Shopping Product Reviews

A day in Akhibara (Tokyo Electric City)

I, as I’m sure most of you, grew up with computer games. The green mist from Safari Hunt in the Master System is the only thing that keeps me company on many lonely nights. I wondered, even at a young age, where the hell all this came from. It certainly wasn’t Sidcup. Growing up, he was an avid reader of Sega Power despite his preference for the Mega Drive (which I didn’t get until I was 15) and would occasionally feature an article or report about Tokyo, considered by many to be the birthplace of video games. (although some Americans disagree…).

The articles featured a blur of neon lights, hundreds upon hundreds of arcade machines, and thousands of young Japanese playing games we barely recognized. To a nine year old, this place seemed like heaven.

Finally, twenty-three years later, I was able to visit my good friend Dave. Tokyo is everything you’d hope it would be, with hidden treasures around every corner, it’s impossible not to walk around, mouth agape, muttering “Oh my God.” The place considered to be the center of Tokyo’s geek culture is Akhibara (basically known as Akiba to Tokyoites). The Lonely Planet guide has suggested an afternoon there…

Dave and I spent an entire day there, and if time hadn’t been a factor, I could have spent many more days immersed in its awesomeness.

The first thing that struck me about Akiba (except for the lights, so many lights…) was how accessible it was and how much there is, everything within easy reach. There’s a shop at the train station, for God’s sake! The stores are all five-story wonders. And I like their trade/battle cards. When you say “Japanese trading cards” in the UK, what do you immediately think of? Pokemon right? Incorrect! I counted more than ten stores on one street in Akiba dedicated to selling all kinds of trading cards. Did you have any idea what it was? In the least! Some of these cards, individually, retail for close to £100. I saw some cards in English, just with some words like “skip a turn” or something you might see on a Monopoly card, and they were over £40,000 yen (£200).

Before the intense shopping started, we had to try some of these arcade machines and wow! One problem, everything is in Kanji. As long as you can make your way through the menu screens, there’s plenty of fun to be had.

Dave found this cool blast game from Square Enix, but poor menu choices led him to follow a ten minute tutorial. Not bad for 100 yen (60p). Regardless of the game, everything costs 100 yen. Remember those dance mat games? They love them here, but there is no mat, no, no, there is a touch screen that you have to break with your hands or about ten buttons, which you have to break with your hands. The hand-eye coordination of some of these guys was impressive. Lie, there was a dance game, but the boy was dancing on both sets of squares, nailing what two people would fight.

Japan’s love affair with RPGs has never been as prominent as it is here. Ridiculous money on battle cards aside, 50% of the games in the arcade were RPGs, or at least action games with a heavy RPG bias. Although games like the earlier Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star were considered strong, neither sold as well in the UK and only a small part of the Japanese market was translated into English. In the last ten years alone, Nintendo and Square have bothered to treat the Western gamer to the entire Final Fantasy series. If this type of arcade sounds too overwhelming, head over to Super Potato (shiny, shiny name) for plenty of old-school arcade machines, including early versions of Street Fighter 2 and Golden Axe. So now to shopping. In my head I imagined rows and rows of 8-bit and 16-bit games, consoles, bargain bins full of “classics” and you know what? It did not disappoint.

What you’ll need to quickly get over is the fact that only the handheld stuff is region-free, everything else is Japan-only.

You also have to get stuck in, as casual reading of the game’s spine becomes impossible because it’s all in kanji. You can’t move around all the Famicom (NES) and Super Famicom (SNES) equipment, I mean, it’s everywhere! You can buy a second-hand Famicom for around 4,000 yen (£20) or a Super Famicom for a bit more. Which seems worth it, as you can get arcade/platform games that were never released here (as well as streams and RPG streams that you’ll never figure out). Here came my next revelation, Sega’s relative paucity of options. I saw about four Mega Drives for sale all over Akiba and they retailed for 10,000 yen (£50) and the Master System I saw was 20,000 yen (£100 – second hand, first release, boxed) with the games at almost 3000 yen. My dream of collecting loads of MS loot died at that point… I’ll talk about Sega’s ups and downs in another article, but its lack of impact in the home entertainment sector could be explained by its focus on arcade machines that it was very evident in Akiba.

I could go on and on, but the same goes for any other adventure you take on, Akiba is what you do. Whether you prefer raiding sale bins for Famicom games or wandering the streets drinking canned coffee from the vending machine while watching scantily clad Japanese girls at maid cafes, Akhibara is a must-have for any gamer.

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