When it comes to fighting games, Japan has become something of a Mecca. Home to some of the most devastatingly effective players in a wild variety of titles, and one of the last few places in the world where the arcade culture still truly thrives, it has become the destination of choice for many players who want to improve–or who just love the genre.
Akihabara, the electronics town in the heart of Tokyo [and the destination of upcoming Evo Japan – Editor], is one of the few places in the world that seems almost totally dedicated to gaming and anime. Here, it’s easy to find an arcade–in fact, a Sega arcade is one of the first things you see upon leaving the main station. Akihabara is an overwhelmingly brash place; neon lights flicker constantly, lighting up pop culture stores that rise half a dozen floors. The sound is indescribable. Even mid afternoon, there is a constant buzz of people talking, sometimes overwhelmed by a truck playing singles from whatever idol group is the next big thing.
Walking into an arcade is only brief respite. The lights might be lower in here, but there is a constant roar from machines cranked up to max volume. The variety is dizzying at first; Streets of Rage is sitting next to Tetris, and a train simulator is nestled in the corner. As you climb the floors however, the sounds become far more familiar. Dozens of the best fighting games of all time are on offer here, and it feels as though they’re all being played at once.
This is HEY (Hirose Entertainment Yard), one of the most famous arcades in Akihabara. Unlike Namco Broadway or Sega, HEY is unconstrained by brand loyalty–Ultra Street Fighter IV sits across from Pokkén Tournament, while Tekken 7: Fated Retribution machines turn into Guilty Gear cabinets without a gap. Just about every title imaginable is available here; King of Fighters, Nitroplus Blasterz, and Super Street Fighter II all share the same floorspace. Only Street Fighter V–not available on arcade cabinets–is conspicuous in its absence. And at just 100 yen a play, it’s cheap and easy to get bodied in your game of choice.
It’s a Thursday night, but the fighting game floor is by far the most populated. Only a few seats are available for the most unpopular titles, and if you’re hoping to get a game of Guilty Gear in, you’ll have to put your coins down and claim next in the queue. Only the Pokkén Tournament machines were free of players, but I was fighting it out with someone just moments after sitting down.
At home in the UK, arcade culture is fighting a losing battle against home consoles and PC gaming. Many of the most beloved arcades have long since closed their doors–like the Trocadero, once the home of the UK’s Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike scene, now boarded up and empty. The few that remain, like the Heart of Gaming and the Arcade Club, offer very different experiences. The machines have been rigged to become free to play, and the only price you’ll pay is your entrance fee. On a good day, that can feel like a waste–when you’re winning, you’ve probably overpaid. On a bad, you’ll probably get through a whole lot more credits than you’ve technically paid for.
Here at HEY, however, every battle is desperate. It’s easy to walk in with a heavy wallet and leave with a light one, and the threat of losing those hard earned coins is enough to make every round a bloodbath. The skill level here is shockingly high. It’s completely unlike logging on to your PS4 and getting some games online–every person you play seems to know more about the game than you do. Even the weakest players have come up with tactics to cover their flaws. Weak in the neutral? You can bet they have an incredible punish game. Not getting much off of an opening? Don’t worry–they can find plenty more. It’s the harshest education possible, but like putting immense pressure on coal, it creates diamonds.
When it all becomes too much and you need a break, there’s refreshment on tap. The vending machines in HEY are no more expensive than anywhere else, but they’re loaded with energy drinks and coffee. Caffeine is the name of the game here, to make sure that everyone can go all night.
And indeed, it’s easy to lose track of time in the hazy, smoke-filled hall. Most of the light is from the screens you’re playing on, and it’s simple to enter in daylight and leave in the pitch black–if your wallet allows, of course. Despite the relatively dingy environment, however–and the shockingly constant racket–HEY is a deeply comfortable place.
The people here are passionate about their game of choice. The only thing they care about is how good you are on the sticks and, for the first time during my trip to Japan, it didn’t feel as though anyone cared about my size, or the way I looked. All that mattered was whether my Sin could measure up to my opponent’s Dizzy, or whether my day 1 Claudio would be enough to fight off his Dragunov (Spoiler: it wasn’t).
It’s difficult to leave HEY, even when your readily available supply of Yen runs out. The passion here is contagious, more than enough to get you hooked on a title you’ve never tried before, or to encourage a return to an old flame. For much of that Thursday night, the busiest cabinets on offer where the Super Street Fighter II Turbo cabs, which were just ¥10 a play. People were not just lined up and waiting for their chance, but actively spectating, cheering on their favorites and booing their foes. It was the same for almost every game–even the relatively sparsely-populated Dengeki cabs.
For many, this is the home of fighting games, and the start of their fighting game journey. Top players for a myriad of titles cut their teeth in the arcades. For a few hours on a Thursday night, I got the chance to be steeped in that Mecca. Already, I can’t wait to go back. Maybe next time, I’ll manage to take more than a few rounds.