Something About Japan: a tribute to legendary retro arcade Shibuya Kaikan Monaco

On Sunday, one of Tokyo’s most infamous videogame arcades, Shibuya Kaikan Monaco, powered down its cabinets for the last time.

Shibuya Kaikan Monaco was a special place. While arcades around Japan (known here as “game centres”) have modernised at a rampant pace, Monaco was beloved for its dedication to hardcore gamers and seemed to have remained largely unchanged since its opening in the late 1970s. While most game centres nowadays lure in the widest possible audience with a ground floor consisting of UFO catchers, racing games, rhythm games and print club photo machines, with all the fighting games and so on tucked away upstairs somewhere, Monaco offered a mix of decades-old cabinets still priced at 50 yen (33p) a play, respected rhythm titles and linked-up Street Fighter games from several different generations.

When Monaco announced it would be closing its doors on 18 August, my Twitter feed was ablaze with comments like, “See, Japan’s arcade industry isn’t as healthy as everyone says it is”.

But that’s nonsense. Japan’s arcade industry is still alive and well, with new game centres opening all the time, everywhere from city centres such as fashion district Shibuya to otaku haven Akihabara to out-of-town shopping malls and beyond. New games are released constantly, with Tecmo even preparing to return to the arcades after a 12-year absence with DOA5 Ultimate: Arcade. The Japan Amusement Expo still draws respectable crowds each year in February. UFO catcher prizes are an industry unto themselves.

No, Shibuya Kaikan Monaco’s problem was not a shrinking industry, but rather, its niche within it. Chatting with an employee on the Friday night of Monaco’s final weekend confirmed what the eye could already see: The audience for retro games and hardcore experiences is ageing. The arcade was more packed than usual that night, with regulars descending en-masse for one last credit, and not one single person appeared to be under 25. Most of them were grey-haired men in suits or lone office workers bearing the unmistakable mark of the terminally unfashionable otaku.

“As gamers get older, the time they can come to the arcade gets later and later, because they have to come after work,” said the part-timer. “And that has affected our bottom line. We don’t get any young people here really.”

Shibuya Kaikan Monaco did its best to keep up. True, older cabinets in the retro basement included classics such as Vs Super Mario Bros., a couple of Metal Slugs and Bomber Man World, plus a smattering of smutty strip mah-jong games, erotic puzzle games and super-difficult bullet-hell shooters such as Cave’s Ketsui, their faded tube monitors a testament to their age. And yes, it boasted dozens of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike cabinets, linked back-to-back so that players could literally face off against each other. But there were also newer machines, like recent entries in the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Dragon Ball Z series alongside K-pop-heavy touchscreen rhythm game DJMax Technika 2.

But clearly it wasn’t enough. The arcade’s location on the Center-Gai shopping street, one of the most valued bits of real estate in all of Shibuya, probably didn’t help; a great location for attracting passersby, sure, but the rent and rates must have risen even as Monaco clung to its 50-100 yen price point. The flagship HMV store opposite got turned into a Forever 21 a few years ago, and no doubt Monaco’s slightly grotty building will be repurposed as something glamorous and intensely lucrative within weeks.

Sadly the arcades that disappear tend to be the ones that trade in nostalgia – a lovely old place near my apartment also packed it in a few months ago, while Shibuya’s excellent all-you-can-play retro console bar Famicon Cafe only lasted about a year. But the brand-new, gleaming, state-of-the-art game centres that continue to pop up all around Japan suggest that arcades are moving with the times.

Despite their venerable age, the cabinets at Monaco were surprisingly all rentals, according to the youthful staffer (he was in his forties, like many of the clientele). So while Monaco may have powered down, Mario and chums will potentially go back into circulation, waiting for someone new to take the ludicrous risk of starting up an arcade for oldies.

In the meantime, I had an hour and a stack of 50 yen coins to burn through before saying my goodbyes to an arcade I first visited almost exactly 10 years earlier, in September 2003. I nestled in among the tunnel-visioned Pop’n’Music geniuses, the street-fighting salarymen and the thick stench of cigarette smoke and inserted a coin. Shibuya Kaikan Monaco may be gone, but those old enough to remember the games it celebrated will remember it too.