Chances are that if you like video games and are going to Japan you probably want to do a bit of game shopping. Japan is the birthplace of games as entertainment and over the years they’ve made a lot of cool as shit games.
I’m 32 and as a kid I played Mega Drive and Gameboy but wasn’t aware of the concept of different markets and games not being released in the West. I just played TMNT Fall of the Foot Clan and Streets of Rage 2 and thought they were pretty great.
It wasn’t until I got into importing for the PS2 at 18 did I begin to realise that another world of hard to obtain, amazing looking stuff existed. Flash forward to my early thirties I’m a sucker for 90s and early 2000s Japanese PS1 and PS2 games.
I got my start in design on the PS2 and at the time, it seemed like you could make any game you wanted. This was before the mass developer executions of the 360PS3 era. This period signaled a change in taste in the gaming market. Video games were mass market and the mass market liked big open worlds and feature rich shooters. Console games are not cheap to make and a lot of B and C grade developers closed their doors, meaning we lost the weirder stuff from Japan.
On my first trip to Japan in 2013 I bought a lot of Japan only 360 games. 500 yen copies of the Idolmaster 2 special edition flooded the Book Offs I went in so I indulged my vice at the time. Three years later my hunger is for PS1 and PS2 games. The PS1 and PS2 were where I fell in love with games and learned the things I hold most dear in game design. There are so many mysterious titles have cool as shit covers, amazing music and inscrutable mechanics.
This is all to say that a lot of buying games in Japan guides focus on 8 and 16 bit games. I have very little interest in owning these so this ‘guide’ focuses on PS1 and up. It should be noted that as more people have got into collecting older games, the 8 and 16 bit shelves of game shops have become sparser. People now know what their games are worth and a lot are being bought by natives to eBay or have been hoovered up by tourists.
Fewer collectors are into Sony systems at the moment so these games are plentiful and cheap. Expect that to change in the next few years.
Note: There are not many photos that I’ve taken of the inside of these stores. A lot of Japanese stores don’t allow photography in stores and I was kind of lost in the fever of treasure hunting to think to stop to take photos.
Note: You have to pay tax on the things you buy in Japan. I think it’s 8% and some stores will have it included on the price sticker and some will add it at the till. If you see a higher price on the till don’t panic, it will only be slightly higher and you’re not being scammed.
Let’s fire in.
What Are You After?
Cool, you’re going to Japan and you want to buy some games. What are you after? A souvenir SNES cart of a game you played as a kid? A specific, hard to find game? Or maybe just an exploration through some treasure troves and see what you can find?
It’s worth thinking about what you want and making sure you can play it. Older consoles don’t tend to be region free so you need to make sure you can play whatever you buy. I have a soft modded region free Wii, a PS2 test kit (developer unit that is region free) and I play PS1 games through an emulator on my PC (though you can play them on PS3 as well).
All the old systems are supported by emulators so as long as you have a PC you’ll be fine. It’s worth noting that the PCSX2 emulator for PS2 has issues with some games. Part of developing for PS2 meant doing whatever clever tricks you could do with a weird bit of hardware to squeeze any extra performance or memory out of it. This means that the emulator has strange issues from game to game and each game will require experimentation with to find the best settings. Issues range from the fog in the third level of Siren rendering as a flat white plane, making the level unplayable, to the first locked door never opening in Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. When it works though you get amazing looking PS2 games rendering at high resolutions with improved frame rates.
Everyone has heard of Akihabara and knows that’s where you go to buy games right? Kind of. Akiba is plagued by tourists and the cool shops all carry higher prices. It’s not where you go to shop cheaply but it is where you go to find the coolest game shops in the world.
Top tip: weekends are really busy, go in the week.
Super Potato is, quite simply, a lovely place on a quiet day. Several floors of old games, TVs playing game attract modes, cool merchandise and endless treasures. On a busy day it’s full of Western wanks imploring each other to look at a Mario cartridge and “remember playing it back in the day”.
Side note: a friend was in there a couple of weeks ago and overheard some Westerners in there looking for the Nintendo NX because “They always come out early in Japan”.
As noted above, the 8 and 16 bit shelves are sparse but there are still loads of carts to search through. The 32 bit and up shelves are better stocked and are rammed with games. It’s a cramped shop so it can be difficult to search through them in comfort but treasures are there to be had. The games are all in good condition and wrapped nicely.
