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Japanese Game Centers: Why Are They Popular?

Linh LeLinh Le
Published TimeNovember 23, 2022
A woman siting behind the steering wheel at a driving game at a Japanese game center, most likely in Akihabara.

Game centers in Japan have always had a strong appeal to not only Japanese people but also foreign tourists. Going to these places for entertainment is a major part of everyday Japanese culture! Let’s learn about Japanese game centers and what makes them so unique!

What is a Japanese Game Center?

Japanese game centers, aka “Japanese Arcade”, are indoor arcades in Japan. Many people drop by to play games via various machines in their leisure time. They also say “gesen” for short.

Arcades came to Japan in the late 1970s along with the widespread popularity of Space Invaders. Then they flourished during the 1990s and became a distinctive part of Japanese culture. Recently, the number of game centers is around 5,000, and they are almost everywhere in the country. 

Exterior shot of a Sega game center in Japan.
Japanese game centers are a staple in leisure culture. Image via Shutterstock

Game centers are not to confused with pachinko parlors. While game centers feature video games, pachinko parlors feature slot machines. Even though people win prizes at both establishments, only pachinko prizes can be exchanged for money.

The Highlights of Japanese Game Centers

When thinking of the game center, we’ll immediately think of colorful areas with countless video game machines. However, the appeal of Japanese game centers is more than that. Thanks to a fun and varied game line-up, game centers have a diverse customer base! People of all ages and genders come to these places to have a good time!

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Crane games

Crane games or UFO catcher machines are very popular in Japanese arcades. They are available at almost all major game centers in the city center. The variety of the UFO catchers are sure to blow you out of the water!

If you’re bored with usual claw machines like grabbing stuffed animals, there are plenty of options! You can try playing magnet claw games, ping pong dropper games, or tripod games. Crane games are so creative and have so many cool prizes that anyone can enjoy them!

Snapshot of a crane game/UFO Catcher interior, featuring Rilakkuma plushies.
Try your luck on crane games for amazing Japanese prizes. Image via Shutterstock

The rewards received for winning crane games are also diverse. The prizes can be cute plushies, favored anime figures, or famous idol-printed items. Additionally, they can also be practical things in life like handheld vacuums or pancake makers. You can even get super tasty snacks such as chocolate or instant ramen if you master these tricky crane games!

Gacha capsule machines

These are the machines that you can find in front of game centers. However, they dispense toys rather than play games. They are perfect for people who may not be the best crane game player but still would like a souvenir.

A woman squatting in front of a long row of yellow gachapon machines.
Gachapon games are perfect for those who want something different from the claw machines. Image via Shutterstock

Children especially also love gacha capsule machines so much because of their surprise and ease of play. At several game centers, there are also high-end gacha machines that fetch a higher price per play. But in return, customers get a chance to win luxury items such as gaming consoles, jewelry or other tech gadgets.

Rhythm-based games

Rhythm games are one of the most popular genres at Japanese game centers. Players can freely sing, dance, and even play plenty of instruments with multiple rhythm-based game machines.

The songs and music selected for these arcade machines are very popular. You can most commonly hear J-pop, J-rock, anime music, and well-known foreign songs. 

Snapshot of people playing Dance Dance Revolution, a popular rhythm game found at many Japanese game centers.
Rhythm games are a staple at many Japanese game centers! Image via Shutterstock

One of the most renowned rhythm games should be mentioned is Taiko no Tatsujin – a drum game. If you play Nintendo Switch or Sony Playstation, you’re probably already familiar with this cute game!

In Taiko no Tatsujin, people play on taiko drum controllers in rhythm with the music! The more accurately you hit the drums, the more points you’ll get. In addition, Taiko no Tatsujin at Japanese arcades can be played individually, against each other, and as a team. It’s very suitable for both adults and children.

Purikura photo booths

Purikura photo booths are a phenomenon at arcades in Japan that can’t be found anywhere else. They’ll allow customers to take pictures of themselves and their friends and then customize the photo according to their preferences.

With purikura, you can print them immediately or receive the photos by email. Fun fact–the name purikura is short for Purinto Kurabu (Print Club). This is the brand name for the very first purikura machine by Atlus/Sega!

These automatic photo booths are fully equipped with so many features! The most common ones include an instant photo editing application, namely filter, airbrushing, and text!

Snapshot of a purikura booth area in one of many Japanese game centers.
Purikura booths are quite popular! Image via Shutterstock

They even have decorative stickers for customers to unleash their creativity to design commemorative photos. Moreover, because the purikura booths have green screens, people can also select their favorite backgrounds for their photos!

Usually you can find fully equipped make-up rooms to give people a chance to get ready for their closeups. So if you need mirrors, combs or even an electric hair styler before doing purikura, you’re in good hands!

The Best Game Centers in Tokyo

Taito Station Shinjuku South Exit Store

It will take you about a minute to walk to this arcade from the south exit of Shinjuku station. It’s one of the largest game centers on Tokyo with a total of eight floors. Thus, it means that you may have a wonderful opportunity to experience many different types of games when coming here. 

SEGA Akihabara 3rd

This is the flagship game center of SEGA, one of the famous Japanese video game producers.  This game center is located on Akihabara street, which is known as the land of gamers in Japan. It’s also located very close to Akihabara station, only about a two minute walk.

In addition to the typical line up, SEGA Akihabara 3rd also offers customers a special VR gaming experience. 

Game Center Mikado Takadanobaba

If you’re a person who is nostalgic about your childhood in the 80s-90s, this is the right place for you. This retro-style game center looks like a miniature video game museum, which contains a lot of old-school game machines. There are mainly classic puzzle games, fighting games, and driving simulation games at Mikado. Also, you’ll have a chance to play vintage pinball games!

Game Center Mikado is located in the Shinjuku area. It’s only a short walk  from Takadanobaba Station.

As you can see, Japan has so many arcades that offer a wide range of experiences! To explore more of this aspect in modern Japan, you should come here and experience it yourself! 

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