Once upon a time, all the coolest games were made in Japan. That era has long since passed into the haze of history as Western console development has found its footing (and Japanese gamers decided they like mobile gaming most of all), but evidence remains of a bygone age when everything you wanted to play hailed from far, far to the East. And nowhere it is easier to explore this legacy than in Tokyo.
Even there, the halcyon era of amazing Tokyo retro game shops has faded into memory as the central hub of Japanese nerd culture, the Akihabara district, has shifted its focus from video games to sometimes-questionable anime and collectibles. Still, even if most secondhand retailers in Tokyo have divested themselves of their retro game sections or closed altogether, old games still have enough of a presence in Japan to keep a collector busy for a solid afternoon -- and drain their bank account in the process.
I took a little time last month between appointments at Tokyo Game Show to scour Tokyo in search of the best deals and most interesting classic game finds in Japan. I've more or less gotten out of the collecting game these days, but it's always a pleasure to see so many lovingly preserved classics lining the shelves. Even if the number of great retro shops in Tokyo has plummeted over the past few years, the ones that remain offer a fantastic selection of greats... and with the exchange rate the most favorable it's been in six or seven years, now is definitely the time for Americans with a love for the greats to hit Tokyo's classic game shops.
1. Best Selection, Worst Prices: Super Potato
Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 1-11-2
2 Kitabayashi Building, Floors 3, 4, & 5
Everybody knows and loves Super Potato. Supposedly, the Kansai-based chain got its big break years ago when the original Osaka outlet scored a rare gold-plated Rockman 4 (Mega Man 4) cartridge (of which only single-digit quantities were produced) and the find caught the attention of news outlets across the country. But the oddly-named franchise has ultimately made its reputation on accessibility: It's the only Japanese retro game shop that cheerfully allows customers -- including rubbernecking foreigners! -- to freely photograph and film video in its aisles. So everyone shoots there and talks about it, which means visitors actively seek it out when they're in town. The fact that it has a fantastic selection of games across a spectrum of systems, along with showcase rarities and even ephemera like old strategy guides and game music CDs, certainly doesn't hurt. Also, it has a really weird and memorable name. If you want to buy a classic Japanese game, you're most likely to find it at Super Potato.
That popularity and selection come with a price, though -- literally. Super Potato's prices are 25 to 30 percent higher than almost any other retro game shop in Tokyo. You can find what you're looking for there, sure, but your money will go a lot further if you take the time to do some comparison shopping. Also, in a tragic footnote, management has removed the amazing throne made of Famicom carts from the mini-arcade on the top floor and replaced it with a snack shop.
2. Comparison Shopping HQ: Mandarake Akihabara
MANDARAKE / まんだらけ
Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 3-11-12
Mandarake Bldg. 6F
The best place to start that comparison shopping is a block over from Super Potato in Akihabara's newest retro game source, the Mandarake tower. While the eight-floor building contains all manner of nerd goods (including some wares that could make unwary shoppers uncomfortable, like an entire floor of euphemistically named "men's entertainment" and the unsettlingly weird top floor where you can buy costumes for your life-sized anime girl dolls) the gamer's treasure trove is the sixth floor. Half of that level is given over to classic games both boxed and loose. The selection doesn't compare to Super Potato's, but it's certainly not shabby -- and the prices are considerably lower. Also of note are the showcases lining the walls, where you'll find pricey rarities that may not appear in other shops. Mandarake Akiba in particular seems to focus on rare recent-gen portable hardware and always seems to have fascinatingly obscure or hard-to-find DS and PSP models for sale, including true gems like the "Chotto Mario" 3DS systems designed to resemble Mario characters and only available through a Club Nintendo giveaway.
3. Best Deals: Trader
TRADER / トレーダ
Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 3-14-10
Shirogane Hall 2F
Still, if you want the absolute best delta between prices and selection in Tokyo, Trader is the place. Weirdly, it's the easiest to find of all of these locations: Located directly on Akihabara's main road, Chuo-dori, Trader is another of those multi-story shops with a big blue-and-yellow sign out front marked "TRADER" in bold English. But up on the second floor, you'll find a great selection of 8- and 16-bit games at stunningly good prices.
Trader doesn't deal much in rarities -- their obligatory big-ticket showcase consists of a single glass case at the entrance to the retro game shop on the second floor, which has housed the same basic selection of preposterously expensive Japanese releases of crummy western-developed Mega Drive and Super Famicom titles for years now -- but they more than make up for it with tons of games at incredibly good prices. The staff is friendly and helpful, even if you don't share much language in common, and it's clean and well-lit. By far my favorite place to hunt for old games now that Liberty's outlets have abandoned retro software in favor of softcore anime porn, I worry that Trader doesn't have long for this world. It's a holdover from the olden days of Akihabara, the game-focused days -- days that have long since faded away.
