A Look into the Crazy Thriving Japanese Arcade Scene

Japanese Arcade Experience

An Interview with Brad Crawford about his film 100 Yen: Japanese Arcade Experience

 Where did the idea of making a movie about Japanese arcades come from?

Well, I moved to Japan, more specifically, Osaka in 2005.

I lived and worked in Japan for 3 years. Coming from a relatively small city in Canada one of the most amazing things about Japan was the fact that arcades were still readily available. Not just readily available but everywhere. Literally hundreds of arcades with crazy games that I’d never seen before. I spent a good deal of time in these places either playing the games or just hanging out and watching some of the amazing players destroy different titles.

It wasn’t until I returned to Canada in 2008 that the idea to document these places really began to form.

I had an opportunity to return to Japan in 2010 for a friends wedding and I decided to take the opportunity to begin filming a documentary.

At the time I hadn’t really decided what the film was going to be about, it started as a few questions about video games. “Why do arcades still exist in Japan?” “What makes Japans arcades different from the North American equivalent, or why didn’t they die?” and as I mentioned, I was still trying to figure out what this film would entail, so another question I had in mind was “why can’t you rent video games in Japan?” This last question didn’t end up playing a role in the film but it was initially a part of the exploration.

100 Yen: The Official Story Trailer from Strata Studios on Vimeo.

With these questions in mind, I spent a month traveling from Tokyo, through Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka filming at arcades and conducting rudimentary interviews with friends and acquaintances.

It was this experience that really jump started the whole project and allowed me to meet and learn more about the arcade scene of Japan, speaking with people such as Brian Ashcraft who wrote the book [easyazon-link asin=”4770030789″ locale=”us”]Arcade Mania[/easyazon-link], Bear Trickey (from Q-games), employees at arcades and just chatting with people about gaming in Japan confirmed that this was a sub-culture that had a lot to say, and was worth investigating and documenting further. One really random chance encounter that leads me to believe that creating this documentary was meant to be was the fact that at my friends wedding which I was attending in Japan, sitting next to me was Gootecks, a rising star amongst the professional Street Fighter players in North America. It enabled me to grab a quick interview with him and helped connect me with the North American fighting game scene.

It wasn’t until after I released the first trailer online that the film really began to form into what it has become now.

People began reaching out to me, people who have a similar passion for video games and arcade culture. People from Taito and Sega… arcade owners and professional gamers… programmers and game designers… people who like me want to show the world what Japan’s arcades have to offer and what makes them unique.

We returned to Japan again in April 2011 with the support of people all over the world both financially and personally. That’s really when the documentary began.

 Obviously the arcade scene is still very strong there. Why does Japan have such a strong market while the arcade market in the US is almost without a pulse?

The arcades of Japan have a long history and a history that is filled with obsession and devotion.

Beginning in the late 70’s arcade culture really took off with games like Space Invaders. This game was so popular that the country literally ran out of 100 Yen coins. The banks couldn’t mint coins fast enough and arcades couldn’t get them back into circulation quick enough.

This is where the title of the film is derived.

This foundation led to a strong cultural gaming presence, it literally became a regular part of society to play games in a public place and is much more well respected than for example in America.

That being said, the arcades in Japan did get negative press around the same time that American arcades died out (90’s) and were definitely seen as places that were dark and filled with delinquents. I just don’t think it reached the same level of negativity, for example, in America; laws were changed to impact the price of creating and taxing an arcade. Politicians spoke out against arcades stating they were areas of bad influence on the children of America etc.

So while Japan may not have always looked kindly on Arcades and arcade culture… America took steps to see them removed from society and branded them as negative locations.

Besides cultural or societal elements, Japan has the added benefit of having two other major factors that help keep arcades alive.

The first is population density, this seems like the obvious explanation for arcades continued success in Japan as cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are jammed with people commuting to downtown metropolis’ every day which creates the perfect opportunity to stop and play some games.

This brings me to the second factor which is train culture. With all of these people heading to a central area of the city, this gives people a reason to stop and wait either for their next train or for their friends getting off work at the same time.

These opportunities fuel arcade business as they are very often located directly adjacent to train stations or busy intersections.
The design of a Japanese Arcade is very much focused on attracting all of the foot traffic caused by this train culture.

The final deciding factor that helps Japanese arcades maintain their success is not only their ability to evolve the games themselves and utilize new technology to draw in customers but simply the service that staff provide.

