As the Covid-19 Pandemic continues through all corners of the globe, subtle changes continue to shift the ways we function as a society. While many of these things will one day return in some form, a lot of them may not. While it is important to remember millions of people have and will lose their lives to this pandemic, let us not forget the culture we once lived with, gone with them too.
Back in the late ’90s and early 2000’s I had the privilege of growing up with locally owned media stores. These were places where you could go to buy books, music CDs, and video games. We also had locally-owned arcades to visit. Here you could play games like Initial D, Marvel vs Capcom 2, and Dance Dance Revolution. As the shift in digital culture overtook the US and illegal downloads replaced paying for music, most of these places went away. As games grew online communities, visits to the arcade were replaced with chat rooms and leaderboards.
Nevertheless, an entire borough in Tokyo stayed frozen in time. Akihabara, one of the most fascinating places on the planet, played host to shops and arcades long gone from my teenage years. After my time at the Tokyo Game Show in 2019, Akihabara was my first stop. I had to see for myself if such a place was even real. Every building, every tower, was wall-to-wall video games, arcades, Manga, and action figures.
My favorite thing to do was to walk through the used video game stores. I could not believe what I was seeing. Playstation 4 copies of games like Patapon, LocoRoco, and Gravity Daze laid on display. In contrast to typical Western games, I am used to like Madden, Call of Duty, and The Division 2. Everything felt more meaningful, game stores were game stores. Not Funko Pop stores that managed to sell some of the newer games as we have here in the US.
Akihabara In 2019 & 2021
Then there were the retro games. As a 6’2″ man from the US, with a backpack full of games, I did not fit in many of the store’s isles. I was up to my clenched elbows in games. Along the way I discovered Dreamcast accessories I did not know existed. I even found sealed Nintendo 64 games for $40. Plus Famicom (NES) and Super Famicom (SNES) games, completely intact in their original packaging for $20 to $30. I had to stop myself from tripping over Sega Saturns, Nintendo Zappers, and Power Pads. It was not just one or two places, there were countless tiny stores.
I am heartbroken to discover that many of my game collecting friends here in the US may never get to experience Akihabara. While on social media we have honored the closing of the last Sega arcade, the reality is, this is more significant than just one place. A large section of Akihabara has closed, and it might never come back.
More From 2019 & 2021
The borough survives on tourism, and as you could imagine the place is a wasteland. Nearly all of the arcades are gone and most of the small retail businesses have moved to online marketplaces to ensure continued income without having to pay the big city rent. Besides, retro gaming is not anywhere near as important to Japanese gamers as it is in the US and Europe. Far fewer sales in Akihabara come from local consumers.
While there are some options left, with each closed shop and arcade in Akihabara it continues to diminish its reputation as the cultural epicenter making visits less meaningful. Which will only continue exponentially the region’s sad economic decline.