Game Center Chronicles Part 5

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 4: Era of Weeding Out 2011-2018

The Earthquake and the Robbery

The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami hit on March 11, 2011, changing many lives forever. An industry friend in Ibaraki had his entire arcade go under water, and he had to go around the area afterward to track down his change machines which had been completely swept away during the disaster. Rumors were even going around that some arcades had the “Gundam pods” from Senjou no Kizuna swept away as well. The disaster barely impacted Mikado at the time, with the worst thing being that some people had data on their IC cards corrupted mid-game due to rolling power outages.

A tutorial and inside the cockpit view of the original Senjou no Kizuna. There’s a sequel nowadays, but this was extremely impressive at the time!

The streets of Tokyo were empty after the disaster had passed. Mikado remained open, but their revenue dropped by half since no one was coming in. Day after day, Ikeda was begging for leniency on taxes, bank loans, and payments to the owner of the building. It wore him down mentally in a big way. All he could think of doing was take on more project work for his company, INH. Luckily for Ikeda, a company called Team Entertainment was spinning up a soundtrack label called Retro Game Music Collection, and they needed help.

But then one morning Ikeda opened the arcade and noticed that something was off. The change machines were completely broken apart, and he realized that he’d been robbed. The exhaust window on the first floor had been smashed, and someone had gained access. He immediately called the police and filed a damage report for over 1,000,000 yen. His wife handled the business accounting for Mikado, and Ikeda admitted that he frequently got in arguments with her over Mikado related issues. But they both knew that it was pointless to fight about this, and they needed to band together to ride things out.

Rush to Close

The earthquake brought about not only a mood of self-restraint, but also of energy conservation. This didn’t play too well with the arcade business model, and Ikeda got more than a few calls telling him to stop using so much power and cease holding events. Many arcades across the country shuttered completely during this time. But the earthquake was hardly the only frustration that arcade owners had in 2012: Free-to-play smartphone games such as Puzzle & Dragons took hold, resulting in decreased traffic to arcades. Publishers also ratcheted up their network charges for online games even further, making them truly untenable for a small arcade such as Mikado. From a business point of view, an arcade operator would have been better off putting out nothing but UFO Catchers to recoup their money more quickly. But of course, Ikeda had too much pride for that. But with all these arcades shutting their doors, Ikeda noticed that they all held big events that drew a ton of people in just before they closed. Wouldn’t you get more customers if you just held events all the time? It was a rather simplistic way of thinking, but it also worked. Mikado held events much more frequently, and the number of customers that came through doors gradually increased. This is also when Ikeda started his own game music band, Heavy Metal Raiden, who often helps promote the arcade.

The popular titles at Mikado during this time were the Fatal Fury series, the Samurai Shodown series, and Virtua Fighter 3tb. The model that Ikeda previously dabbled in with bringing in newer titles in order to attract a wider customer base just wasn’t proving to be necessary. Tournaments for older titles such as Fatal Fury Special, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, and Tokimeki Memorial Taisen Puzzle Dama were bringing in plenty of new customers, despite being older games. Mikado’s customers tend to be in their late 30s or early 40s, from a time when arcades were popular. But when Ikeda talks to Mikado customers who are in their 20s, he’s often amazed at how familiar they are with these older titles.

A Tokimeki Memorial Taisen Puzzle Dama tournament at Mikado

Rhythm Games and Prize Machines

People began returning to arcades in 2012, and things began to recover. But Ikeda noticed a change in what games were bringing in money: Retro fighting games were slipping. And as further evidence, Tougeki, a major fighting game tournament that had been running since 2003, had its final year in 2012. But rhythm games had risen up to take that top spot. With networked machines now being the norm, rhythm games no longer had a static song roster: They could be updated with whatever was popular at the time, including Vocaloid tracks and arrangements of Touhou Project songs. And developers quickly figured out what they had: Hatsune Miku Project DIVA Arcade was a 600,000 yen cabinet, but the first expansion was priced at 1,200,000 yen.

