The best and the weirdest new games in Japanese arcades
26th Mar 2010 | 12:45
When the going gets weird, the weird head to Akihabara
The continuing allure of Japan's gaming parlours
Unlike most Brits, many Japanese gamers are still hardcore arcade addicts, flocking to Japan's annual All Nippon Amusement Machine Operator's (AOU) event each February to see what new amusements are on offer from the likes of Namco, Taito, Sega and Konami.
For anybody who was in their teens or twenties in Britain throughout the 1980s, mere mention of those four company names triggers a deep-seated nostalgia for the early days of electronic gaming.
For what seems a more innocent age, when wandering into the seaside arcade to play Sega's mighty OutRun or After Burner, Konami's Track and Field, Atari's Gauntlet or Pole Position, or (my own personal favourite) Irem/Data East's Kung Fu Master.
KUNG-FU MASTER: The best of the 1980s, in a box
Most hardcore gamers and games developers still retain that passion for the arcade, although to be fair the closest many of them get is by downloading some dodgy MAME ROMs on their laptops for a quick retro-nostalgia fix now and then.
The ubiquitous next-gen home console now means that Britain's arcade scene is a shadow of its 1980's glory days, though there are still plenty of (often secret) places to be found in every major city where you can find a smattering of the best new games coming out of Japan each year.
"Japanese arcades have always tried to give players something they cannot experience anywhere else," says Kotaku Editor, Brian Ashcraft, author of the superb book Arcade Mania: The Turbo-Charged World of Japan's Game Centers.
"With graphics at the level that they are today on home consoles, arcade game developers need to offer something else. 3D seems like a smart choice. Also, hi-def screens, as not everyone in Japan has an amazing TV set-up are another good idea. Networked play is smart, too, because many Japanese players have traditionally been reluctant to play online."
Ashcraft argues that fighters and shoot 'em up games continue to have a strong showing in Japanese arcades simply because they still, "offer the best environment and play conditions to enjoy these types of games."
ARCADE MANIA:We've all been there
Even though there was evidence of a slight downturn at this year's AOU, there is no argument that the arcade industry in Japan is still in rude health.
According to the official Japanese Amusement Machines Manufacturers Association (JAMMA) in 2009 the domestic market was still worth 205.5 billion yen (around £1.5 billion, down 2.2% from the previous year) while the overseas market hit 13.6 billion yen (around £100 million, up 2.7% from the previous year).
"The reality is that the dip in revenue seems more based on the financial conditions in Japan," says industry analyst Kevin Williams, who edits the trade news outlet The Stinger Report - with the amusement arcade able to keep its head above water better than the dip seen in consumer game revenue.
"The digital out-of-home entertainment market has grown in recent years as interest in unique and compelling content in the social environment mimics the drive to social networking online." Williams adds.
TechRadar spoke with a number of arcade industry analysts and reps from the likes of Sega and Konami to find out more about where the arcade industry in Japan is at right now. What are the key trends and the new games and technologies that are driving innovation (and footfall) in the Japanese arcade? What were the highlights of this year's AOU? And what are the strangest games right now to be spotted in dingy corners of Akihabara's vast five-floor gaming parlours?
Where to play in the UK?
"While many claim that there are no arcades any more – the reality is that amusement machines now populate a diverse selection of venues," says Kevin Williams.
"Many of the latest amusement titles make land-fall in the UK in the capital, with one of the biggest and most up-to-date sites being the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus – with the latest new machines on test. Another major venue is the County Hall site just by the London Eye – run by Namco, offering a broad mix of the latest and greatest."
What is more, if you are particularly lucky, you might find that you live near to one of those chosen arcade sites where the likes of Sega, Konami and others like to drop in their latest machines for anonymous testing purposes.
TechRadar also understands that Konami usually tests machines in locations in West London close to its UK office. They also tend to do this without publicising the test so that they are able to "true" figures on the potential of the machine and see how the general public get on with the product, instead of getting skewed figures from core players.
DANCE TO THE MUSIC:Konami's latest DDR machines are always popular
"The leading amusement manufacturers have special relationships with distributors in the UK who place many of the new releases on test at special locations," says Williams, "and these test sites are dotted around the capital."
