Minoru Ikeda, owner of the Mikado arcade in Takadanobaba, talks about his memories from a youth spent with the Astro City!
Article and Interview by Moriyuki Shigihara
(The original interview can be found here)
Sega’s Astro City Mini is finally out, a device which contains 37 of their nostalgic arcade titles. The Astro City cabinet on which it’s based was released in 1993. It supported the fighting game boom above all else, and was continually loved by players and arcade operators alike for quite some time.
Now a 27 year old cabinet model, it’s barely seen in any of Sega’s own arcades anymore. And it seems that not many players under the age of 20 have much direct experience playing on one at all. But be that as it may, did you know that there’s still an arcade that’s kept up a large number of these (and similar model) cabinets, and have them actively running today?
If you’ve read this far and are a passionate arcade gamer, you can probably guess where I mean. It would be no exaggeration to call this place the most famous arcade in Japan…no, in the world! That’s right, I mean none other than Game Center Mikado, in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba! I’d been thinking about a way to look back on the roots of the Astro City on this site, along with the release of the Mini. And I reached the conclusion that there’d be no better way to do so than to talk to the owner of said arcade that knows the Astro City so well: Minoru Ikeda, aka Ikeda Minorock.
Ikeda is extremely busy these days with game tournaments and live streams going on every day, and having just opened a third Mikado location last month. So it’s lucky for us that he agreed to do this interview. He’s devoted himself to the Astro City over the years, as both a fan of video games and an arcade operator. And we spoke to Ikeda, who knows these cabinets inside and out, at length about his unforgettable memories of both gaming on and maintaining them. This interview is a very enlightening one when it comes to both the history of the cabinet and the arcade business, so be sure to give it a read!
With an Unbelievably Big Screen For the Time, These are the Astro City’s Eye-Catching Features to an Arcade Employee
Thank you very much for talking to us today. To start things off I’d like to ask you about your first encounter with the Astro City. Do you remember when you first played on one, and what game it was that you played?
(Ikeda) The first game I played on one was the original Virtua Fighter. That game came out in 1993, and I had just graduated high school and had started working at an arcade. I experienced the switch over from the Aero City cabinets to Astro City ones as both a player and an employee at that arcade.
What a coincidence that the Astro City came out the same year that you began working in an arcade! How did you feel about the cabinet when you first saw it?
(Ikeda) I couldn’t believe how big the screen was. The Aero City has a 26 inch monitor, whereas the Astro City has a 29 inch. So I honestly thought that the monitor was so big that it was sometimes hard to see things clearly, particularly when playing vertical shooters. But since the cabinet didn’t fully cover the monitor, I also thought it was very nice looking from a player perspective. Speaking from the perspective of an arcade employee though, it was very easy to get shocked from static electricity due to that same reason. So I’d always be a bit scared while cleaning them! To be more specific, let’s say the buttons stop working. The voltage on the static electricity that can shock you when working on that area of the cabinet is pretty high.
By the way, what was that first acade that you worked in like?
(Ikeda) It was an arcade in Oomiya called Olympia. They had just gotten Astro City cabinets when I first started there, so I remember carrying a bunch of them in.
What types of games were mainly running there around that time?
(Ikeda) Of course Virtua Fighter 2, but that one didn’t come out until 1994.
So then did you mainly have them setup back-to-back for two player fighting games?
(Ikeda) Yeah. Back then we had a lot of different games running on Astro City cabinets: Street Fighter Alpha, The King of Fighters ’94, Samurai Shodown II, etc.
So after bringing in the cabinets and setting them up, did you make a lot of your own communication harnesses?
(Ikeda) Yeah. We made communication harnesses and extended the kick harnesses. We were always just doing things to connect to the second player side.
Speaking of fighting games, do you think that the majority of cabinets in arcades in the 1993 to 1994 period were Astro City cabinets?
(Ikeda) Yeah, almost all of them were Astro Citys. And again speaking from an arcade employee point of view, the Astro City is different from the Aero City in so much as it’s lighter due to being made of fibre-reinforced plastic. The Aero City is made of metal and so was much heavier, making the Astro City lighter and much easier to carry.