From maintaining the quality and workmanship of the machines to giving advice and support to frequent and new players alike.

You’ll find dedicated help buttons located throughout the arcades that will summon staff to help troubleshoot problems with machines etc..

basically arcades in Japan evolved from its roots and continue to evolve, the arcades cater to their target audience while branching out to new players and in turn their fans are fiercely loyal and spend a great deal of time and money in their favorite locations.

It’s pretty rare to see an empty arcade in Japan even with the ease of access to console and handheld games that we have today.

I hope that answers your question, all of this is discussed via interviews with key people within the documentary itself.

 I know the Japanese arcades have some unusual games in them. Many of these strange or unique games never even make it over here in America at all. Do you have any arcade favorites over there that Americans probably have never even heard of?

There is a whole genre of games that hit in the mid 2000’s (2003 – 2004) which can be described as card games or tabletop games.

Essentially they are RPG or sports simulators or Troop based war games which you collect cards for from the game itself and these cards are used to interact with the game.

Imagine this, you buy a starter pack of cards for say $5 and then assemble your team (either characters in an Square-Enix RPG “Lords of Vermillion 2“, A baseball or soccer team roster, or your troops and generals that will fight your war) and lay them onto the flat table-top screen.

The screen communicates through RF technology with the individual cards, which you can then physically move across the screen to do different things.

You can change the formation of your team in the RPG with spell casters in the back for example, you can actually use the cards to move around in the game, you can manipulate a single card and hit a button to activate a special ability of that character.

The soccer and baseball games act more like a management simulation where there is less actual game-play interaction (though still some) and more team and player management.

Every time you finish a game, a new pack of cards comes out and you can ad to your collection.

This creates an experience that combines collectible physical cards with a Magic The Gathering kind of feel to interactive video games.

The concept and execution of these games in my mind is brilliant and fresh and it really did launch a revolution in terms of arcade popularity in the mid 2000’s. From Taito’s own mouth 2004 – 2006 was their best years for arcade profitability and that was in large part to the rise of these card games.

This experience to date cannot be replicated at home. Things like the Sony Eyetoy have tried to create a home console version of this type of experience but it is just so tactile and responsive in the arcades, that it is still a ways away before the experience can be replicated in a more simplistic manner.

If you haven’t seen these games, they are definitely worth checking out, unfortunately they aren’t as friendly to casual players as they are quite involved and require a good grasp of the Japanese language.

I would love to see them translated and brought overseas.

The other games that jump out as really fun and exciting are a couple of music games, Jubeat and Reflecbeat, two interactive rhythm games that are really easy to grasp for casual players and can entertain the hardcore fans as well. They really incorporate newer technology into a fun music experience that stuck with me as a fun game that will definitely have a presence in North America eventually.

Finally the gundam pods. These are giant wrap around screens that immerse the player in a physical space that gives you a very ‘blockbuster’ feel to the whole experience. They are big, bright and have a really cool control scheme. You can’t help but be drawn to them in the arcades and once you get the idea behind how they work and listen to the players shouting commands back and forth via headset to players who are connected via the high-speed connection in remote locations, it really jumps out as a major arcade experience.

There are so many interesting games that make me want to spend my time and money in arcades, these are a few that jump out visually and stimulate players.

I could go on and on about all of the unique games and experiences that exist in these places but those are the ones that I think of first and helped inspire me to want to show these places to the world.

 Wow those games sound amazing. Since Japan is so far away, I guess I am going to have to experience these vicariously through your film. Where are you at with production? Do you have a target release date?

We are planning to release the film in 2012, we’re still editing the project with motion graphics etc so it’s a little ways off still but it’s coming.

It’s all post-production at this stage which is good but its very time consuming and since we’ve got a micro-budget I’m still working my regular job which has me away from my office on the road more than I’d like.

 So it sounds like another Kickstarter or IndieGoGo project may be upcoming? Where can people follow your progress on Twitter and Facebook? Anywhere else?

Our IndieGoGo campaign was just announced last week.

People can follow us on twitter @100yenfilm and on facebook.com/100yenfilm. We also have a new website at http://100yenfilm.com.

Editor’s Note: You can also view the film on Amazon Prime.

 Thanks so much Brad for your time and insights into the fascinating Japanese arcade culture. Best of luck with editing process and the film!

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