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Arcade Fever: The Rise and Fall of Arcades
Random on September 04, 2011 at 05:13 am

Arcade Fever is a new column that examines arcade gaming and culture. I’ll be talking about some arcade history, covering current and upcoming releases in Japan, and showing you some stuff that you’ve probably never seen before. Whether you grew up going to arcades (or Game Centers as they are referred to here in Japan) or are new to them completely, hopefully this will be an interesting journey that we can take together.

Being as this is the very first Arcade Fever column here on Hype Up, it seems only fitting to start at the beginning of it all. So how did arcades come about and what happened to them in North America? Well, it all goes back to carnival games, like the ball toss or shooting gallery. Things that you might still see at carnivals today. Naturally as technology evolved, so did these types of amusement games. The very first coin operated electronic game was created by students at Stanford University in 1971. Based on a computer game, Spacewar was the first known coin operated video game. This was followed by the creation of Atari in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. From there, arcades started popping up all over the place in malls, corners of restaurants and movie theaters as arcade fever took hold of the world.

With the advent of home console games in the 80s though, arcades started to lose their place in the market. Rental games became a much cheaper way to enjoy the same video games than pay 25 cents a play at an arcade. By the time the 90s hit, arcades were already becoming a thing of the past in North America. With home computers and powerful video game consoles widely accessible, it became cheaper to play games at home than at the arcade. There was also issues with arcades getting a bad reputation for criminal activity such as drug deals and in the end, arcades as we knew them began dropping like flies.

There was a brief resurgence in North America in the early 2000s with games like Time Crisis, Beat Mania and Dance Dance Revolution becoming extremely popular. This was largely due to the fact that such experiences were not available on home consoles. In the end this proved only to be temporary as large arcade chains like Game Works and Playdium closed down one by one. There’s now only a handful of arcades left in North America compared to their popularity in the 80s.

Japan managed to escape this fate. Game Centers have remained popular in Japan and other parts of Asia through all of this because of several factors. One is the standardization of the 100 Yen (1 dollar) coin in Japan for arcade games. The thought was that a coin is still pocket change, and thus more easy to spend on a game. In the United States,  with the lack of a widely used 1 dollar coin, was unable to move from a quarter based system to a dollar based system to pay for arcade games.

There’s a cultural aspect as work here as well. Although console gaming is widely popular in Japan, many houses are small and have 2-3 children per a family. This makes it difficult to share a TV or game console, and hence kids will take to arcades to get their gaming fix.

Japan also being the source of most of the games that hit arcades had an advantage to start with. While arcade games have managed to constantly evolve from the basics all the way to today's networked and IC card based games, the cost of importing and buying such expensive machines proved prohibitive to arcades outside of Asia. Today, Game Centers in Japan still thrive and are a part of daily life for many people. From crane catcher games, to pachinko, to the latest fighting and simulation games that use 3D, motion tracking, and HD screens. The arcade experience in Japan is still something that in many cases, you can’t get at home on consoles, and thus it continues to rake in the 100 yen coins.

Next time, we’ll start looking at some of the most popular arcade games Japan has to offer and what makes them unique experiences.

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