Does the Astro City have any particular characteristics in terms of daily maintenance? For example, something that’s easy or hard to do.
(Ikeda) Compared to the Blast City which came out later, I feel like the Astro City is easier to maintain. When you open the door on an Astro City, the place where it connects to the JAMMA harness, the service and test switches, the volume knob and power switch are all right there, making things very easy. You can’t get to the power switch without opening up the control panel on all of the Sega cabinets from the Blast City onward, so it takes a bit more effort when you’re swapping out boards. Also the speakers on the Astro City are much less breakable than on the Blast City. Nothing will happen to them at all if you just leave them be, and I don’t remember too many cases of having to replace them in the past. It also seems like customers tend to enjoy the two speakers being attached to the upper part of the cabinet more as well.
Last month Mikado had a bunch of streams where you showed off the Astro City Mini. Can you talk about the reason that you had those streams?
(Ikeda) Sega Toys contacted us about it. At first we thought we’d be doing just a simple one-off Virtua Fighter tournament, but then I suggested that we should do a full week’s worth of streams, which turned into a month’s worth of them.
Did you choose the titles that were played on stream?
(Ikeda) Yeah, I did. Since it was a Mikado stream, we had a lot of regular players who were good at the games we were showing off on the Astro City Mini. So we decided to get everyone together and stream. There were a perfect amount of games on there that had been popular at Mikado in the past. Our regulars really banded together and figured out who should play what, even though they were all pretty old games. So before I even knew it, all of the titles I’d decided on were covered. I guess everyone really just loves Sega, even now. At Mikado there are still players that are ridiculously good at Dark Edge and Alien Syndrome, or can clear Wonder Boy! (Laughs)
To think that you have regular customers that are that skilled! So, what did everyone who tuned into the streams think about them?
(Sega PR) The amount of viewers steadily grew as the streams went on. We believe that a lot of people had fun thanks to Mikado’s streams. Actually even people at Sega thought it would be best for Mikado to advertise it when the Astro City Mini was first announced.
(Ikeda) We’re very grateful for that, so thank you very much. But there aren’t really many other arcades that still have Astro City cabinets, so we may have been the only ones who could have done it! (Laughs)
It’s even been over 20 years since the Blast City came out now, to say nothing of the Astro City. And there are very few arcades that even still have those…
(Ikeda) Once again from the perspective of an arcade employee, monitors in the Astro Citys last longer than any models that came after them too. Blast Citys have some functionality that Astro Citys don’t, and the cost of them was lower. However the monitors broke down a lot easier.
I’m wondering if you can repair or swap out the monitor circuit boards when they break down, but the TVs and PC displays on the market now are all LCD. There are almost no CRTs still manufactured today, right? Can you still even get parts for those monitors or control panels?
(Ikeda) You can. The Astro City monitors use a lot of commonly available parts, so they’re easy to fix. But the Blast City monitors use custom parts, so repairing them when they break down is more difficult.
The Titles in the Lineup that Ikeda and Mikado Were Into
What were your first impressions of the 37 titles included in the Astro City Mini’s lineup?
(Ikeda) I guess you can see them on the Mikado stream, but I was pretty happy! (Laughs) I’m really grateful it was full of a bunch of games that I really love. Seishun Scandal, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Thunder Force AC and Gain Ground are all on there, which is really amazing. I think a lot of people’s image of Sega is that of a company that makes the huge and exciting fully-body experience cabinets like After Burner and Space Harrier. But I actually think they’re very good at making more compact games: Gain Ground and others that used the System 24 board, like Crack Down. There are a lot of titles here that are getting ported home for the very first time, and I’m personally very grateful that it includes some games that previously were only available in their Mega Drive versions, like Crack Down. I pre-ordered one immediately after it was announced.
Of all of the titles included, is there one in particular that you got the most into? Or maybe one that you have the most emotional attachment to?
