One day in Akhibara (Tokyo’s electric city)
I, as I’m sure, like most of you, grew up with computer games. The Safari Hunt green haze on the Master System is the only thing that keeps me company on many lonely nights. I wondered, even at a young age, where the heck was all this coming from. It certainly wasn’t Sidcup. Growing up I was an avid Sega Power reader despite its bias towards Mega Drive (which I didn’t get until I was 15) and every now and then there would be an article or article about Tokyo, considered by many to be the birthplace of video games (although some Americans may not agree …).
Items would include a blur of neon lights, hundreds and hundreds of arcade machines, and thousands of young Japanese people playing games we barely recognized. To a nine-year-old, this place seemed like heaven.
Finally, twenty-three years later, I managed to visit my good partner Dave. Tokyo is everything you would expect it to be, with hidden treasures in every corner, it’s impossible not to walk around, gaping, muttering “Oh my God.” The place considered to be the center of Tokyo’s geek culture is Akhibara (affectionately known as Akiba by the Tokyoites). The Lonely Planet guide that I have suggested one afternoon there …
Dave and I spent an entire day there, and if time weren’t a factor, I could have spent many more days immersed in his awesomeness.
The first thing that struck me about Akiba (except for the lights, so many lights …) was how accessible it was and how much there is, all within easy reach. There’s a shop at the train station, for God’s sake! The shops are a five-story paradise. And they like your trade / battle cards. When you say “Japanese trading cards” in the UK, what do you immediately think of? Pokémon, right? Incorrect! I counted more than ten shops on a street in Akiba dedicated to selling all kinds of trading cards. Did you have any idea what it was about? In the least! Some of these cards, individually, retail for about £ 100. I saw some cards in English, just with a few words like “skip a turn” or something you might see on a Monopoly card, and they cost over 40,000. yen (£ 200).
Before the hardcore shopping started, we had to try some of these arcade machines and boy did they! One problem, everything is in kanji. As long as you can work your way through the menu screens, it’s a lot of fun.
Dave found this cool blast game from Square Enix, but poor menu choices led him to follow a ten minute tutorial. However, not bad for 100 yen (60p). Regardless of the game, everything costs 100 yen. Remember those dance mat games? They love the ones here, but there is no mat, no, no, there is a touch screen that you have to crush with your hands or about ten buttons, that you crush with your hands. The hand-eye coordination of some of these guys was impressive. I tell a lie, there was a dance game, but the boy was dancing on both sets of squares, nailing what two people would have trouble with.
Japan’s love affair with RPG has never been more prominent than here. The ridiculous money on battle cards aside, 50% of the games in the arcade were RPGs, or at least action games with a strong role-playing bias. Although games like the previous Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star were considered to be strong, neither of them sold as well in the UK and only a small part of the Japanese market was translated into English. It’s only in the last ten years that Nintendo and Square have bothered to treat the western gamer with the entire Final Fantasy series. If this type of arcade sounds too overwhelming, head over to Super Potato (shiny, shiny name) for lots of old-school arcade machines, including early versions of Street Fighter 2 and Golden Ax. So now to shopping. In my head I imagined rows and rows of 8- and 16-bit games, consoles, bargain bins full of “classics” and you know what? It did not disappoint.
What you’ll need to get over quickly is the fact that only the handheld stuff is region-free, everything else is just from Japan.
You should also get stuck as casual reading of the game spine becomes impossible because everything is in Kanji. You can’t move all over the Famicom (NES) and Super Famicom (SNES) gear, I mean, it’s everywhere! You can buy a second-hand Famicom for around 4,000 yen (£ 20) or a Super Famicom for a little more than that. Which seems completely worth it, as you can get arcade / platformer games that were never released here (as well as RPG streams and streams you’ll never figure out). Here came my next reveal, the comparative paucity of Sega options. I saw around four Mega Drives for sale all over Akiba and they retailed for 10,000 yen (£ 50) and the Master System I saw was 20,000 yen (£ 100 – second hand, first version, boxed) with the sets about 3000 yen. My dream of picking up a bunch of MS loot died there and then … I’ll discuss Sega’s ups and downs on another feature, but its lack of impact on the home entertainment industry on its own turf could be explained by its focus on the arcade machines which was very evident in Akiba.
I could go on and on, but the same applies as for any other adventure you go on, Akiba is what you do. Whether you prefer to raid bargain bins for Famicom games or wander the streets sipping coffee from the can vending machine while watching scantily clad Japanese girls in cleaning cafes, Akhibara is a must have for any video game fan. .
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