video games
written by Scott

The game places that we've seen generally feature and specialize in one of four sorts of games that you can set on a spectrum from cute to disturbing: picture booths, UFO catchers, video games, and gambling. Picture booths are just that, the booths where you can have your picture taken with friends in a variety of silly frames or with props or visual effects. But we've seen places that are nothing but picture booths, and video game arcades that have entire floors dedicated to picture booths. The aura of cuteness is almost overwhelming.

Next up are the aforementioned UFO catchers, and they're usually very cute. Some of them mysteriously seem to exclusively feature [Disney] merchandise. I think they're a bit more sinister than picture booths because they're more clearly in it to take your money. If you've tried one you know how much money you have to toss in the slot before figuring out the idiosyncracies of that one machine and how to play them against the pile of toys to find the one that can successfully be pulled out. Sidenote: Alison says that UFO catchers seemed to take that theme on more after [Toy Story] came out with its UFO catcher scene. She wonders whether they were called that before the movie.

Video games: Japanese video game parlours have a couple of things that I haven't seen in American parlours, but perhaps that's just my inexperience. First, there are places where a bank of machines of the same game are both set up to be able to play each other in tournament mode and to display particularly interesting current matches on an enormous screen for others to watch. I think I saw one game, a cross between Gauntlet and Tomb Raider, where players were in the same environment, like a mini LAN party or a MMORPG with just the local stations.

Finally, there are the pseudo-gambling machines and their parlours. We've got some of these in the US-- machines where there is a tabletop diorama piled with tokens or coins, where the object is to toss a token in so that it knocks piles off the diorama and into a chute. We've also got touch-screen card gambling games and slot machines. What I haven't seen around the US are some of the Japanese innovations. [Pachinko] is the most famous of these, but on our first night in Tokyo we saw CGI horse racing with betting stands, another physical racetrack with mechanic horses that raced around it, row upon row of pachinko and slot machines, and at least 3 new kinds of coin-toss machines. Pachinko and slot machines will have anime playing on a screen in the middle that reacts to how your game is going. Some will have flippers and such that seem more like pinball, but which barely affect the game.

This takes the prize as the sketchiest game not only because it's gambling but because of a cultural quirk: gambling isn't legal in Japan. For all gambling-style machines, you compete for tokens redeemable for prizes or fancier tokens. But those, in and of themselves, are just prizes, and you can't redeem them for actual money. It's like a US fair or circus. Well, supposedly. According to The Rough Guide, there is almost always some way to redeem the prizes, often in the form of some person in an alley nearby, or a window down the street, where someone will give you money for the prizes, and the police just look the other way. I think that we saw one of those situations in Narita somewhere in the form of a guy who was standing outside the parlor smoking a cigarette basically everytime we walked by.

Most game arcades will have some mix of these types of games: a first floor with UFOs and video games, a second floor of picture booths like we saw last night, or booths lined up outside but pachinko and coin-tossers inside. There are also some games that combine these types I've laid out-- coin-tosser games with UFO Catcher-style prizes that you try to knock over (training wheels for gambling, perhaps?), or

All that in itself isn't too different from game arcades I've seen in the US, but the scale is a difference-- these are large places, and if they aren't several entire floors of a building, then there are four of them for every long block of a shopping arcade or commercial street. I think that the clientele of video games are in general older than in the US. There is an arcade culture here, and because of the spectrum I'm describing it's completely legit for adults to spend large parts of their free time in arcades. Groups of teenagers or 20-somethings will go to play the group games or get their pictures taken, while bitter-looking or merely dazed adults will sit at the gambling machines for hours collecting and using buckets of tokens. It's Vegas for the rest of us, I suppose.

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