This weekend marks the inaugural PAX South! The third expansion of the Penny Arcade Expo is taking place in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. I'm down here to cover the show, but since I had a bit of free time today, I decided to see what else is in the area.
Just 8 miles north of Downtown San Antonio, where the convention is taking place, I found a brand-new shop catering to those who have a love of Japanese gaming and animation. The RikRic Otaku Cafe opened last Saturday, so this weekend is a perfect chance for visiting fans to put the store through its paces.
The Otaku Cafe is the brainchild of Rick Polendo and Richard Giron, two gentlemen who have been planning this launch since 2002.
"We came up with the business idea back when we were in college," Polendo tells me in a short interview. "Back then anime was big, but it was really expensive to get ahold of anything anime-ish. Otaku weren't very open about their love for the industry."
They lacked the money to actually launch a store and didn't want to take out any loans, so they went in a different direction. For the past 13 years, Rick and Richard have been selling anime-related merchandise at anime conventions like A-Kon and Animefest. Along the way, they decided to add the arcade as a way to differentiate the Otaku Cafe from other Texas anime stores. Both gentlemen loved arcades, driving to Austin and Houston in their youth just to play the latest titles. Over the past decade, they've slowly collected the arcade hardware that now populates the store.
"Slowly, but surely throughout the years, we've purchased an arcade system here and an arcade system there," says Polendo. "We just kinda filled up our garages with arcade systems. We worst part is we filled them up so much that we couldn't play them anymore!"
The Otaku Cafe is currently divided into two sections: there's the store, which sells anime-related merchandise, and the arcade, which features a number of Japanese-style sit-down arcade cabinets. On the merchandise side, most of the store's wares come in the form of PVC statues with limited posability. I scanned the shelves and found statues for characters from One Piece (with a few Portrait of Pirates items), Attack on Titan, Sword Art Online (GunGale Online and Alfheim Online arcs), Dragon Ball Z, Kuroko no Basketball, Hatsune Miku, Strike Witches, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Nitroplus' Super Sonico.
The choice of opening product is related to Rick and Richard's convention sales business, where they sold PVC statues as a way to differentiate themselves from other vendors. The store will be expanding beyond statues soon, with Figmas and Nendroids already on the way. They're also looking into art books and more licensed items. Rick and Richard will be sticking to statues at conventions to keep the peace with fellow vendors, but the store's merchandise will be more varied in the future.
The store also has a host of plush dolls - a wall of Pokemon plushes, a version of Danganronpa's Monokuma, and a few Taiko Drum Master plushes - and various licensed keychains, pins, and playing cards. They originally envisioned the store as catering to the 18-35 demographic, but now the Otaku Cafe is aimed at fans of all ages. The Pokemon plushes are just one way to reach out to younger fans.
Otaku Cafe's arcade side is probably the bigger draw for some fans. It's split into two different sections. The far wall includes stalwart titles that will always be featured at the Otaku Cafe. This includes machines for Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Super Street Fighter IV, King of Fighters XIII, Tekken 6, and BlazBlue: Continuum Shift I & II. The list is behind the times when it comes to Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue, but that's because the Otaku Cafe is using legitimate arcade hardware for the those machines. Buying JAMMA boards for Ultra Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma is really expensive.
"We'd love to switch it," Polendo says. "We've contacted a couple of people and it's like 4 to 5 grand for one board. If we can get ahold of one that's cheaper, we'll definitely upgrade. If we can't, we'll probably convert those cabinets to console cabinets. It's cheaper that way, but we understand that it loses something. We'd really love to stick with the real arcade games inside."
Across from these regulars are two areas the change at certain intervals. Three machines change every day; when I went to the store, they were featuring King of Fighters 2002, Neo Bomberman, and Sengoku 3. The latter five machines switch up monthly, with the current roster being Rumble Fish 2, Mr. Driller G, Martial Masters from Taiwanese developer IGS, and SD Gundam Rainbow Wars. Rick says the shifting side is reserved for games you can't normally play; next month, the Fist of the North Star fighting game is on the initial roster.
While many of the machines retain coin and card slots, these are just for show. All the machines are completely free play and the Otaku Cafe charges players by time. $5 nets you 2 hours in the arcade while $10 means you're good for the entire day.
"Richard and I would go to arcades with $20 in our pockets," explains Rick. "As soon as we got there, we shelled out $10 for coins and an hour later we were done with that $10. I won't say arcade games got expensive, but you could blow through $20 to 2 to 3 hours no problem. We thought, well that's fun, but what if that one guy that's badass at Street Fighter is on the stick? I know I want to play, but I'm going to be wasting my money."
"When we finally opened our arcade, we decided not to charge per coin or per credit," he tells me. "Yes, you can make more money that way, but it's not as fun. Now if you come in the morning and pay $10 for all-day play, you see that guy on Street Fighter and you can just whale on him for the rest of the day because you've already paid. You're not worried about losing money now."
Once you've paid, you're given a wristband; store staff runs wristband checks every hour to make sure everyone who's playing has paid. The relatively cheap prices and open plan on the arcade side means the games are more social, with players floating from machine to machine on a whim. The Cafe has the social feel of the arcades of old, without having to pull cash out from an ATM and convert it into quarters.
Tournaments are already on the way. Rick tells me that they have a 9-ft plexiglass tournament board in back that they plan to mount on the wall. They intend for tournaments to be weekly if the clientele can support it.
Currently, there's no "cafe" in the Otaku Cafe. Polendo says that original idea was to "feed your inner otaku or nerd cravings," but the store will be expanding beyond that. There's a sit-down section on the store side, with a few tables and a screen that runs Crunchyroll constantly. The gentlemen are in the process of talking to the city about the permits needed to bring in pre-packaged food and beverages. Alcohol isn't on the table right now; since the Otaku Cafe is just outside of San Antonio city-limits, alcoholic drinks are BYOB. The store is looking into renting the venue out for adult arcade nights on Mondays when it isn't open.
The first Otaku Cafe is just the start. If this store takes off, Rick and Richard plan to open more stores in other Texas cities like Austin and Dallas. If that works, they aren't ruling out moving to other cities. We all have to start somewhere.
But right now, the Otaku Cafe is just a single, fledging operation. If you're into arcade gaming or anime and you're in town for PAX South this weekend, you owe it to yourself to head a few miles north and check out the store. I definitely had fun in my short time there and I'm sure you probably will too.