The strengths and weaknesses of Arcade Mania! come from the same source. Read it for the story of Japanese arcades and you’ll be disappointed. Read it to find out about videogames in Japanese arcades and you’ll be half-disappointed.
Arcade Mania! is a miscellaneous hodgepodge of Japanese arcade culture, wrapped up in an excitable title but with no overarching structure and entries that veer between the invigorating and the dull. ‘Hey, man, relax’, the book replies. The introduction reassures us that this is merely a ‘tour guide, offering a window into the arcades’ rather than a boring old ‘history book’.
By placing chapters in the order you would encounter machines such as UFO Catchers, card games, shooters and rhythm games in an arcade, Arcade Mania! will bring ‘the Japanese arcade experience to you the reader wherever you are’. But its conjuring of the regular staples of salarymen, giggling schoolgirls and overflowing ashtrays make it clear that few preconceptions will be challenged here.
Perhaps, though, this is for the best. Arcade Mania! is more of a brief introduction to Japanese arcades written for people who haven’t ever seen one than an in-depth examination of the ‘world of Japan’s game centers’. And Ashcraft is a committed and entertaining host, with access to interesting individuals and a keen eye for the trends that dominate these arcades’ floors.
The book is at its best when describing phenomena such as Purikura, sticker-booth machines that print handbag-friendly sheets of glossy pictures with various embellishments – some user-defined, some software-enhanced. Though such tech has also been seen in the west, Purikura caused a craze among teenage girls in Japan, described entertainingly here alongside fascinating offshoots such as Business Purikura machines which, in turn, led to Pierimo, a system that uses 28 cameras to create keychain busts of users.
It’s when it focuses on videogames that Arcade Mania! is at its weakest. Ashcraft’s conclusions have a tendency to be pat, such as when writing about rhythm games: ‘“We’re lucky to have games that inspire physical action,” says Aaron [a DDR player], wiping his brow. Yes, yes we are’. On other occasions he veers into territory that feels plain rash: ‘Card-based games represent the future for arcade games’.
There’s also an oddly non-celebratory tone that sometimes creeps in to spell out that videogames are a waste of time: ‘What does [Street Fighter expert Daigo ‘the Beast’ Umehara] have for the thousands of dollars he sunk in Tokyo arcades? Apart from being really good at Street Fighter… nothing.”
Pernickety readers will take issue with some of Ashcraft’s other observations, including his assertion that ‘for the Donkey Kong sequel, Jumpman would be renamed Mario’. (Didn’t Jumpman become Mario for Donkey Kong’s American release thanks to a piece of opportunism on the part of Minoru Arakawa, then-president of Nintendo Of America? That is, at least, how the story has been told for many years.)
The book’s style can also become tiresome, crammed as it is with exclamations, weird contractions and rat-a-tat particles that often dismiss questions of potential interest. ‘Think fishing is exciting? It’s not!’ ‘Did it matter if [Afterburner] was repetitive? Course not, it had ’splosions!’ ‘It’s hard to believe [Ikaruga] was created by a four-man team. Tiny!’
Charming at first, it’s a style that rapidly begins to pall. Despite this, Arcade Mania! contains enough intriguing side-streets and offbeat interviews to be worth persevering with. Many readers will deem it unambitious, and there are no profound insights to be had, but it injects a little life into the areas it covers, and the genial nature suits some of its subjects well. It’s no ‘greatest hits’ of the Japanese arcades, then, but it passes muster as a decent compilation work.
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