From the delicious food to the long-standing culture, or the breath-taking scenery, there’s an endless list of reasons people choose to visit Japan. But one of the biggest draws for tourists here, including yours truly, is the incredible gaming scene it offers.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the “Electric Town” itself. Akihabara is a district located in central Tokyo that is famous for its wealth of electronics stores, manga shops, and arcades. As with most things, the Japanese take their arcade gaming seriously and are considered instrumental in the birth of modern-day gaming. Whether you’re a casual gamer, or a Gēmuotaku (a game nerd…hey, I’m not judging), arcades in Akihabara are a rite of passage.
We’re going to share the best arcades in Akihabara, in our humble opinion of course! But first, we’re going to tell you a little more about the district itself, and the fascinating gaming culture within it.
Akihabara – The Origin Story
During the Edo period in Japan (1603 -1868) Akihabara, or Aioi as it was then known, was a somewhat dangerous area. Following a devastating fire in 1869, a shrine was erected to the Buddhist god Akiba-daigongen, who was thought to guard against fire, in 1870, and the name Aioi was replaced by the name of the shrine – Akiba Jinja (literally fire extinguisher shrine).
Flash forward to twenty years later in 1888, when a new station became a major hub of transit activity and allowed Akihabara to flourish in many ways. It thrived as a market city specializing in household electronics (earning the district the affectionate nickname “Electric Town”), and it became a hub for eager entrepreneurs.
So how did this city go from being the place to go for fridges and TVs, to being the cultural/gaming landmark it is today? The answer lies in home computers. Akihabara became the top destination for home computer equipment in the 1980s, a time where the only people who used PCs were serious hobbyists or specialists…AKA – Otaku. Literally translated “Geek”, the term Otaku came to represent not only computer nerds, but any person who has a keen interest or even obsession with any aspect of popular culture – from anime, to manga, to video games. Akihabara is now considered to be a sacred place to many who consider themselves Otaku. Or, in our case, Gēmuotaku.
A Mecca for Gamers
Today, Akihabara is at the center of modern Japanese culture, and you can’t talk about pop culture in Japan without referencing video games. Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Namco, Capcom – these are just a few of the names instrumental in making video games something we enjoy every single day, at the tips of our fingers, and they all originate in Japan. And you can see some of those names in bright, flashing, neon lights as you walk through Akihabara.
Despite the fact we can now engage in serious gaming just by unlocking our smartphones, most gamers will agree that heading to an actual arcade to play is akin to a spiritual experience, and where better to have such an experience than the spiritual home of gaming itself? With all that history in mind, let’s now take a look at some of the best arcades Japan has to offer and guide you through your own gaming pilgrimage.
HEY (Hirose Entertainment Yard)
Located: Japan, 〒101-0021 Tokyo, Chiyoda City, Sotokanda, 1 Chome−10−５ 廣瀬本社ビル
Open: Every day, 10:45am – 11pm
Cost of games: Between ¥100 and ¥1,000
Owned by gaming legends Taito, HEY just managed to squeeze its way to the top of our list, for several key reasons that I’ll explain momentarily. You’d be forgiven for missing HEY if you weren’t already looking for it; nestled between the bright and flashy lights that many stores in Akihabara use, you can find this arcade just off the main street, between SEGA one and SEGA three (we’ll get to those in a little bit).
HEY is spread over four floors, with each floor offering something different. Don’t be put off by the first floor west entrance, which is full of the extremely popular crane games, or UFO catchers as they’re known here, that has taken Japan by storm in the last decade or so (unless that’s your thing of course, in which case crane away). Interestingly, if you are into them, Taito HEY has some of the most up-to-date, coveted prizes you can get anywhere in the city. As you make your way through the UFO catchers, you’ll hit a huge block of arcade games, and this is where the fun begins.
