Game Center Chronicles Part 3

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

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 2: Era of Decline 1997-2005

Boredom After Joining a New Company, Print Club, and the Rhythm Game Boom

Two years after joining Aimo, Ikeda grew bored with his job. He was irritated that Virtua Fighter 3 failed to follow up on VF 2’s legacy. And as a fighting game fan, he was also irritated at the general decline in the genre’s popularity. But now arcades had a new audience: Female high school students. And a new type of machine called Print Club (or Purikura for short) had brought them in. Print Club machines are photo booths that are equipped with a CCD camera and monitor, along with a printer that prints out photos on small stickers. It’s said that their popularity surged when purikura of SMAP were given away on one of their TV programs called “Ai Love SMAP”. As Ikeda recalls, these machines brought anywhere between 30 and 40,000 yen per day, at the height of their popularity. They were so profitable that places called Print Club houses popped up all over fashionable areas like Shinjuku, and were essentially arcades that contained nothing but these machines. And though Print Club machines were invented by a group of female employees at Atlus, other companies quickly copied them. Eventually they were not only found in arcades, but also convenience stores and train stations. This resulted in the revenue that arcades were pulling in from them to drastically decrease.

An intro to how Purikura machines work

But then something new came along to save arcades: Rhythm games. Konami’s Beatmania hit the scene in 1997, followed by even more offerings from Konami such as Pop’n Music (1998), Dance Dance Revolution (1998), Guitar Freaks (1999), Drum Mania (1999), and Keyboard Mania (2000). Together with Print Club, these revitalized Japanese arcades in a big way. And both are still fixtures in them to this day. 1997 also saw another unique style of game hit the arcades: Densha de Go! Taito had been having a hard time keeping up with Sega and Namco when it came to 3D games in the arcades, until this. The game’s premise of staying on schedule while operating a commuter train was easy to get into but complex to master, and it brought in as much as 20,000 yen per day. The profits died down a bit with the 1998 sequel, but at least Taito offered a conversion kit to make updating easy for arcade operators.

An idea of what the rhythm game section at a typical Japanese arcade looks like

Though arcades had been seeing some hit games during this period, it was still undeniable that the amount of video games present in them was decreasing in the face of Print Club and prize machines. This presented a big conflict for Ikeda: He understood the business reasoning behind this, since those machines were big money makers. But he loved video games and wanted arcades to be full of a lot more of them. After much consideration, he decided to leave Aimo and got a job working in real estate. He and his boss at Aimo had never seen eye-to-eye, so got nothing more than a “Good luck!” when he submitted his resignation.

Second Time in the Arcade Industry

But entering a job that had nothing to do with video games wouldn’t last long, and soon enough Ikeda was back to the arcade industry. The next company he worked for was a hybrid distributor and operator, like Aimo, called GM Shoji. They were bigger than Aimo, and they operated a chain of arcades called FunFun. They ran a much tighter ship and were much more numbers focused. Everything was done through formal processes and run according to strict budgets. These are all very normal practices for a healthy business, but they weren’t anything that Ikeda was used to having to deal with.

1999 also saw Gamest magazine collapse, which came as a huge shock to Ikeda. A new magazine called Arcadia rose from its ashes though, which was equally surprising. Ikeda mentions that this was also a time when arcades were becoming more conscious of not stealing each other’s business. If one was having a KOF tournament on a specific day, others in the area would be sure not to. He also mentions that he wasn’t a fan of having to keep all of those things in mind and preferred to just focus on the customer. The early 2000s also saw Pachislot (pachinko machines with a digital display on a large screen) moving into arcades as well, since they were smaller in size and brought in good revenue.

This Castlevania pachislot trailer is awful because this is a thing that actually exists, but it’s hilarious because “erotic violence”!

The Introduction of Network Systems

Since he ran arcades that had precious few video games in them, Ikeda liked to spend his days off going to other arcades that actually had them. He frequented Try Amusement Tower in Akihabara, along with the newly opened Hey (short for Hirose Entertainment Yard, a Taito owned and operated arcade). Try had the hardcore audience at the time, and that audience had no reason to move to another arcade. Hey struggled at first, until they got Capcom vs. SNK 2, Virtua Fighter 4, and Tekken 4 early on location test. Ikeda remembers there being so many people packed into Hey to play CSV2 that they couldn’t all fit on the floor that it was on at the same time. The tide turned in Hey’s favor due to a single game.

Ikeda played everything that came out during this time but was especially big into Virtua Fighter 4. It used a network service called VF.NET to keep track of player information on IC cards and was supported by an infrastructure called Sega worked with this company that provided network infrastructure for arcade games to have network matches, save player data, and keep track of leader boards. The idea behind this system was to make things easier for arcade operators by eliminating the need to keep around large circuit boards, to make patching games easier, etc. Operators were interested in the idea, but little did they know that it would contribute to the decline of the arcade industry.

The 2000s also saw the rise trading card-based arcade games. The issue quickly became that people got the rare cards and sold them at shops, who then resold them at much higher prices. This heavily impacted arcade bottom lines. In 2010, game developers made it so that the game cards were tied directly to the IC card of the player that purchased or won them, which was done as an anti-resale measure. However, it was also a decision that plummeted the player base for these games. 2003’s Mushiking was a huge hit, but arcade operators despised it. The machine itself had to be rented, and it was stipulated that the arcade had to pay 70 percent of the earnings back to Sega. This left earnings from card sales as the only real way for operators to profit from this game.

Mushiking played on a real cabinet

Resignation and Starting My Own Business

Tired of working in arcades with no video games to speak of, Ikeda decided to go independent in 2004. He formed a company called INH with two others, but they didn’t have money to immediately open an arcade. So they decided to start by making game strategy DVDs and soundtracks. Virtua Fighter tournaments and high scoring technique video where things Ikeda had collected for some time, and one of the people who now worked with him had a background in filming and video editing.

At first, they weren’t getting work from any game companies at all. But when they got an okay to work on “Battle Garegga, the Insanity DVD the Madness” DVD and soundtrack set for the popular shoot ‘em up Battle Garegga, this started things rolling. They ended up selling 3000 copies after a year of production time, which was a big success. Doing this sort of work allowed connections to be built with developers and composers and would come in handy when Ikeda would open Mikado later on. It also led to him forming his current band, Heavy Metal Raiden.

2005 and 2006 saw the streaming video and social media boom begin, which was bad for a DVD-based business but good for arcades. They capitalized on this by starting a service where they could these streams to DVDs. This resulted in the release of things like “Insanity DVD Starring Over Hyper Street Fighter II”, though streaming would eventually lead to a complete change in the landscape of physical media.

Monster Hunter and Communication Notebooks

Capcom’s Monster Hunter hit it big on the PSP in 2005. And while you’d certainly see people out and about playing it in public, many would bring their PSPs to arcades and play together there. Thinking back on it now, Ikeda points out that it was a lot like the communication notebook.

These notebooks, in an age before the Internet, were found in corners of Japanese arcades and acted as a source of new information during things like location tests and pointing out where to find good players. People would communicate though, some even coming to arcades just to draw a picture of their favorite character in one. Ikeda was never the type to communicate strictly through them, though, and has always preferred to communicate directly with other players in person. Mikado doesn’t have a notebook for this very reason. He realizes that this may be seen as outdated in the Internet age, but he firmly believes that it helps build relationships between gamers.