4. Best Place to Start: Friends
Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 6-14-13
2 Shin-Etsu Kanda building, Floors 2 & 3
Off at the far end of Chuo-dori from Akihabara station (adjacent in fact to the next station over, Suehirocho, which is on the Tokyo Metro Ginza line), this tiny little shop is one you have to actively seek out. Housed across the second and third floors of a nondescript building next door to a Segafreddo cafe, Friends' promotion consists entirely of a small, hand-written, portable sign in Japanese that the owners put out on the sidewalk every day. Inside, there's only a small amount of floor space, and the mild-mannered old lady who sits behind the counter every day only takes cash payments.
Despite this steep barrier to entry -- or perhaps because of it -- Friends can be a surprisingly great place to shop. Its selection varies from visit to visit, but the prices are low, and it has a respectable array of games for more obscure systems like Game Boy and 8-bit microcomputers. The upstairs portion deals entirely in music and strategy guides, with a selection of both that more than rivals Super Potato but at much better prices. You may not find what you're looking for at Friends, but if you do come across your objective you can be sure it's as cheap here as it'll be anywhere... which makes this a great first stop in your game hunt.
My only complaint about this place is that the shop no longer plays the bonus soundtrack that came with the Japanese version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on an endless loop the way they did for roughly five years straight. I guess the little old lady behind the counter needed a break.
5. Worst All Around: Retro Game Camp
Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 4-4-2
Kowa Electric Bldg. 1F
Something about this place feels off from the moment you first set eyes on the store. The sign lists its name as "Retro Game Camp," three English words written in Japanese, but where the words "Retro" and "Camp" are written in the katakana alphabet (used to write foreign words in Japanese), "Game" is instead written in the hiragana alphabet (used to spell native Japanese words phonetically). Which is weird and a little confusing.
"Weird and and a little confusing" is also how I'd describe the interior of the shop. Whereas every other retro shop in Tokyo arranges its games "alphabetically" (that is, according to the order of the Japanese syllabary), Retro Game breaks platforms into genres and doesn't take much care to shelve software with any particular care -- or to make logical genre groupings, for that matter. Good luck finding anything here, especially with the aisles so narrow that you're constantly tripping over other bewildered customers in your game hunt. Worse, Retro Game offers the worst prices in Akihabara, making Super Potato's inflated rates feel like a total steal. By far the worst game shopping experience in Akihabara, you're better off just finding what you want on eBay and paying import markups than dealing with this mess of a shop.
Worth Seeking Out: Mandarake Galaxy
Nakano, Nakano-ku, Tokyo 5-52-15
Nakano Broadway 2F
When you're done in Akihabara, you can hop on the JR Sobu line and cut across central Tokyo to Nakano. Beyond the Sun Mall shopping plaze, a nondescript staircase will take you up to the interior floors of the Nakano Broadway: Three sprawling floors of shops dedicated to every nerd fancy you could imagine. Comics, music, American toys, military goods, pornographic DVDs: You name it, you can probably find it in Nakano Broadway. For retro game enthusiasts, however, the mall's highlight comes in the form of Mandarake Galaxy, a small but fantastic classic gaming shop that offers a compact but excellent selection of titles at competitive prices.
By far the most entertaining aspect of Galaxy is its exceptional showcase area, which spills beyond the interior of the shop itself and into the hallway outside, taking up the entire width of the wall bounding the store. It's a treasure trove of high-priced rarities, encompassing everything from the usual low-run Famicom titles to rare video game sheet music. Sometimes you'll find even more enticing goods, like the partial run of Game Freak magazine currently on offer. It's not a coincidence that Game Freak shares a name with the developers behind Pokémon; before they created games, the folks at the company Game Freak ran an independently produced semi-professional fanzine by the same name, and somehow Galaxy came into possession of a number of issues. Galaxy also has a section of its showcase given over to items it will never sell, including ultra-rare gold-plated Super Famicom titles and other amazing gems like the old PC shooter based on Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, which famously missed the point of the film so badly that legendary director Hayao Miyazaki vowed never to let another of his creations be licensed to become a game.
In terms of actually accessible software, Galaxy seems to curate its selection of used games, keeping dull, common, low-value games to a minimum in favor of more desirable selections. While the unboxed game section is a jumble of games of varying quality, the boxed selections on the main shelves are almost entirely good to great titles that collectors would actually be interested in. Between its good prices, thoughtful selection, and fascinating big-ticket items, Mandarake Galaxy is definitely worth the trip across town. And when you're done, you can wander around and be fascinated by all the other shops. Just watch your step... there's smut everywhere.