Who gave birth to Mario and Luigi? Where was the barrel-tossing Donkey Kong developed? Where was it decided that a hedgehog chasing golden rings should be home entertainment? A place none other than Japan. In this home of all games, people know how to have a good time.
In the beginning there was Atari, Commodore 64, Sega, Tiger, Nintendo and a long line of other game systems that reached American homes and minds and never left. You, your neighbor or the kid up the street had a game system and, laying eyes on it, you swore you had never seen so much “cool” in one Japanese box. Seems things haven’t changed much since then. Japan’s Goliath game industry rules all consoles while America only has one, XBox, in the slingshot.
Most massive Japanese department stores have a section for games and systems. Games are plentiful and, unsurprisingly, there are many more titles than in America. Many games released in Japan never make it overseas, which is a pity. One example might even shock you. Of course you remember Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., one of the most memorable games of all time. This game, included with purchase, was actually Super Mario Bros. 2. Somewhere along the line, Americans were forced to skip the first game in the series. So Super Mario Bros. 1 is really 2, 2 is 3 and 3 is 4. When I saw this, I felt as if someone had hit the reset button on my childhood. Heart breaking, to say the least.
Unlike in America, there is no age at which people stop playing games in Japan. When a 50-year-old man is in line to buy a game, it is a safe bet that it isn’t for his grandkids. Japan is not just the home of the games, it is the home of the gamer.
The moniker “gamer” is infamous in Japan. These people devote all of their time to mastering games, playing the controllers like grand pianos and achieving high scores never imagined by game developers. If you want to find a gamer, there is only one place to go: the arcade.
An ordinary arcade in Osaka has at least four floors. The first floor is usually filled with stuffed toy-grabber games, or ‘UFO Catchers’ as they are called here. There is always a floor of general video games. Here gamers play the newest fighting games and old favorites. Another floor is for Print Clubs, which are extreme photo booths that print customizable stickers of your photos. Cheesy, but all photo booths are. Finally, a medal park can be found in every arcade, and some arcades are solely medal parks. But what is a ‘medal park’? In one word: addictive.
A medal park is filled with gambling games that take and give out only medals (or tokens). The range and ingenuity of these games is captivating and exciting just to look at. Horseracing, slots, bingo, roulette and a plethora of others defy explanation. Much like in Vegas, if you are on a roll in a medal park, it’s hard to leave. The only downside is that medals are not exchangeable for real cash, and this isn’t technically gambling. If you want some real gambling, Japan has something for you.
Around the corner from any arcade are pachinko and slot centers. Also called ‘pachi-slotto,’ these places are everywhere, with new ones popping up every week. These places dodge gambling laws by finding discrete ways to pay out the customers. Pachinko is actually an original Japanese gambling game. A player’s machine shoots metal balls to the top of the machine where they trickle down and, upon landing in a certain hole, the game triggers a special chance game. Win the chance game and you win more balls or trays and trays full (if you know what you are doing).
As for Japanese slot machines, they are completely different from those in the United States. Instead of passively pulling the arm and watching the result, you can choose when the three spinning sections of the machine stop by hitting the button in front of each. This means that by mastering a slot machine and knowing the exact timing of the game, you can go home with huge sums of money.
Playing a game can be a great escape from reality, and when it is a fun and harmless way to escape, it must be a healthy form of relaxation. Coming to Japan was a bit of an escape from reality, so I guess when I play here my relaxation doubles. In another culture, surrounded by a different language, it is easy to see that we have the same joy and happiness from a good game.