Tokyo's old-school arcades

Tokyo's old-school arcades

Tokyo is the world's last bastion of public arcade culture -- prepare your thumbs for the final battle
Tokyo arcades
Tokyo arcades
Tokyo arcades
Tokyo arcades
Vegas or Tokyo? With mock-slot machines and intense lighting in Taito HEY you'd hardly know the difference. (Photo by Flickr user Stéfan)

Tokyo arcades -- a k a 'game centers' -- are home to a public video game culture that has all but disappeared in the rest of the world. Couples on dates get touchy-feely as they operate 'UFO Catcher' cranes together, while high school geeks watch their friends pound fake drums in high-decibel rhythm games. Deeper inside the arcades, vampire-like hardcore gamers of yore still reside, battling opponents on obscure fighter consoles and avoiding direct sunlight at all costs.

These time suckers top our list of old-school Tokyo arcades for both pros and motivated amateurs.

1. Taito HEY

Taito HEY ("Hirose Entertainment Yard”) in Akihabara has the city's best collection of shooter games -- nicknamed 'shoot 'em ups' or 'shmups.' This is the unofficial clubhouse for hardcore shmuppers, pathologically engrossed in making their ways out of "bullet hell."

Taito HEY also offers most other major game console types, including fighting and crane games. Speciality nerds congregate around the cranes with the hope of extracting still more little girl figurines to add to their expansive and deeply creepy collections.

Taito HEY
, 1-10-5 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, tel. 03 5209 2030, 10am-12am

2. Shibuya Kaikan Monaco

Judging by the decrepit entrance, Shibuya Kaikan Monaco has changed little since the Space Invaders boom of the '70s. The climb up the narrow, yellowed stairway leading to the gaming dens feels like a journey through time. Inside, poorly groomed joystick jockeys continue their years-long battles, with little regard for the outside world.

Until recently, Shibuya Kaikan Monaco set aside a permanent space for its collection of dusty arcade games from the '80s. Older machines have since been replaced by '90s flashback models. No worries, though: Shibuya Kaikan Monaco's well-rooted old-school ambiance is in no danger of eradication.

Shibuya Kaikan Monaco (unofficial webpage): 23-10 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, tel. 03 3461 9171, 10am-12am

3. Club Sega

Club Sega in Akihabara is not the biggest of Sega's numerous arcades, but its customers are probably the city's most dedicated. Drawn by multiple rows of Virtua Fighter and Tekken cabinets and increasingly popular card-based systems (like Sangokushi Taisen), this is the place hard-bitten gamers come to show their stuff while the geek world watches.

Many game companies test unreleased games at Club Sega, so lucky visitors can sometimes sample new titles before the masses. The fifth floor, for example, was the debut spot for the card-hybrid soccer game WCCF Intercontinental Clubs 2007-2008, in which players use trading cards of real soccer stars to build ideal teams.

Club Sega, 1-10-9 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, tel. 03 5256 8123, 10am-1am

4. New Shimbashi Building

The New Shimbashi Building is a somewhat low-rent shopping complex filled with small stores, retro cafés and smelly izakaya. More importantly, the floors are scattered with arcades that specialize in mahjong video games. Video mahjong addicts rarely bother going elsewhere for their fixes.

For mahjong newbies, the video version is a great way of getting up to speed before stepping into the highly competitive mahjong circuit, where big money is on the line. For those with the confidence to go face-to-face with human opponents, real mahjong parlors are also located in the New Shimbashi Building.

Mahjong-phobes can also have fun. The arcade Game Center Jumbo (tel. 03 3500 3371, 9:30am-12am) is dedicated to the horse racing simulator "Derby Owner's Club," which allows players to raise and race horses with eight other pretend stable barons.

New Shimbashi Building Amusement Hall: 2-16-1 Shimbashi, Minato-ku, tel. 03 3597 5678, 10am-12pm