No, Tokyo's Video Game Culture Isn't Dead Yet

No, Tokyo's Video Game Culture Isn't Dead Yet

Rumors of its demise have been exaggerated... at least somewhat.

In the decade that I've been covering Tokyo Game Show, it's been tough not to notice that the event's increasingly muted nature has come hand-in-hand with a decline in the ubiquity of general enthusiasm for video games.

Already this year I've heard plenty of lamentations about the state of Akihabara, Tokyo's "electric town" which became a Mecca for game nerds in the '80s during the country's Famicom boom and remained such for about two decades.

Beginning six or seven years ago, though, Akiba's prolific game shops became to shutter, and stores that formerly offered extensive current and retro game selections slowly changed their product mix to focus more on anime goods and things like cosmetics to better appeal to the recent influx of Chinese tourists.

This year's big change appears to be the desolate shelves of Super Potato, the iconic retrogaming shop just off Akihabara's Chuo-dori strip — a combination of foreign tourists and dwindling sellbacks has left the store practically empty of anything of note.

That said, the shopping guide I put together two years ago still holds generally true, and there are still plenty of gems to be found; I came across a Game Boy holy grail I've never seen before for a pretty decent price, and if I were a younger, more foolish, and more single man, I'd have snapped it up on the spot for my archival projects.

And even as Tokyo's classic game shops tighten up, there is still no single country on earth that's nerd-friendlier than Japan. Where else can you drop into a convenience store and find coffee can toppers that pay homage to classic Namco games?

And not just Namco games, but very specifically Namco Famicom games, presented in the sequence in which those products were originally launched? The same product sold Super Mario Bros. sprites as bonus goods a few months ago. These aren't tie-ins to the latest major movie launch but rather fond reminiscences of video games sold 30 years ago. Go on and show me where you can find that at a Kroger in Anytown, USA.

Where else can you find random vinyl dolls — with variants! — of retro game heroes like Mighty Bomb Jack, mingled amidst Portal and Minecraft merchandise? It's in Tokyo's Nakano Broadway, but not at your local midwestern shopping mall. Nakano Broadway increasingly plays home to shops dedicated to classic Americana — all kinds of vintage tchotches that you'd have to dig through dozens of American flea markets to find — but video games and related ephemera still hold an important place there.

You can buy Street Fighter II merchandise in the U.S., sure, but can you buy a collection of Street Fighter II characters prostrating themselves in the traditional Japanese gesture of apology?

I have no idea why figurines this specific exist, but they do, and they're full of goofy details. Check out Dhalsim's extended arms and the fact that M. Bison (or Vega, I guess) isn't so much bowing as doing a headstand with his butt in the air.

And you sure can't fill up your 3DS Street Pass queue in a matter of hours by simply walking down the street on an average day in an American city without timing your sojourn to coincide with an anime or gaming convention.

It's not as though Japan is some glorious promised land for gaming. The industry here has been struggling for a while (though it seems to be on the right track of late), and consoles and handhelds have lost much of the luster they had a decade ago. Even retrogame collectors have kind of cooled down, hence the evaporation of those games from so many shops.

Nevertheless, a big part of what makes a trip to Tokyo so satisfying comes from the many signs that so many people here share your interests and tastes — enough to constitute a small but meaningful section of the market, at that.

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