Game Center Chronicles: Half a Century of Arcade Games as Seen by the Owner of Mikado
- ゲーセン戦記 ミカド店長が見たアーケードゲームの半世紀
- Written by Minoru Ikeda
- Released 06/08/2023
- Published by Kadokawa
- Purchase on Amazon.co.jp
This is not meant to be a full translation of this work, but rather a book report style summary. I encourage anyone reading this to buy the book at the link above to support Mikado!
Stage 1: From the Beginning to Maturity 1974-1996
It All Began with Xevious
Ikeda was born in 1974, and his first encounter with arcade games was playing a Space Invaders table cabinet. This was before he entered elementary school, and it was in the game corner of a hotel. The next machines he remembers being fascinated by were Galaxian and Pac-Man, which he played in local candy stores and plastic model shops. They were both upright cabinets, the kind he was used to seeing only in American movies. But the game that really got him going to arcades was Xevious.
Released by Namco in 1983, Ikeda was drawn to Xevious because it wasn’t just a game about chasing high scores: it was also about solving puzzles and experiencing a story. Xevious was what caused him to start biking to arcades there were 15 to 20 minutes away from where he lived, and he was spending every bit of his money at them. But then came the Famicom.
As a home console, the Famicom represented an amazing value proposition for a young kid: You didn’t have to put in money every time you wanted to play a game. At first, Ikeda was just as into it as all his friends were. But after playing arcade conversions like Donkey Kong, he couldn’t help but feel that the magic of the originals just wasn’t accurately captured on the Famicom. Xevious’ own Famicom released reinforced this further, which resulted in Ikeda coming to see the Famicom as nothing but a child’s toy. He quickly returned to the arcades.
The Impact of Gradius
Ikeda’s next arcade obsession was Gradius, which began the shooting game revolution in 1985. It was very different from any side-scrolling shooter that came before it, with an 8-way joystick and 3 buttons. The power-up system also introduced complexity the likes of which he’d never seen, and the game was brimming with atmosphere. The sequel, released three years later, was similarly amazing. Back then, sequels to games were often completely new types of experiences that were very different from the original. Gradius II simply amped up everything that the original did so well. All of this made Ikeda feel that the world of video games was maturing, even though he himself was still so young. He was spending so much time hanging out with friends at arcades that his parents got angry and sent him off to a middle school in a different district. But this new school was much closer to a variety of new arcades, so he didn’t mind too much. When it came time for him to move on to high school, he even convinced his parents to send him to one that was near two famous arcades: PlayCity Carrot in Sugamo and High Tech Nobel in Jinbouchou.
Arcade Culture and Scoring
Magazines still held huge sway at this point, and the two biggest in the world of video games were Micom BASIC and Gamest. Ikeda started reading Gamest with issue 4, and he remembers buying it at an arcade rather than a bookstore. It was especially intriguing because there was a column that would print high scores from arcades all over the country, but you’d have no idea how they’d actually been achieved. Ikeda became obsessed with high score chasing, and even participated in Hudson’s first Caravan event in 1985.
The Rise of Fighting Games
Street Fighter II hit arcades in 1991, when Ikeda was 17 years old. Though he had been greatly anticipating it from how hyped up it had been in the pages of Gamest, he was at a bit of a loss initially due to the peculiar control scheme and just how much skill it seemed to require. But when arcade goers began to really figure the game out in the coming months, he was just as into it as everyone else. Though he participated in local tournaments, he found more joy in watching expert players go at it. At that time, it was rare to see two people who didn’t know each other going head-to-head.
And though it’s said that the original Street Fighter II kicked off the fighting game boom, Ikeda theorizes it really took hold with the follow up, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition (or Street Fighter II Dash in Japan). This was the period in which separate back-to-back cabinets were introduced so that two players could face off without sitting right next to each other. Most Japanese players had been treating the original Street Fighter II as a single player experience, being generally a bit to shy to sit down next to another and take them on. This setup solved the problem and was pioneered at a Fukuoka arcade called Monkey House.