Sega’s promo for the original Hatsune Miku Project DIVA Arcade

This was also the year in which larger arcades adopted the strategy of prioritizing prize machines. Video games were risky because you couldn’t predict how much they’d make unless they were very popular. Even Mikado let in some low-risk modern games to its lineup that would appeal to their customer base, such as Dariusburst: Another Chronicle and Project DIVA Arcade. Mikado even tried out a couple of Guilty Gear Xrd machines, but it ended up being too difficult to hold tournaments with a game that charged the arcade per-play. There were limits to cost predictions, even when charging tournament entry fees. This is the reason that most arcades stopped holding tournaments like they used to.

Noted shmup player Chantake takes on Dariusburst: Another Chronicle EX

But 2012 was also a fortune year for Ikeda in some unexpected ways. The owner of a bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai called 16 Shots contacted him and asked if Ikeda was willing to assist with the filming of a TV drama that featured arcades. They made use of some of Mikado’s machines for a drama called No Con Kid, which aired in 2013. Though this was Ikeda’s first time doing this sort of thing, he’d do the same thing again in 2022 with Atom no Ko. In addition, Ikeda also met the author of the Virtua Fighter chronicle TokyoHead, Gichi Otsuka, and former Famitsu Editor Lupin Kojima. These two helped him think of interesting events for Mikado to hold and resulted in in several live talk show events with other industry personalities, and the annual shmup themed streaming event called Shooting Matsuri.

My absolute favorite Shooting Matsuri streamed, which involved shmup player Shootaro playing a harmonica while 1CCing Darius Gaiden

Coming Into Our Own with YouTube

YouTubers actually earning real money began drawing attention in 2013, which meant that the rest of the world had finally caught onto streaming. The biggest change was that videos uploaded to YouTube videos no longer had to be edited and encoded beforehand. You could now do live streams on YouTube and just archive them directly, which saved Mikado a ton of time. Currently the Mikado YouTube channel has over 100,000 subscribers, but back in 2015 it only had around 700.

The Inbound Boom and Medal Games

“Binge Shopping” was a big buzzword in 2015, and this primarily referred to Chinese people traveling to Japan to spend a lot of money shopping in places like Akihabara and Ginza, due to the country’s wealth at that time. The Inbound Boom specifically refers to the amount of visiting tourists and returning Japanese citizens sitting at the highest it had been since before the Tohoku Earthquake. This didn’t directly impact the arcade industry, but it greatly benefited the arcades of the Tokyo Metropolitan area, since much of that Inbound Boom crowd visited arcades like Mikado. Prizes found in many UFO Catcher machines didn’t tend to make it overseas, so tourists threw a ton of money into them. But some also played video games, and Ikeda recalls seeing many strong players from overseas come in to play Guilty Gear and Street Fighter II.

But medal games also attracted a lot of attention, and modern medal games were quite a bit different from the slot machines and simple coin dropping games of old. Konami changed the formula with 2001’s Fortune Orb, which came equipped with an LCD screen and felt more like playing in a Las Vegas casino. A price war had broken out on the actual medals themselves, due to how popular medal games had become, and so buying into these games became quite inexpensive. When Ikeda was younger, he recalled that you could pay 1000 yen for 100 medals to feed into these machines. But at this point, you could spend 3000 yen and be able to play for half a day. Ikeda enjoys medal games quite a bit but doesn’t have any at Mikado because they’re very expensive to buy. It’s a difficult genre to get into if you’re not going to go all in.

Konami’s Fortune Orb

Esports and Arcades

Esports started to take off in 2015 due to large tournament prize pots, and it was often said that there was a strong link between esports and arcades. That’s true for fighting game players such as Daigo Umehara and Tokido, and a player named Nage even frequented Mikado before he went on to win it all in the championships for Guilty Gear Xrd at EVO. But in general, the esports movement isn’t too tied to arcades at all. The biggest games overseas aren’t even arcade centric: League of Legends, StarCraft, and Fortnight rule the roost. And a big reason for that is arcades generally can’t afford to sponsor tournaments with a huge payout, not to mention the legal aspects of awarding that prize money.

