In the heyday of Japan’s gaming splendour arcade halls were filled with the latest and greatest machines. They were date spots, places for school kids to hang out, somewhere to check out the newest cabinets, a place for developers to show off their latest technologies and control gimmicks. These days it seems few companies bother anymore, as the general public has finally gotten tired of throwing away good cash for short-term gratification and are now demanding cheap toys for their hard-earned lolly. UFO catchers are everywhere; like a virus they have spread and taken over most of the gaming establishments.
UFO Catchers are the type of games where you maneuver a crane with a grab arm over a pit of soft toys and hope to pick one up, which is then deposited down a hole, or usually not. They come in many shapes and sizes, from the downward grab, the wall of goodies, hooking an arm through a pulley or massively big ones for larger prizes. They usually cost about 100 or 200 Yen per go, with extra attempt for bulk input, like 3 tries for 500 Yen. Some machines use only the up/right motion, some allow you to rotate the arm too. In all cases they have the grabbing and lifting power of a limp-wristed wet tissue.
I have been reliably informed that to avoid gaming laws, as gambling is still technically illegal in Japan, prizes in these machines are never more expensive than 700 orso yen.
A lot of the toys, however, are specifically made for UFO Catcher machines and use a wide variety of famous IPs. The otaku may find himself throwing in coin after coin to get that special Gundam, Relakuma, dot-graphic Mario pillow or Famicom-styled tissue box cover. Usually, however, the more famous toys do end up in special stores in Akihabara, if you know where to look for them.
Other machines that have gradually taken over the arcades are the photo booths, though even these can’t compete with UFO Catchers anymore. The booths are pretty fun, though, and use some cool technology to photograph you and your date in a variety of settings with a huge number of options available for post-effects. As they offer anything from larger photos to charts with photographic stickers prices vary wildly. These booths are almost exclusively inhabited by gaggles of schoolgirls, so the curious gaijin may cause a few odd looks.
It is, however, not entirely bleak. Real arcade games are still hanging on, albeit with less prominence than before. The number 1 machine, by all accounts, is Sega’s Mushi King, a beetle card battle machine aimed mostly at the young. You’ll find these everywhere, usually the low variety with big colourful chairs. Beetle wrestling is still a popular hobby in Japan and Sega has been capitalizing on it for a while now.
Racing games also seem to have staying power, with Namco’s cheekily expensive and dumbed down Mario Kart Arcade GP about to have its second incarnation and Taito’s Battle Gear still sticking around.
Most space dedicated to gaming though is usually taken up with older, sit-down machines where less than half are running old classics or dodgy Mahjongg games, and the rest running fighters, from Tekken to Virtua Fighter to Street Fighter, these machines are always in use. They are hooked up together so an unsuspecting player might unintentionally find himself challenging a frumpy schoolboy on the opposite cabinet. Chances are he will beat you withing seconds.
The rest of the arcade is filled with the usual cash changers, drinks vending machines and plenty of ashtrays as smoking is allowed.
Arcade halls really aren’t as popular as they once were. Whereas once companies used to experiment with dog-walking games, featuring a large conveyor-belt type control system, or a Japanese comedy duo game, where a player had to smack a plastic dummy next to him at the right, presumably hilarious moments, these days everybody knows the money is in the UFO Catchers. Namco World in Shibuya closed down. Sega World close-by is now a sea of UFO Catchers and Taito Worlds are stuck in street fight territory. There was a time I used to hang out and play Time Crisis or Samba de Amigo as I waited for time to pass for some reason or other, then there were times I used to try and catch the wife a few nice toys, but these days I steer clear of the places. Maybe now that Square has its mitts on Taito, purportedly for the extensive inroads into the arcade business it has, things may change, But like most things in Japan it’ll be later rather than sooner.