Highly priced items sit in a glass cabinet. I like Human Entertainment games and am slowly trying to get all of the Syndrome series of games. They had Twilight Syndrome: The Memorize locked behind the glass for 6800 yen which was too pricey for me but shows that rarities can be found in stores and not just on eBay.
Image from Obscure Video Games (an amazing site): http://obscurevideogames.tumblr.com/post/21780328726/twilight-syndrome-the-memorize-human
Go to Super Potato to see it and have a browse. Play an arcade game, see things you’ve never seen before and buy something special if they have it since it will probably be in good condition.
I got this copy of Dino Crisis from Super Potato. As you can see, it’s in great condition with the spine card and wrapped nicely. It is also graded in some way but I’m not sure what the kanji means.
Friends is a two story store run by an old lady and her two sons. The first floor of the shop is for cartridge games and is overseen by the old lady. Again, the shelves are looking a bit sparse but everything is in great condition.
The second floor is all CD games and soundtracks. There are shit loads of PS1 games and healthy stocks of Dreamcast and PS2. The two sons sit behind a counter which is piled high with games. Behind the counter one son could only be briefly glimpsed behind mountains of games.
You are expected to be politely quiet in the store. The atmosphere is one of reverence for games and somewhere for people to go who have some business to do. This isn’t for sight seeing.
The store is hard to find without a handy clue. Follow the Google map directions to it and when you arrive feel free to walk around the block a few times not finding the store. What you’re looking for is a doorway surrounded by posters for a massage service. This one offers English speaking Japanese teen girls. If you can see that (you won’t miss it), head in and up the stairs. Go into the rooms with games and probably don’t go up to the Bad Boy floor.
Again this store commands higher prices because it’s in Akiba and because their stuff is in great condition.
I got a copy of Shadow Tower from Friends and you can see why they are slightly more expensive. It’s complete with the spine card and the grading system says everything is in A grade condition.
Mandarake in a black monolith just off the main street in Akihabara. It has several floors covering games, figures, Gunpla, porn for girls, porn for guys and a floor to sell your stuff to them. They are a second hand store and the game floor has a bewildering amount of stuff to search through. The shelves are rammed which means it can take a while to search through but they have good stuff to find.
Bonus: Nakano Broadway is an indoor shopping centre filled with figure, book and game shops. Mandarake have several stores there including a small game shop. I went there trying to find a very rare guide book for Flower, Sun and Rain but came away empty handed. They did have the PS1 game I really want but can’t justify the money on at the moment. Yuuyami Doori Tankentai looks cool as hell and clocks in at £160 on eBay or in the Nakano Mandarke glass cabinet.
Image from: http://www.listal.com/viewimage/2867681
I came away from Mandarake with a copy of CLOCK TOWER The First fear. It’s in nice condition but something is graded C. I’ll find out when I open it for playing.
Mandarake is also the place to go for books and soundtracks. I was after the No More Heroes soundtrack but couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead I found these two books in great condition. 600 yen for the Catherine book and DVD and 300 yen for EX Troopers.
Mandarake is great to have a hunt around in but the Akiba branch does carry the dreaded Akiba tax.
Mystery Awesome Game Shop
I have no idea what this store is called but it’s down some steps and has SNES music blaring out near the entrance. Listen out and look for this at street level:
Head downstairs to find a small but good selection of old games and merchandise. They had a good selection of the better PS1 games like Rival Schools, Dreamcast games and a load of cool merchandise.
There are other places to go as well but the above are the coolest and the ones you definitely want to hit on your quest.
- Trader offers PS3/PSP era upwards. Lots of more recent games and special editions.
- Media-Land is a good place to buy new games. I didn’t pop in this time but back in 2013 I got DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou shortly after release.
- For new games you can also hit up Sofmap and Yodabashi but these are huge stores and not cool and grungy like a good game shop should be.
Also make sure you head into the arcades dotted around Akiba. There are a lot of bullet hell games to play along with fighters and the recently popular 2v2 arena brawlers.
During your exploration of Akiba you’ll probably want lunch. On the main street you’ll find Wakasaya; a chain of don restaurants. The deal is that you order a bowl of rice and then pick up to four toppings at additional cost. Most of the options are fish and definitely go for the minced tuna.
Now that the touristy sight seeing game shops are done we can get down to where it gets real.
Book Off is a chain of stores that specialises in second hand stuff. The chain also encompasses Hobby Off (a not very good hobby store in Akiba), Mode Off for clothes and Hard Off for hardware of various types.
In Tokyo, Book Offs are everywhere. We stayed in Kabukicho (setting of the Yakuza games) in Shinjuku and within 15 minutes walk there were at least 4 different stores.
