Japan Trip 2017–2018: Online Fighting Games In Japanese Arcades

Tokyo Leisure Land in Akiba. This chain also operates the oddball two-floor arcade atop the Akiba Don Quixote.

If you know me, you know that I adore fighting games and arcades, which are alive and well in Japan in a way that dwarfs anything you can get in the West. When I go to Japan a pretty embarrassing percentage of my cash goes straight into the 100 yen slot of just about any arcade machine I can find. I’m completely fascinated.

Sega Akihabara #4, basement. Below the UFO catchers lies a hidden snake pit full of serious Gundam Versus players. I got whipped here.

One huge shift going on in the Japanese fighting game scene right now is that arcade games are starting to add online play. Bandai/Namco was first in line with this, shifting and to online play in their most recent versions. With the release of the NesicaxLive 2 platform, Japanese players can sit down at Nesica multi-game cabinets, pick their fighting game, and queue up to fight people all over the country.

A lot of these games take advantage of the “run that back!” feeling of frustration to immediately hit up players for another coin at the very moment a match ends. Gundam asks for another coin the moment you take that last hit, wasting no time at all.

And the online play is surprisingly solid. Japanese wired connections are significantly better than what we have here in the States (this is why many Japanese fighting games are release with online play that works so badly in the US; they don’t test it away from home), and arcades are physically close enough to make online play work. As a result, you get silky smooth online play with little noticeable lag. Over the course of many matches over the course of my vacation I saw lag slow down the match two times: both times the match started over completely at no charge to the players. That’s service.

Due to crappy infrastructure in the West and the much greater distances between players, it’s unlikely this kind of setup will ever find much success outside Asia. Play a game online in Korea or Japan versus the connections we have here and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Rows of Nesica2 cabs at Hey. Each man an island.

It’s extremely convenient. When playing Million Arthur, I would pop in 300 yen and enjoy 5 fights, win or lose. (Japanese arcades are also chipping away slowly at the concept of “winner stays”: kicks you off after three straight wins.) Offline players don’t enjoy this privilege, so of course everyone plays online. Players can play any game in the Nesica 2’s quality lineup, and there’s no waiting around for a match if there’s nobody else around to fight in person. online play is probably more alive in Japan’s arcades than it is on America’s consoles.

However, it can make the game center nearly as lonely as playing alone. At Hey there would be ten cabinets playing at any given time, but only one or two players would actually be talking about the game or having local fights. Even players who were at the arcade together were fighting online against strangers. Try to get a local match with another player inside of Hey (the cabinets are networked), and nobody else was queued up on that line. It kills the tradition of just walking up to a stranger and challenging them; something I think is really important for the culture.

I’d rather be able to queue up for local or online play, if another player is open to that as well. Arcades are places where people get together, and despite the convenience, I don’t want them to start looking like net cafes.

The Gundam wall at GAO in Okubo, a neighborhood spot. Packed both times I came here, for the duration of my visits.

However, at GAO in Okubo, the wall of machines hadn’t changed much at all. There was still the same crowd of junior high schoolers hooting and hollering at the matches on the screen. The crowd was as lively as it ever was: they were just watching their friends’ games. The main difference was that since their opponents weren’t in the same room, they weren’t angry anymore. There’s something to be said for that, too.

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.