There are a lot of interesting and unique things about Japanese culture, but one of the strangest is how much they love their arcades. You remember arcades, don’t you? Before video games moved into a console in your bedroom, people went to arcades to get their fix of computerized games. The only time people still play arcade games in the US is when their younger cousin is having a birthday party at Dave and Busters. But in Japan, the arcade is alive and well and it is so much better than ours have ever been.
If you go for a walk down any major street in Tokyo or Osaka, you’ll find an arcade about as often as you would see a Starbucks in the US, and it’s often just as busy. People of all ages hang around, trying to win large plush animals from claw machines, playing taiko drums (like Rock Band with drums), or sitting in front of large complicated multi-player consoles. Some of these allow you to win prizes, some are just there to entertain you for 2-5 minutes, but most of them are super confusing.
If you’re after more adult forms of gaming, you’ll also find an abundance of pachinko, which is very much like our slot machines except they’re brighter and louder. Places where you can play pachinko and actually win money are usually packed, extremely loud, and full of smoke. All the machines are set at a high volume and they all compete for loudest in these large halls, creating a cacophony of sound. It’s an intense situation for the casual gamer.
For the average person, especially a person not from around these parts, the best way to immerse yourself into this gaming world is the more traditional arcade. Japanese arcades have all the kinds of games you’re used to, but better. For instance, the air hockey tables have multiple pucks moving all at once and each player has two strikers instead of one. You may also be familiar with the kinds of games that you sit inside to drive, shoot, or otherwise act with the game. The ones in Japan have Disney-quality effects. If that zombie breathes on you as he’s coming to attack, you’re going to feel it on your face. Your seat is going to shake violently, and the screen which wraps around you like an IMAX movie screen is also 3D. If horror doesn’t sound like your thing, you can save the Galaxy from your very own Star Wars battle pod. These games are not messing around.
But far away, the most beloved arcade game in Japan is the claw machine. These are so popular that some arcades are dedicated to them. They are full of everything you can imagine, from plush characters to food to electronics. And they’re just as hard to win as you would expect. What I learned from watching others and from spending way too much money trying to get plush toys I didn’t even want is that there’s always a relatively simple trick to getting the prize and it very rarely involves using the crane in the intuitive way that you think it should be used.
The attendants at these places are also fairly helpful. If they see you struggling for a prize, they’ll give you hints as to how to better get it to fall. But the good news is they are winnable. I saw plenty of people get prize after prize – big and small. I, however, left empty-handed, which is probably for the best. There wasn’t much room in my carry-on bag for a giant mushroom plushie.