Suspension from School and Working Part-Time at an Arcade
During Ikeda’s third year of high school, one of his teachers caught him smoking, which resulted in a 10-month suspension from school. For as nice as going to arcades and practicing guitar all day long sounded, he was worried about his future. This led him to seek out a part-time job, and what better place to work than an arcade!
His place of employment was a small arcade in Suidobashi, and his responsibilities were little more than minding the place and cleaning the bathrooms. The idea of a “freeter” (a term for a person who doesn’t hold a full-time job, but rather earns just enough money from various lower paying part-time jobs) entered the public consciousness around this time, which caused some of the worries for his future to subside. This sounded like the ideal lifestyle for him, because just like rock legend Yutaka Ozaki sang, Ikeda didn’t want to be a regular salary man. But his parents didn’t like the idea of him becoming a freeter and got him into a company that ran arcades in 1995. At around age 20, he was officially dropping out of high school and entering the work force as a full-time employee.
The Business World of Arcades
The company that Ikeda joined was Aimo, an arcade distributor and operator. Ikeda’s responsibilities were now much greater than when he was just working part-time, and he was forced to pick up many skills on-the-job. He went to work helping run a location in Omiya.
His recollection of the arcade scene in 1995 is that there was a lot of enthusiasm over 1994’s Virtua Fighter 2. It felt like all fighting games before it, especially its predecessor, were all living in the past. Virtua-mania took hold, and it was all centered around Shinjuku’s Game Spot 21 arcade. People would come from far and wide to compete in Virtua Fighter 2 here, and it was like something out of a manga. TV variety programs even showed up to cover this phenomenon. Of course, the Street Fighter II series was still doing well during this time, it just didn’t have the same impact in Japan that Virtua Fighter 2 had during this period.
The big appeal of Virtua Fighter 2 was how quick the matches went, making it all feel much more real. Ikeda was so caught up in the Virtua Fighter boom and spent so much money playing it that he could have afforded to just buy an arcade board. Though he mentioned that he had previously bought a Street Fighter II board and didn’t end up using it much, because it just wasn’t as much fun playing against the CPU at home.
The Fighting Game Trend
Fighting games reached a fever pitch later in the ‘90s when people were lined up outside of arcades before they even opened to play Street Fighter Alpha, Vampire Hunter/Vampire Savior, and Tekken 3. A new game out, and people just flocked to it. The location test (where a publisher places a machine in an arcade for a period of time prior to its official release, in order to see how it will be received) that Ikeda remembers surprising him was The King of Fighters ’95. It brought in 50,000 yen all on its own, and he was floored by the amount of people who showed up to play it. But the Omiya arcade he worked in had the game early, and so every KOF lover in the Saitama area flocked to play it.
The Decline of Fighting Games
Ikeda believes that Virtua Fighter 3 was the first game to bring a shadow over the popularity of the fighting game genre. From a numbers perspective, he states that it inarguably underperformed. Some arcades even ended up knocking it down to 50 yen per play, and no one had seen this happen to such a successful series yet. As more under-performing titles were released, the enthusiasm began to die down. While there were certainly popular fighting games after this decline, Ikeda says that 1997 through 1999 represented the golden age of fighting games coming to an end, and the turning point for Japanese arcades.
Sidebar: Highest Earning Game
With all this talk of game earnings, Ikeda recognizes that some people might be curious just what the highest earning arcade game is. The puzzle game Shanghai II has been at the top since Ikeda’s days with Aimo and continues to be the top grossing game at Mikado’s Ikebukuro location. But why specifically Shanghai II, and not one of the many other entries in the series? Ikeda theorizes that it’s because this was the first one in the series to mix Shanghai’s traditional tile-based gameplay with cipher-based puzzles. He also states that Shanghai II came out during a time when ultra-difficult shooting games were being released, such as Fire Shark (Same! Same! Same!), Gradius III, and R-Type II. It likely provided a welcome change of pace.