(Ikeda) That would be Fantasy Zone. If you were to ask me how I came to know the name Sega, it was definitely because of this game. I began hanging out in arcades around my third year of grade school, and I was shocked at how much fun Fantasy Zone was when I played it for the first time. It hadn’t yet been ported to the Famicom, so if you wanted to play it at home you had to buy the port on the Sega Master System. So I went out and bought the system and a copy of Fantasy Zone with my new years money from my parents, and from then on I became obsessed with Sega hardware and was a real believer. And then the Master System port of Space Harrier was really cool too. At the time I thought there was no way that these kinds of amazing games could possibly come out on the Famicom. In actuality they later would come out on the Famicom, but the Master System ports were really fun.
So not only were you regularly going to arcades when you were in grade school, but you were also playing a bunch of games on home consoles too?
(Ikeda) I was pretty cool, right!? I even used to have a complete Mega Drive collection. There were about 600 games, if I remember correctly. But I needed money to start up this business, so I sold them all off (Laughs Bitterly)…
And then there was the surprise announcement that Dottori Kun was going to be included on the Astro City Mini as well. I was very surprised to see that this game is up and running here today at Mikado on original hardware. Was this due to it being announced for the Astro City Mini?
(Ikeda) Yeah, we set it up as a promotion. We actually had a Dottori Kun tournament at Mikado once before.
To think you actually had a tournament! Had Dottori Kun even ever been up and running at any arcades you were working at previously? I believe you may be the only arcade in history to have held a tournament for it…
(Ikeda) No, I’d never seen it running anywhere before that. Back then there was a law that stated a manufacturer couldn’t just sell a cabinet by itself, there had to be some sort of game in it. Sega included Dottori Kun with the Astro City, but as a result there ended up being so many boards out there that they were just getting thrown away. Thinking about it nowadays, I realize how wasteful that was…
Mikado Has Kept the Astro City Going Since it Opened, and Still Have Several of its Featured Titles Up and Running
When was your current company, INH, established?
(Ikeda) In 2004.
And when you opened the first Mikado location in Shinjuku Station, it was not immediately after starting this company. You waited a little while before doing it.
(Ikeda) That’s right. The first location was opened on 08/01/2006.
So after you first started up your company, did you realize that Astro City cabinets were what you wanted and just bought up a bunch of them?
(Ikeda) Yeah. It was after the Net City was out, in terms of Sega cabinets. But I knew that Astro Citys were what I wanted. However, Astro Citys don’t support the frequency that NAOMI boards run at, which is 31KHz. That meant some Blast Citys ended up being necessary too, given that it was the time when new games like Dynamite Deka EX had just come out, which used that board. So at time I felt like I didn’t need any cabinets that weren’t Astro Citys or Blast Citys! (Laughs)
Did you buy any Versus City cabinets at all?
(Ikeda) No, I wasn’t really considering the Versus Citys at all. They’re extremely heavy and difficult to transport…and since Mikado’s previous location didn’t have a freight elevator of any kind, getting them in was all manual labor. So we wouldn’t have been able to get anything so heavy as a Versus City to an upper floor. I realized later on that buying Astro Cities in bulk might have been a better way to go.
I have some experience working in arcades with no freight elevators too, so I feel your pain. Having an elevator makes a world of difference…Incidentally, around how much could you buy a used Astro City from a distributor for back then?
(Ikeda) They used to be extremely cheap: Depending on the cabinet, you could get one for as little as 10,000 yen. So that means they were cheaper than the Astro City Mini! (Laughs) This was right around when monitors changed to be 16:9, so Astro Citys and Blast Citys were already phased out of most arcades and were making the rounds on the second hand market. You were able to pick them up cheaply for that reason, so it ended up being just really good timing. Now on the other hand, there are a lot of people who are after these cabinets, including people overseas, so the prices have really shot up. You could pay around 100,000 yen for one in good condition, and around 30,000 yen for one that’s not working.
Were the places you ran before you opened Mikado just leasing boards and cabinets?
