One of the countless subcultures in Japan, the arcade community is both loyal yet turbulent; one which ranges from casual gamers and “UFO Catchers” enthusiasts, to gamers so hardcore, they have managed to turn their obsession into a career.
In his new documentary, 100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience, Brad Crawford explores the industry with both respect and an inevitable dollop of nostalgia. Tracking the history of arcades in Japan (and the States), with a loose chronological narrative, Crawford introduces us to a plethora of interviewees, from arcade owners, game developers, sound engineers but perhaps most interestingly, the gamers themselves.
Tracing the craze back to 1979 and the now iconic Space Invaders, Crawford shows us how the ball started rolling, with the explosive success of Taiho’s alien killing computer game. Off the back of such unprecedented popularity (which apparently lead to a national shortage of 100yen coins in Japan), a number of imitator “shooters” started filling the market. To this day, there is an aggressively dedicated shooter-audience, such as the multi-game high scorer, Clover TAC, who tells us the secret to success is equal parts skill, practice and piles of 100yen coins. Clover TAC, along with Ebihara, the owner of a Retro Arcade, tell us the merits of the community spirit and healthy competition that goes along with these arcades, a theme that runs deep throughout the documentary.
From “shooters” we move onto “fighters” with special attention given to the Street Fighter franchise. We fast-forward to SFIV and the world acclaimed player, Daigo “The Beast” Umihara, who tells a similar story to Clover TAC in regards to spending vast amounts of time and money honing his skills, whilst reveling in the competitive and community spirit. The film even takes us to an international SFIV competition held in America, where Umihara lands a rather respectable 4th place, amongst 1000s of competitors from dozens of countries.
Spliced into the chronological story of the documentary is the increasingly popular rhythm games, this time represented by expert player, Tomoyuki Mori, who describes how DanceDanceRevolution has both pushed him to better himself as a player, whilst making new friends at the arcade (told you that theme would be recurring!). The rhythm games are represented as a diverse and real alternative for less conventional gamers, which have a very steep learning curve, but one which may seem less daunting than that of retro or fighting games.
Crawford brilliantly explores how these different demographics of gamers mold together and that Japanese Game Centers have aptly evolved to cater to each of their individual needs. This adaptation of an aging business model is seen as Japan’s saving grace, as they change to fit the needs of a wider variety of gamers, whilst arcades back in America slowly die out. This leads us to the only truly somber section of the film, with a host of American pundits reminiscing about their childhood hangouts, which have withered under a shrinking market and a negative perception from non-gamers.
The film is crammed full of interesting juxtapositions, and angles many may not have thought of, all cut down to a neat, stylish and choppy 60-minute package. But for all of its charm (for which there is a lot), it is hard to ignore that the film has more than one story to tell, indeed each aspect of the documentary is a narrative in its own right and deserves its own hour in the spotlight. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t informative, as it certainly is, appealing to gamers with insightful interviews, whilst being open and welcoming enough to also attract a much wider audience. But the film could have been even better if it had had a little more focus, as competition from home-consoles and the success story of a bar/arcade owner in America are both interesting narratives, but perhaps not ones that are best suited to this documentary.
100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience is available for purchase on their website.