Game wise, Book Off have some Gameboy and maybe some SNES games in a bargain bucket but they mainly stock PS1 upwards. Every store has a different selection and there are always loads to search through. If your goal is to find stuff for the PS1, PS2, PS3, PSP or DS, go to every Book Off you find. The condition on everything varies from excellent to somewhat fucked but the prices are cheap.
I love finding new things and buying things based on just their cover and Book Off is perfect for that. Lots of PS1 games are 108 yen (less than a quid) and lots of PS2 games are 250 yen. If this is your idea of a good time, grab a basket and go nuts.
Be sure to check the stock trolleys and bargain bins that litter the stores. Gems can be found in these. they also carry lots of cheap game guide and art books.
The Very Cheap
There are load of games to be had for 108 or 250 yen. I’d heard of some of these before so I grabbed them when I saw them but others just looked cool on the shelf so they came home.
These very in price from 500 yen to 950. Even with the shit exchange rate inflicted by Brexit voting morons, they are still fairly cheap. Especially happy to finally get a copy of Boku No Natsuyasumi 2. The JoJo games were a nice surprise as well. I knew the Part 5 game existed but not the other one.
This Twilight Syndrome game clocked in at about 2400 yen. Cheaper than eBay but it gave me pause. The case is broken and in general it’s not in great condition. However, I came to Japan wanting to buy a Syndrome game so buy a Syndrome game I did.
The Odd One Out
For some reason a US copy of Yakuza 2 was in one of the Book Offs. I grabbed it since I don’t have it but it was the only English language game I saw in a Book Off.
The Worth Searching For
One Book Off had a stock trolley right by the front door. I saw the Grasshopper made Evangelion PSP game for 950 yen on it and grabbed it. To make sure it was a decent price I looked in the PSP special edition section and found the special edition for the exact same cost. It’s worth checking every section of a Book Off in case you can find a better condition or better version of the game.
I’m not entirely sure what the sales assistant was telling me about this one but this has some disk damage which I think is indicated by the yellow sticker. The Japanese take care of their stuff so I assume the disk damage is light but no matter, I’ll be emulating it anyway. For me it’s important to own disk copies of games. It’s easy to just download any PS1 game you want for free but I am a man of honour; a physical copy must be owned before it can be played.
There are a lot of game books to be found in Book Off and most are very cheap.
A Good Night Out Buying Games
Fortunately Book Offs are open until 11 each night (a couple shut at 9) so if you want a fun evening you can head out after the sun goes down. If a nerdy night out is what you’re after, head to Shinjuku.
First up is food and drink. Torikizoku is a chain izakaya where everything is 280 yen. Drinking is expensive in Japan so savour 280 yen beer. Torikizoku specialises in yakitori (grilled chicken and other meats). Have a leisurely dinner and a few drinks. The chicken hearts are highly recommended.
After you are feeling a bit drunk, mark the nearby Book Offs on your Google map and set out. There are at least four that are easily accessible so get going. The best one is Shinjuku Station East Exit. That has the biggest selection.
Once you’re done you’ll be near a game centre. Check out the fighting game scene and the 2v2 arena fighters. These have grown in popularity recently and are highly technical networked multiplayer games. Gunslinger Stratos is particularly cool as it uses light guns that snap together to morph your gun in game.
Once you’re done there you can head to the 8 Bit Cafe in Shinjuku. It’s hard to find. get the Trip Advisor app as it has an image of the entrance and instructions from a helpful user. The bar is filled with game (and JoJo) stuff and has playable machines. The cocktails are named after games (and JoJo) and it’s a chill place. There’ll be tourists in there but if you want to be surrounded by game hardware (and JoJos) and have some drinks this is the best place to end your evening.
As a bonus for Grasshopper fans, the Golden Gai drinking district in Kabukicho is home to Bar Plastic Model, the bar from No More Heroes. be warned that almost every bar has a cover charge of 500 or 700 yen per person. This is just a thing and you have to pay it. No one wants to live forever so fuck it, it’s fine.
And that’s a good night out of buying games and drinking, two of my favourite things in the whole world.
Good Game Buying Trip
This was a good trip for buying games. Book Off is the best thing to happen to collectors that want to buy a lot of games cheaply. I’m not sure how much I spent in total but it wasn’t much compared to what I got and what I would have paid on eBay.
If you’re going to Japan and want to buy games, I hope this blog has helped and you find some treasure.