(Ikeda) Yeah, that’s right. Originally we were going between leasing companies, with the first place using a company called Eyemo, and we dealt mainly with video games. So Astro Citys and Blast Citys were what we mainly used. The second place mainly had prize games, so I didn’t touch video games for awhile until I opened Mikado. That resulted in it being the sort of place you see now.
So with the first Mikado location opening, you decided to focus mainly on video games from that point on?
(Ikeda) Yep, that’s what I’d decided from the beginning.
Were you particular about the genres or selection of games available at Mikado from the start?
(Ikeda) I like both shooters/shmups and fighting games quite a bit. I really wanted to be a one-stop-shop like PlayCity Carrot in Sugamo and Game Inn Namiki in Meidaimae, or perhaps TRY Amusement Tower in Akihabara, where you’d have any kind of game you’d want all lined up. So my plan of attack was balancing the shooters and fighting games around 50/50.
Did you buy up more Astro Citys after you opened Mikado? Or has the number of them you have been decreasing due to breakdowns and them reaching the end of their lifespan?
(Ikeda) I’ve gotten rid of quite a few CRT monitors that have gone bad over the years. But when I do, I always make sure to buy more. We can fix the boards in the monitors when they break down. But when the CRTs themselves do, all we can do is get rid of them. Back when we opened the Ikebukuro location a couple of years ago, we didn’t have enough cabinets at all. So I bought thirty more.
I’d expect that two years ago the prices and circulation of them would have been very different from back when you first started up your company. But it’s crazy that you managed to get that many of them…
(Ikeda) Luckily at the time, I managed to get a bunch of cabinets from an arcade that had just closed down. Even now I still buy stock from arcades that close down, so it’s very important for me to get the word out to these businesses to let me know if they’re closing.
What Unexpected Title Brings in the Most Money for Mikado?
Next I’d like to ask you about boards. Were that any boards for games featured on the Astro City Mini that were particularly hard to get due to high prices or low circulation?
(Ikeda) I remember games that use the System 1 boards, like Flicky, Ninja Princess and Seishun Scandal, being hard to get since the boards break so easily. There are a lot of real masterpieces that came out on the following System 16 board series, used by games like Fantasy Zone and Altered Beast. Games like Golden Axe still bring in quite a bit of money at Mikado. That said, I think the boards that we have the most of in terms of number is the System 16 series.
So what do you think about the System 18 board, which came out after the System 16?
(Ikeda) Shadow Dancer and Alien Storm used that board. System 18 boards are actually very valuable. If I had to guess why, I’d say it was because they were Sega’s first JAMMA compatible boards. The others used special proprietary harnesses, made by Sega.
Do you also have a lot of System 24 boards at INH?
(Ikeda) Yeah. The System 24 is a bit peculiar, in that it’s very fragile since it uses floppy disks and such. If the floppy disk drive breaks, you can’t really buy them anymore nowadays, right? Since the risk of them breaking down is pretty high, honestly speaking I’m pretty scared to run them too much. But Gain Ground and Crack Down are still quite popular, and bring in good money. But working System 24 boards are pretty rare nowadays. That said, everyone bought the games on that board that were cheap back in the day, like Quiz Shukudai wo Wasuremashita and Tokoro San no MahMahjong. So I keep a stock of those around to harvest for parts when Gain Ground breaks down! (Laughs) You might even be able to say that System 24 boards are on the verge of extinction, and so I’m very happy that such valuable games are included on the Astro City Mini.
I think that System 24 was a board which allowed for some very detailed pixel graphics, but how do you feel about that?
(Ikeda) Apparently the System 24 was not originally a board designed to display very big sprites. Which is why a lot of the games on it like Gain Ground, Crack Down, and Hot Rod (even though that’s not on the Astro City Mini), have quite small sprites.
What do you think about the C2 Board, which is used for games such as Columns and Puyo Puyo?