The hardcore highlights of AOU 2010
While attendance was slightly down at AOU 2010, the excitement amongst the hardcore about new games such as Metal Gear Arcade and Gundam VS made visiting the show all the more worthwhile for the arcade faithful that had made their annual pilgrimage to the Makuhari Messe just outside of Tokyo.
"The 24th All Nippon Amusement Machine Operator's Union event (AOU'10) was a great mix of the weird and the wonderful," says Kevin Williams. "The crowds that filled the public day proved the still strong support in the home market that amusement has achieved."
METAL DREAMS:Konami's 3D-enabled Metal Gear Arcade features head-tracking
In Williams' opinion, "Konami's Metal Gear Arcade was the game of the show; Sega also brought its own big concept game to the show with Project DIVA Arcade, competing with other games from Konami and Namco; and returning to a more traditional line, Namco Bandai have Deadstorm Pirates that offers two player enclosed cabinet shooting action with a strong graphical representation – based on the PS3 arcade hardware variant."
One of the big surprise successes at AOU was the appearance of the American developed gun game, Terminator Salvation – "based on the motion picture this old-school amusement shooter proved a game that can compete with the best of them," as did Taito's UK-developed GAIA ATTACK 4 – "a four-player shooting extravaganza that utilized a unique presentation of overlaid graphics on real world surroundings."
For the hardcore, a glimpse of a video demo of Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown was the biggest thrill from Sega at this year's AOU, which game director Daiichi Katagiri promises will be the "ultimate form for Virtua Fighter 5." While a few other interesting titles from Sega were Border Break 1.5 and bonkers 2D fighter Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code.
TERMINATOR SALVATION: Traditional hardcore arcade action
Namco Bandai's biggest AOU announcement was also a video teaser of the new Gundam fighting game, Gundam Extreme VS, which makes use of the PlayStation 3-based System 357 arcade board. Namco Bandai's pirate-themed gun game Dead Storm Pirates also attracted a lot of attention, as did street racer Wangan Midnight Maximum Tuned 3DX Plus.
Over at the Konami booth, rhythm-action fans were treated to new updates in the popular Bemani series including GuitarFreaks XG, DanceDanceRevolution X2, and jubeat knit.
But it was Konami's playable debut of the aforementioned Metal Gear Arcade that really stole the show, an offshoot of the PS3's Metal Gear Online in which everything is viewed in 3D via a rather fetching pair of 3D goggles which also feature head-tracking to allow you to control your sights in the game, set targets and scroll the screen with your head movements. In addition to that, you aim and fire with the game's gun peripheral, which also has a stick for moving your character.
METAL GEAR GOGGLES:3D head-tracking tech developed by Konami
It is the kind of experience the arcade was made for – a sublime gaming experience that is so technically advanced that we are unlikely to be able to replicate it on home console for some years to come.
If you can find the full eight cabinet setup in your local arcade, we urge you to throw some money at it, if you want a taste of what proper 3D gaming can be. Konami is actually planning to introduce goggle vending machines in arcades, for those gamers that don't like the idea of donning a headset worn by hundreds of others before them.
Retooling the Japanese arcade
"The arcade industry in Japan is currently in the process of retooling," says Brian Ashcraft. "There are inventive and imaginative business models in place - such as the example being set by what shoot 'em up developer Cave is doing with its games and arcades."
Cave, for the uninitiated, is the Japanese developer behind shmup classics as Mushihime-sama Futari, and the leading developer is now releasing its arcade games to Japanese arcade owners for free, taking a percentage of the profits from each machine. Which, as Ashcraft notes, "means arcades have much lower risk than with traditional arcade games."
Like most attendees at this year's AOU, Ashcraft was quite taken with Konami's ability to "continue to produce beautiful and impressive arcade cabinets, while testing out things like 3D goggles with the upcoming Metal Gear Arcade," while also name-checking companies like Taito for "rebooting arcade franchises like Elevator Action in new ways."
Also, he reminds us that many popular hardcore titles on console still follow the arcade's lead in Japan: "Lest we not forget, some of the most impressive recent fighting games, like BlazBlue, debuted in arcades."