HEY boasts a HUGE range of games, from the most retro, legendary games, to the most modern and popular games. You can find some of the absolute classics, like CAPCOMS Dungeons and Dragons (!!!), or Arika’s Tetris. One reason the selection of classic games is so revered here is the sheer range of classic fighter games, with an entire floor dedicated to classic PVP fighters. If you head up one more floor, you’ll find a wide range of modern games too, meaning there’s something to appeal to gamers of every era.
One of the most exciting and unique features of this beloved arcade is the Gundam PODs. If you’re not familiar, Gundam PODs (Panoramic Optical Display) allow the gamer to literally step inside a pod and immerse themselves in the universe of their choice, in effect becoming a mobile pilot. It’s something that simply has to be experienced, and the best place to do that in Akihabara? Taito HEY. With wall to wall arcade games, there’s something for literally every type of gamer here, and along with the unique Gundam PODs, it’s the reason it hit the top of our list.
Located: 〒 101-0021 Kitabayashi 3F/4F/5F building 1-11-2 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Open: Every day, 11am – 8pm
Cost of games: ¥100
OK, so a little disclaimer – I LOVE Super Potato Akihabara, and this selection may be a little biased…but I definitely have good reasons, so hear me out.
While Super Potato is primarily a chain of retro game stores where you can purchase video games rather than playing them, their flagship store in Akihabara is an absolute must-visit for any retro gaming fan, as it features a classic arcade on the top floor. This definitely isn’t the place to go if you’re looking to play the most up-to-date games, but if you have any place if your heart for nostalgia you’ll want to check this out.
This small, unassuming store begins on the third floor and boasts a wall-to-wall library of every game imaginable. Here you can purchase beloved games from your childhood, or even grab some incredibly rare merch from your favorite gaming franchise – for me, it was the classic Pokémon Red – but there really is something for every console ever made here, so if you’re looking for something specific there’s a good chance you’ll find it.
Which brings us to the arcade on the fifth floor. There’s a small stand where you can buy snacks to fuel your classic arcade binge but do be aware that as with most arcades in Japan smoking is allowed here. The room is small, but it holds some of the most iconic classics you can play, like Super Mario and 007 GoldenEye. Whether you’re a retro gamer, looking to experience some of your childhood excitement with games from your youth, or just interested in seeing a small piece of gaming history, Super Potato is definitely not one to be missed.
Location: Various – there are four across Akihabara!
Open: Double-check for the specific one you’d like to visit, but most are open every day.
Cost: ¥100 – ¥1,000 (possibly more for some of the wilder games!)
Club SEGA is considered by many to be the best, most quintessential arcade experience Japan has to offer, and with good reason. Across their location, in Akihabara, they offer pretty much every gaming experience you could think of. Recently renovated, Club SEGA 1 has a nice selection of UFO catchers, fighting, shooting, action, and sports games. It’s a great location for a casual gamer looking to try a wide range of games in a modern setting.
Club SEGA 2 is known for being home to hardcore otaku and even features staff in full cosplay, so if you’re a die-hard anime or manga fan you’ll love it here. Club SEGA 3 takes a break from the manga scene and immerses you into a fantastic world of VR. Even those not particularly into gaming at all will be amazed by the virtual reality experience SEGA 3 offers. Finally, Club SEGA 4 offers a fantastic balance of crane games, virtual reality, and music and dancing games, making it the perfect choice for those who like to be a little more active while they game!
An interesting feature of Club SEGAs, in particular, is the regular show of hardcore gamers that display their years of practice for avid audiences. Plus, SEGA often uses these locations to trial it’s new games months before they’re realized, so there’s a chance you’ll see something before any of your gamer friends back home! And even if you don’t, you could put your skills to the test and challenge one of these seasoned pros.
Level-up in Akihabara
Our list is definitely not exhaustive – there are far more gaming experiences in Akihabara than we could list here. But hopefully, it’s given you a great starting point for your initial quest into the gaming capital of Japan. We’d love to know what you thought of our favorite arcades, or if you have your own favorite spot in Tokyo – let us know in the comments.