(Ikeda) Puyo Puyo came out right around the time of the Astro City itself. Sega sent out faxes to arcade operators that said “Please make sure you have an antistatic agent applied to your monitors”. That’s an old story you could only tell about the Astro City cabinet, which left the monitor partially exposed. You could still find Columns in arcades now, and personally I was very happy that they included Columns II on the Mini. The 1-player Flash Columns mode in Columns II is insanely difficult, and no one’s been able to clear it. Even though we’re now in the Reiwa era, people at Mikado still get excited and shout “This is too tough! It can’t be cleared!” while playing that game! (Laughs) And the VS Columns mode in Columns II is also really fun. The rules were really well thought out. It’s long been considered one of the most ridiculously difficult arcade games there is. I’d say that leaning completely into that focus on hardcore gamers is a good thing.
VS Columns mode is really fun, isn’t it. It seems like it would be a really fun game to bring into an e-sports event.
(Ikeda) Yeah, yeah. It might be cool to try it once at an e-sports event.
Which of the titles in the Astro City Mini lineup is the biggest money-maker for Mikado?
(Ikeda) Columns II, of course! (Laughs) Everyone gets heated over it because they play it a lot but just can’t manage a clear. It’s so ridiculously hard that it’s known as the Tatsujin Ou (Truxton II) of the puzzle game world. It’s a good thing that now you can play such a difficult game at home, anytime you want. Fantasy Zone has also been a good money maker for us every since we’ve opened, and Space Harrier (which is now at Mikado in Ikebukuro) is also a long time favorite.
What are your thoughts on the System 32 board, used by games like Rad Mobile?
(Ikeda) This board has a special integrated circuit on it, made by Hitachi, for which the battery depletes as time goes on. So the System 24 is similarly fragile. And when that battery dies, you have to replace it yourself to get it working again. I think Rad Mobile was the first replacement that I did, so it means something to me in that way. Even though there was also a re-worked version of it for the Saturn called Gale Racer. I also seem to recall that Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder has been a good money-maker for some time. I remember that we had it running until 1997 (it came out in 1992) in the arcade that I used to work at a long time ago, it was a lot of fun.
It was up and running for that long?! So then from an operator perspective, The Revenge of Death Adder was a masterpiece that always brought in money.
(Ikeda) That’s right. Back then a ton of titles were coming out every month, right? Maybe ten new ones every month, counting companies other than Sega, and I feel like maybe we’d have them for six months at most. And that’s why Revenge of Death Adder was really amazing. It was probably out for that long because it still held up graphically to newer games, and I think it looks really cool even now. The System 32 had a lot of other really impressive games on it too,: Dark Edge, Arabian Fight, and even Dragon Ball Z V.R.V.S (which isn’t on the Astro City Mini).
And of course the impact was huge from the Model 1 board being able to use polygons in Virtua Fighter.
(Ikeda) Yeah. And the size of the board was just huge! (Laughs) The Virtua Fighter board was in an Astro City 2 cabinet when it came out, but it was a very peculiar cabinet in that the board seated in the back, behind some shield casing.
The Memories of and Passion for the Astro City and Sega Arcade Games Will Never Die
Why do you think old cabinets like the Astro City and these old games continue to be loved by so many players for so long?
(Ikeda) It’s probably because Sega made both the big and exciting full-body experience games that I mentioned earlier, and also very detailed and smaller games. Gain Ground, Crack Down and Alien Syndrome definitely fall into the later. And Sega’s side-scrolling beat ’em ups like Golden Axe and Revenge of Death Adder are just so well made. The movement algorithms for the enemy characters are especially wonderful. For example, some enemy types will always get around in back of the player character and gradually surround them. There are also enemies that will move further away from the player character and dash at them. So it feels like they move differently each time you play. And games like Columns II, Alex Kidd: The Lost Stars, and Wonder Boy make you wonder how on earth they can be as difficult as they are! (Laughs) That balance of being impressive and having attention to detail is what what makes Sega games so interesting, and what makes them so amazing. I think that’s why they’ll stick with everyone forever.
It occurs to me that you’d really like Sega’s game music, since you play in a band. Of the titles featured here, are there any songs from them that you particularly like?
