with disabilities, elderly people – and the list goes on.
Most game centers open around 10am or 11am and you can play until 11pm or midnight (advance booking is not necessary). However, children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult after 6 p.m. and no minor can enter after 10 p.m.
Once inside the gaming center, convert your notes to coins at the exchange machine, although some newer establishments also accept some e-currencies. If someone is already playing the game of your choice, you can either search for other games or wait quietly behind them for your departure. The polite thing is to play once and then give to the person waiting for their turn. But when it comes to games with prizes, such as claw machines, people tend to keep playing until they win something, so you can hang around for a while.
Game centers are the perfect place to go if you have time to kill before a date or want to relax after work – or even have a little fun after dinner. Here is my pick of the best places to gamble in Tokyo.
GiGO Akihabara 1
1-10-9 SOTOKANDA, CHIYODA-KU, TOKYO 101-0021
Good for: Beginners
Not so good for: Those not in the anime or manga
FOR YOUR INFORMATION: Open 10am-11pm and games start at ¥100. There are also a few other GiGOs in the area – perfect for a game center exploration
In the heart of Tokyo, Akihabara, or Akiba, is known as the “electric city”. It’s popular with tourists and is full of cheap electronics stores. But Akiba is also synonymous with otaku (geek), and it’s filled with anime shops, “maid cafes” and, of course, game centers.
Most notable are the GiGO game centers around Akihabara Station. Previously run by gaming giant Sega, which had operated them since the early 1990s, the arcades were recently rebranded as GiGO.
All the usual games are here – claw machines, card games, racing games and rhythm games, including one of the most popular, Taiko no Tatsujin, which involves a traditional Japanese percussion instrument. The beloved game features a catalog of tracks ranging from the latest J-pop to classical music and Disney hits like “Let It Go.” The goal is to hit the drum accurately when the notes appear on the screen.
Taito Fuchu Kururu Station
Floor B1, Kururu Mall, 1-50 MIYAMACHI, FUCHU, TOKYO 183-0023
Good for: Parents who want their children to have a good time
Not so good for: Those who don’t like noisy and crowded places
FYI: A smartphone app can be used to contact a store employee by scanning the QR code on the gaming machines. Open 10am-11pm and games start at ¥100
This center located in a shopping center on the outskirts of Tokyo specializes in one game in particular: claw machines. With over 400, it is one of the largest arcades of its type in the world.
Aisle after aisle you’ll see claw machines with prizes ranging from BTS dolls, Minecraft swords, Minion plushies and gigantic bags of chips to handy goods like frying pans, cooler bags, phone chargers laptop and fake security cameras.
After marveling at the sheer scale of the place, you should head to the change machine, as you’ll need a sufficient supply of ¥100 coins. Use one of the red cups stacked near you as a makeshift purse and you’ll be ready to play.
From my own experience I have learned that persistence pays off when it comes to claw machines. But if you get stuck and have trouble finding a good strategy, don’t hesitate to ask the staff for help, they are very friendly and will kindly give you tips to win a prize.
Mikado Play Center
4-5-10 TAKADANOBABA, SHINJUKU-KU, TOKYO 169-0075
Good for: Revisit the games of your childhood
Not so good for: People who don’t like dirty places
FOR YOUR INFORMATION: It has a very large Pop-up Pirate game, if you want to try your luck. Open from 10 a.m. to midnight on weekends (and until 11:30 p.m. on weekdays). Most games start at ¥50, some at ¥100
Less than a minute’s walk from Takadanobaba station is Mikado, a fairly well-known destination for gamers. The place is full of vintage video games from the 80s and 90s, with the upper floor almost entirely occupied by fighting games such as Guilty Equipment and Street fighter. There are also shooting games like Dariusrhythm games such as beatmania and good old pinball machines.
This place is a treasure trove of iconic games. Despite the pettiness and the strong smell of cigarettes, it holds a mysterious and nostalgic power that makes you want to come back for the chance to step back in time.
Mikado has a relaxed atmosphere and isn’t too crowded except when it holds tournaments, which bring together a few dozen participants and spectators. As a host of these events, it plays a key role in preserving Japan’s gaming center culture and its community. For anyone looking to play classic games, I can’t think of a better place.
Floors 3-5, Tokyo Beach Bridges, 1-6-1 DAIBA, MINATO-KU, TOKYO 135-0091
Good for: virtual reality games
Not so good for: People prone to motion sickness
FOR YOUR INFORMATION: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes that are easy to put on
Admittedly, it is more of an amusement park with play center qualities. But Joypolis, as the largest indoor theme park in Japan, is your best bet for testing VR games.
The most exciting of these is Zero Latency VR, free-roaming multiplayer. It requires a reservation and is a bit pricey, starting at ¥2,200. You choose from five games, including the adrenaline-charged game arena of the undeadwhich takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where players take part in a live television show who must take down zombies to survive.
After some instructions, you are equipped with a VR headset, a pair of headphones, a 5kg backpack and an equally heavy gun. Once the game starts, there is no turning back. Zombies will come relentlessly from all sides and you’ll find yourself screaming frantically trying to point the gun at their head. After finishing the game, I desperately needed a handkerchief to wipe off the sweat.
For those looking for less intense options, Joypolis also offers more accessible and inexpensive VR shooters, as well as beat the saber, a VR rhythm game. Anyone curious about VR games or planning to buy a VR headset might find Joypolis the best place for a try.
Tell us about your favorite Tokyo game center in the comments
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