BORDER BREAK: Sega released a new update to its popular arcade game at AOU 2010
However, all is not peachy-creamy in the land of the Japanese gaming parlour, with the recent tough times in the world economy taking their toll.
"The economy in Japan has been tough," says Ashcraft, "not just for arcade games, but for video games as well as manga publishers. Disposable income is lower now than in years past and everyone is feeling the pinch."
Despite the infernal credit crunch effect, there are still a number of innovations in Japanese arcade gaming that haven't (yet) made it to the west, with Ashcraft citing the card game craze in particular. "Something that has brought Square Enix, primarily a console game maker, into the arcade scene. Of course, Square Enix owns Taito, so there is a strong arcade connection for the company."
In addition to the Metal Gear Arcade and the video announcement of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, Ashcraft's top tips from AOU 2010 include Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code,
Project DIVA Arcade and "the world's first two-legged robot amusement machine" Robo Catcher (which you can see a video demo of right here).
Sega sees money in medals
Sega Corporation's Takuya Kishimoto, is the man responsible for overseas arcade sales. He is tasked with accurately predicting which of Sega's arcade machines will work in western arcades.
Kishimoto is the first to admit that the Japanese arcade industry is facing tough times, noting that the industry's "population itself may be bit steady or bit decreasing" and that "visitors to AOU has decreased to 85% compared to last year, on both Business Day and Public Day."
The Sega rep informs us that Japanese arcade operators are currently earning money in "Medal Games" where people buy tokens (or medals) that can't be changed back to money, "and many casual players and core medal game fans play certain games to enjoy trying to get more tokens just for fun."
'Entertainment Photo Machines' are also proving very popular with the young ladies of Tokyo, according to Kishimoto, where high resolution pictures are printed on to stickers and players can "fabricate pictures taken to make yourself more cute." But it's difficult to see how those kinds of machines would make Sega any money outside of its homeland. So what about the videogames?
"Games are now very steady on population, but have changed their trend to on-line games," says Kishimoto, adding, "recent features for these are 'compliant to mobile phones/internet', 'frequent update on software' and 'online player vs player'."
Sega Amusements was showing off some cracking new games at this year's AOU including Sengoku Taisen (a popular new card game based around Japanese History), Border Break Ver1.5 (an update for the one of the top three earning games in Japan right now) and music game Project DIVA ("using a popular character to internet geeks called Hatsune Miku," says the Sega rep!).
Our favourite weird Japanese arcade games
If that last title doesn't sound strange and geeky enough for the non-Otaku amongst us, there are always guaranteed to be some barking mad new arcade games that arrive each year that cause no end of amusement to western tourists wandering around Akihabara's gaming and pachinko parlours.
Brian Ashcraft's love of Robo Catcher – a game in which you move a real-life robot with a joystick and buttons to get a prize - indicates one new trend in Japan's arcade scene, but there are a few others to watch out for the next time you are lucky enough to be in Tokyo with some free time to kill, including, in no particular order:
Chabudai Gaeshi ('Pull over the table' – in which you flip a table and are scored by how many things you break on the table and in the room).
Omatsuriya-san Takoyaki (A game where you can imitate making a traditional food in Japan called Takoyaki which features a "smell unit" attached which realistically reproduces the smell of the food).
Gundam Senjyou no Kizuna (Using the famous animation "Gundam", a robot action game where player gets inside a pod to move the robot, where online players can fight against other players in a different location).
Grand Cross (A huge medal game where 32 players can play at once. The machine is almost as big as a Luton Van).
Taito's pogo stick inspired game Hopping Road – where players control cartoon characters bouncing round the race course.
Canadian developer TrioTech Amusement's STOMPER DLX – which uses a special floor projector system that allows the players movements to interact with various game scenarios.
Sega's Heat Up Hockey: IMAGE – a projected playing field overlaying a conventional air-hockey table.
Tetris Giant – the puzzle game played with giant vibrating joysticks and projected onto a big screen.
Liked this? Then check out 14 arcade machines that led to a misspent youth
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