(Ikeda) For me it has to be the music composed by Hiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) for Fantasy Zone. I also really love the background music in Quartet by Funky K.H. (Katsuhiro Hayashi). I bought the record back in the day, and even when I listen to it now I still think it sounds so cool. I also love the background music for Sonic Boom that Funky K.H. wrote. It’s playable at home for the first time on the Astro City Mini, so I’m personally very happy that I can listen to it again.
It may be a bit premature to talk like this, but if the Astro City Mini sells well and Sega Toys does another mini, what games would you like to see on it?
(Ikeda) Let’s see…once I start naming games, I’ll never stop. But it would be great if they included SDI. The music is really cool, and it would be really cool if they ported other games that had specialized controls like SDI too. I wouldn’t think it’s impossible, given that they made SDI work on the Master System! (Laughs)
What piece of hardware do you think would make for the best mini, if there’s another one?
(Ikeda) I guess I’d say the Blast City, after all. From Virtua Fighter 3 and Virtua Fighter 3tb to Fighting Vipers and Last Bronx, I think it might be really popular if it let you play all of Sega’s 3D fighting games. It would also be cool to be able to play games on the ST-V board. You’d have Radiant Silvergun and Soukyu Gurentai/Terra Diver. Either that or if they were featuring Virtua Fighter 2, a New Astro City Mini might be good too.
Do you have plans to hold any tournaments using the Astro City Mini, or for games featured on it, at Mikado?
(Ikeda) I’m thinking about having a Virtua Fighter 1 tournament using the actual cabinet. I was talking to Ikebukuro Sarah (a well known Virtua Fighter player that uses Sarah) the other day, and he said that if we held a tournament he would enter. Not only veteran players come to our tournaments though. We also get ones that are currently the best in the world, and young ones whose first game they ever played was the Saturn port of Virtua Fighter 1. I hope that everyone who buys an Astro City Mini practices the game at home, and then enters a tournament at Mikado to play the game on a real Astro City cabinet. I’m also looking into having a Virtua Fighter 1 tournament on the Astro City Mini too.
It might be a lot of fun if you made the players do rock-paper-scissors beforehand to see who gets to use the arcade stick, and who gets to use the small controls on the actual Mini.
(Ikeda) That does seem fun! (Laughs) Virtua Fighter 3tb is also up and running at Mikado, which is another game I really love. It also may be the game that I’ve put the most money into. Though I played the original Virtua Fighter quite a bit too.
You were that into Virtua Fighter 3tb!?
(Ikeda) It cost more to play than Street Fighter II, back in the day. Virtua Fighter was typically 100 yen per play in most arcades, and Street Fighter II was often 50 yen. When I was younger, I put around 100,000 yen into a machine on a payday, because I kept losing! (Laughs)
By the way, who’s your favorite character in the Virtua Fighter series?
(Ikeda) It’s Jacky. I like pro wrestling as well, so I used Wolf quite a bit too. In Virtua Fighter 3tb I often went with a team of Jacky, Jacky and Wolf.
I bet the arcade you worked at during the 90s fighting game boom held all kinds of tournaments to attract customers. Do you have any particular memories from that time?
(Ikeda) Right around 1997 is when arcade games were running at the highest specs, and were just the most amazing games right? In other words, back then you didn’t buy a gaming PC to play cutting edge stuff, you had to go to the arcades. And so not just enthusiasts, but regular people came to tournaments for Virtua Fighter, Street Fighter II, and even some of SNK’s Neo Geo games. Anyway, there were a lot of people playing arcade games back then: From regular students to shady looking characters that made you wonder just what it was that they did for a day job! (Laughs) All sorts of people played in those tournaments. I feel like tournaments at Mikado nowadays get around 50 people at most. But back then a tournament would get anywhere from 50 to 100 people every single time.
There’d be so many people there for the tournament in such a small space, that you couldn’t even play any other games.
(Ikeda) Right, right. And the air was so thin in those arcades that were underground, if you wanted to smoke your lighter wouldn’t even work! (Laughs) No one from our generation can forget about all the passion and enthusiasm that people had back then. That’s why I do what I do now.
Ahh, I guess it’s the same for me…
(Ikeda) That’s what I figured.
(They both laugh)
Thank you very much for your time today.