Nage wins EVO 2018 for Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 with Faust

The Kantai Collection Boom

2016 saw huge lines returning to arcades for the first time in a while. This was due to the release of the arcade version of a very popular browser-based game called Kantai Collection (abbreviated KanKore). The lines got so long that many arcades had to give out numbered tickets to arcade goers in order to avoid over-crowding. There weren’t many instances of games for which later arcade port was a massive hit. Even the arcade version of Mario Kart wasn’t developed by Nintendo, but rather by Namco. And it was altered quite heavily to play to the arcade crowd, basically making it a whole new game. This was also the case with KanKore, and it even had the ability to print out cards. Due to the popularity of this title, alongside the previously mentioned Inbound Boom, arcade revenue was up quite a bit industry-wide.

The arcade version of KanKore

But Mikado’s relationship with KanKore was a bit different. It had an internal printer which dispensed these cards. That meant it was necessary to replenish the cards, and so the cost of those and the printer ink cutting into the overall revenue was a concern. There was also the cost of replacing the printer once the warranty was up, which tended to be necessary every couple of years. It was also a proprietary printer that you couldn’t just go out to any electronics store and buy. As a result, Mikado didn’t get a cabinet until several years after its release. A new cabinet was priced at 700,000 yen when it was released in 2016. But five years later it had gone down to only 50,000. And at that price, Mikado was able to make it work even with the other costs involved.

Ikebukuro Rumble Plaza

But the situation surrounding arcade games in general was the opposite of what was happening at Mikado. Soul Reverse, the latest arcade game from Sega’s AM2, didn’t do as well as expected. Ikeda saw many people he had known in the industry for a long time suddenly getting out of it. It was not only sad, but also frightening. Why weren’t smaller arcades able to stay alive? But then the owner of the building that he operated Mikado out of in Takadanobaba contacted Ikeda and said that he was thinking of closing the arcade that was currently being run out of another building he owned in Ikebukuro (and one he had previously offered Ikeda when they were making a deal for Takadanobaba). Though it was currently being run by the owner’s sons, the owner himself had been letting it operate as an arcade since the Space Invaders area. And though it would involve taking on many risks that he wasn’t sure he was prepared for, Ikeda made an appointment to meet with the owner with the intention of offering to take it over.

An event for Sega’s Soul Reverse

In late August of 2018, Ikeda made a presentation like the one that had landed him the building in Takadanobaba. But much to his surprise, the owner already anticipated that Ikeda was going to want to do this, and simply asked him “When can you start?” He’d completely gained the owner’s trust through operating Mikado over the last 10 years, and opening this new location was Ikeda’s way of defiantly shouting out that small arcades weren’t going to just die.

Moving Into an Already Setup Building is Tough

Unlike the Takadanobaba location, the Ikebukuro building already had interior design work done and even arcade cabinets in it already. Ikeda thought this would make moving in a lot easier, but it had just the opposite effect. He ended up trashing nearly everything, resulting in 12 tons of garbage and 3 of the 10 days he had to move into the building wasted. It also had a price tag of 300,000 yen, but there wasn’t anything to be done about that.

This left coming up with the cabinet layout. It takes time to come up with a layout that maximizes revenue, and even then, there’s no guarantee that the layout will stay the same forever. The floor plan in the Ikebukuro location has a lot of dead space due to the general building layout and positioning of the pillars. It was hard to line the cabinets up in such a way that allowed people to pass in-between, but still made sense. Ikeda even apologizes for anyone who may have had a bad experience at that Mikado location when it got too crowded during events, and potentially made certain games inaccessible. Still, this location opened to a lot of fanfare, and Mikado’s YouTube subscriber account reached over 30,000 in 2018. As a result, 2018 saw record profits for Mikado.

The opening ceremony for Mikado’s Ikebukuro location