(Almost) Live from Hell City. Part 2.
So I’m here, I’m in Japan and I’ve an itinerary as long as Santa’s address book of what will be seen and what will done during such a short period of vacation time. Gaming-wise, Akihabara is the obvious priority but no visit would be complete without dropping a few ¥100 coins in a game centre or two.
The game centre. The last true outpost of, what is for many, now a relic of the past. Ancient history. Around the world, almost anywhere you care to visit in fact, the game centre (aka ‘the video arcade’) has virtually disappeared from public life. Once a thriving hotspot for many a person of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the humble game centre has lost out to the convenience of the Internet and home consoles. Gamers no longer need to travel to visit an arcade, simply switch on your console and within seconds you can pop in a disc or download a game with sights, sounds and gameplay that is pretty much leaps and bounds ahead of anything the game centre can offer.
The story is somewhat different in Japan though. Game centres are still viewed as a popular place to relax, meet with friends and while away some precious down time in the busy lives of Tokyoites. Green with envy, enthusiasts from across the globe hope that one day they too can make the long journey east to Japan to visit these legendary game centres.
I was lucky. I made the long journey east. And I visited lots of them.
Taito Station(s). So many of them it requires an (s).
Taito Station game centres are commonplace, not just in Akihabara but across the whole of the Tokyo area. Oddly enough I spent less time in the oft fabled HEY! arcade and more time in the Shinjuku branches of Taito Station.
HEY! Is just like the videos you have doubtless all seen floating around on YouTube. Although it’s sidewalk entrance is tiny, the ground floor immediately opens up to reveal a wealth of crane games, each of them packed to the rafters with a variety of stuffed toys, snacks and expensive-looking figurines. One machine I would later spot in the Shinjuku branch held an RC Helicopter which I actually ended up winning after dropping in ¥100 on a whim.
If you can manage to get past the crowds littering the ground floor, hop onto the escalator immediately in front of you and head for the first floor. This is where the real action is, the meat and potatoes that makes HEY! so revered among gamers the world over. Take a sharp right turn, avoiding the small area of crane games in front of you and prepare to be dazzled (and deafened) by the array of arcade cabinets that stand before you. Each of them louder, brasher and more colourful than the one next to them. Each of them competing for your valuable ¥100. It really is a sight to behold, on one line of cabinets alone I saw three machines housing the very latest release from Cave, DoDonpachi Saidaioujou, and each of them was occupied by some very skillful gamers. Further along the line there is every Cave release you can imagine, including titles produced in lesser numbers, for example, Ibara Kuro and the Mushihimesama Matsuri edition.
I visited HEY! on three separate occasions in the same day to try and get my chance to play DoDonpachi Saidaioujou but each time the cabinets were occupied. I was happy to watch the skilled maestros work their magic, but secretly I wished I could have my turn to play.
My wife surprised me (she’s not a video game player by any means, but takes a keen interest in my hobby, which I greatly respect and appreciate considering the awful hard time some husbands/wives give their partners over their hobby!), I strolled past a line of cabinets to find her tucked away in the corner playing, and enjoying a game of Batsugun! Great taste in games perhaps?
After a further stroll toward the back of the first floor, and taking in the beauty of all the Darius cabinets crammed together in one area, I dropped a few coins in to Mushihimesama Matsuri, Mushihimesama and Espgaluda and called it a day. HEY! is a wonderful game centre to visit. One that you really need to visit regardless so you can tick it off your bucket list. However it does get very busy throughout the day it seems and I found it difficult to put in any serious time into a game or to actually play the games I wanted to play as the majority of cabinets were occupied.
Before we left HEY!, my wife was suddenly overcome with a midas touch and proceeded to clean sweep nearly every UFO catcher on the way out. We left slightly poorer than when we went in, but it was worth it for a bag full of plush toys and a selection box of bizarre fish and wasabi jerky bars.
Mikado. Welcome to the greatest game centre on Earth.
Now this is one game centre you may well not have heard of. Situated in the district of Takadanobaba, within Tokyo (look for it on the Yamanote line near to Shinjuku station), the Mikado game centre is compact, but deserves every single plaudit, medal, honour and award you could bestow upon it.
Simply put, Mikado has it all. It is, in my opinion, the greatest game centre on this Earth.
Although a bit tough to find if you don’t go with the intention of visiting it, Mikado is actually just a stones throw from Takadanobaba station. To get to it, exit the station, take an immediate left turn, walk under the rail bridge and you’ll see a small game centre on the corner of a side street. I forget the name of this small game centre but it was mostly packed with crane games and anything but shooting games. I won some prizes there but that’s pretty much it. Walk up the side street for about 200 meters, past a rather shady manga store called Book Taste (which is an eye-opening experience if you stop by and check it out, that’s all I will say) and on your right will be the entrance to Mikado.
