Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Book Review: Arcade Mania

Over vacation, I finished Brian Ashcraft's little gem on the Japanese arcade scene, Arcade Mania: The Turbo-charged World of Japan's Game Centers.

It's a great little book, despite a few flaws.

On the plus side, Brian gives a perspective on the less well travelled (at least by gaijin) corners of the Japanese arcade scene. Not just the story behind the well known hits from Miyamoto & Suzuki, but the story behind arcade Mahjong, the history & culture behind the sticker-picture machine craze, and more.

In addition, he makes it infinitely more colorful and readable by making it a story about people. Many western gamers have heard of Fatal1ty or other FPS players at the top of their game. In Arcade Mania, Brian introduces us to characters like Yuka Nakajima, queen of the mechanical claw games, whose prize-snatching prowess has netted her 3500 of her favorite stuffed animal and a role a consultant and celeb with the machines' manufacturers. He also introduces us to a pro Mahjong (real and video) player, a retired 2D fighter champ in his 20's, and to some figures from the Doujin software scene in Japan (think indie bands selling casettes from a car trunk, only it's game developers and it's schleping home-created boxes in Akihabara). All of this underscores just how broad a spectrum gaming covers in Japan and how differently it traverses Japanese culture compared to that of the US.

There are also some well researched bits of history behind the technical progression of sticker-booth machines, the history of companies like Sega and others, as well as the influences between genres of arcade machines.

I have two complaints about the book. Neither of which should stop you from purchasing it if the above paragraphs seem up your alley.

First, it felt like some of the latter chapters, while they were ok, weren't nearly as well researched as some of the earlier chapters, and didn't really tap the same kind of cultural vein as the other ones seemed to. In the retro gaming chapter, for example, he mentions G-Front, an Akihabara store that carries old arcade cabinet PCBs and other parts, and profiles one of the employees. He doesn't though, explain whether this is the only one of it's kind, or one of a thousand. How widespread is this retro-gaming trend? [A few years ago, Doug Church dragged me through Super Potato and a handful of other places looking for an old cartridge version of one of his games, so I'd seen that there's apparently a fair number of such stores].

The second complaint is that I really would have liked to have seen Brian wrap up with a chapter speculating on the future of Japanese arcades and arcade games. Instead the book wraps with an interesting chapter on video-game/card-game hybrids, and then leaves us hanging. Given his level of knowledge, he's in a better position than most to give us a hint or two of what might lie in the future. Then again, perhaps he's seen enough of the wacky Japanese video game scene to know that the future holds things more bizarre than he's likely to dream up.

In any case, these are minor flaws. The book is a good read for anyone interested in the Japanese game business and arcade scene, as well as games in general. Go pick it up.

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