I swung open the big metal door and walked inside. Immediate impression? What kind of game centre blasts out James Blunt – You’re Beautiful over the sound system? After pinching myself I was startled to find true gaming beauty stood before me.
The entire lobby area was dedicated to Darius cabinets! To my left, a couple of Darius Burst Another Chronicle EX cabinets. To my right, not one but two original Darius cabinets! Which, let me tell you now, are no easy cabinets to climb in and out of. It’s like being the size of Jaws from the James Bond movies trying to sit on a minature motorbike.
Looking to the left again, next to the DBAC cabinets was an original Darius II cabinet and if that wasn’t enough, a cabinet running Darius Gaiden just to top off the Darius goodness!
For me, this was heaven, my favourite series of shooting games, right there, in abundance at every possible angle I could care to look at. Massive brownie points for Mikado right there!
The majority of the rest of the ground floor was taken up with a split of puzzle, fighting, mahjong and crane cabinets. There were a few shooting games packed in to the back rows of the ground floor, V-V and Tatsujin Oh being just two that spring to mind. I ended up spending a lot of Yen on V-V during my visit!
A quick stroll upstairs, past the official Heavy Metal Raiden merchandise, Mikado is an official outlet for Heavy Metal Raiden merchandise, albums and concert tickets, and Mikado just steps into its stride. Again, tucked away in the corner are a few fighting games, less puzzle games this time. But the real cherry on the cake is the gathering of shooting games, en masse, in the one place. It’s truly a breathtaking site.
Mikado has it all and more. You want to play Asteroids? Done. How about a quick shot at Shooting Love 2007? Done. Fancy a break from the normal cabinets? Hop on to an Afterburner or OutRun cabinet and shake off the LS-56 induced carpal tunnel syndrome for a while!
Just walking past a literal handful of cabinets, there was Armed Police Batrider, Battle Garegga and Tiger Heli all packed together. Shooting game royalty, right there, one cabinet after the other. Turn the corner and you’ve a row of Gradius and Raiden titles. Astonishing stuff I think you will agree.
Fancy a bit of a break or want to do some shopping? Mikado takes care of those needs too. Step outside and next door you have a Lawson convenience store and an array of vending machines to boot. Shopping? sure thing. Hop back up to the first floor where you will find the Mikado Shop.
Mikado Shop was the icing on the cake for me. A small but tightly packed little store, tucked away at the top of the stairs, Mikado Shop sells a variety of pulp and digital items. Here you can pick up copies of Shooting Gameside (like Heavy metal Raiden, the Mikado Shop is an official, approved outlet for the magazine, in fact the editor in chief (and previously interviewed at Pink Bullets) Yusaku Yamamoto can often be seen here spending some down time playing Gradius) and Arcadia, Old Gamers and so on.
Superplay DVD titles are plentiful, and cheaper than Akihabara prices. I purchased a copy of Shooting Gameside Vol. 5 and Raiden The Flash Desire which was amazingly brand new and sealed. I didn’t think sealed copies of this title were still available! An assortment of doujin superplay titles were available too including an incredibly expensive box set of 50 or so superplay titles. Too rich for my diet, but a super sight to behold all the same.
If you’ve read my thoughts on Mikado and think it sounds just like any other Japanese game centre, then think again. It’s not.
What sets Mikado apart from every other game centre I visited (lots of miscellanous ones and too numerous to describe in detail here) is the staggering level of passion that oozes from every single pore of this little game centre’s heart. Cabinets are clean and well maintained. The all important stools are comfortable and not torn to bits. The overall environment is pleasant to be in, unlike other game centres I visited that felt somewhat cold, uninviting and sterile.
However it’s the little touches aside from the aesthetics that set Mikado apart from the rest. Mikado feels like a small, passionate community run by gamers for gamers. Dotted around the building are the usual promotional posters, but look closer and you will find large cardboard signs in prominent position, each detail different game center record high scores or the latest results from a tournament. I didn’t notice it at the time, and I stand to be corrected if this is wrong, but at one point in time Mikado fitted monitors and DVR devices to cabinets to record superplay runs or general customer runs. I believe this still goes on to this day although I am unaware of Mikado produced titles. Even still, whether they’ve ceased or it’s still going, that’s a fantastic little touch that just makes Mikado that little bit more special.
If you are planning to visit Japan, or live in Japan and haven’t heard of Mikado, I strongly recommend paying a visit. Whether you are a shooting game fan or not, you won’t be disappointed.
Still not convinced? Check out the video below that I recorded during one of my visits!
To be continued.
NOTE: All photos taken were with the permission and blessing of the Mikado staff.