EDIT: This was originally written in November 2010 but for some reason I never finished it. Well I just did. So here it is.
I would say that arcades in America are starting to look like your 98 year old grandfather on life support. He's hardly breathing, not really moving, definitely not going anywhere, the only people who come to see him are you and the other family members you guilt tripped into making the drive to the hospice, and really you're just sitting there wondering how it got to be this way and what you could have done differently. Maybe if you had encouraged Gramps to go to yoga he'd still be walking. Or maybe you should have just pushed him down the stairs a month ago and prevented him from ever making it to this vegetative state.
Likewise arcades in Japan are more similar to an Olympic stadium. Filled with athletes in the peak of their physical condition; running, jumping, pole vaulting, and doing other crazy physics defying maneuvers all the while being watched by millions of adoring fans. It's exciting to watch and even more exciting to join in.
I went to a Taito game arcade (game center) in Shinjuku with some friends the other day. The thing was 8 stories (2 basement, 6 above ground) of video games. There were fighting games, puzzle games, classic arcade games, rhythm games, UFO cathers, and collectible card game machines that I didn't quite understand. It was insane. Not only was the place huge, but it was PACKED. From top to bottom there were people plunking in quarters (really 100 yen coins but what do you call those?) and queuing up to beat each other senseless. It was awesome.
I spent the first hour or so watching my friends get pummeled by the locals at Street Fighter IV. My friends play plenty back home in the states and they do fairly well. But here in Japan they feed their children video game steroids from infancy so they can become world class gamers by the time they graduate high school. Satisfied that neither of my friends was ever going to win a match I decided to head upstairs to check out the rhythm game section.
On the 5th floor I saw an old familiar friend, Beatmania. Back in the late 90's (long before DDR and Guitar Hero became popular in the States) I was a huge fan of the whole Bemani line of games that Konami was putting out. They had Guitar Freaks, Beatmania, and I think some singing game. They were all musical in nature and really paved the way for this current generation of music/rhythm games that are becoming so popular. I think the last time I was in Japan (1999) I probably spent roughly $200 on Beatmania 4th Mix. A day.. Yeah I was a teeny bit addicted...
Anyways, I figured after 10 years I couldn't be THAT rusty and stepped up to the machine ready to start off on Normal Mode (bah! training mode is for sissies!). Well the old Betmania had 5 buttons and a scratch pad. This version had graduated to 7 buttons and the scratch pad. The songs were also a lot harder. Standing there trying desperately to figure out where my hands were supposed to go and failing my first 3 songs was a rather humbling experience. So I decided to back up a bit and switch to Beginner. Meanwhile a Japanese kid gets on the machine next to me and starts playing. Or I think he was. I really can't say what happened exactly. See on my screen there were one or two little bars floating gently down the screen corresponding with the keys I was supposed to hit once they reached the bottom. The kid next to me was staring at a monitor filled with color and flashing lights flying so quickly across the screen I thought he might have been having a seizure as he was smashing buttons so quickly. Lo and behold however when his results screen came up, he was awarded an "A" (because video games are the equivalent of school in Japan and so you must be graded). What was my grade? An E. I quit.
But I walked around a bit more. I was simply awed by how many people where here on a weekday enjoying themselves. There were even a few couples on dates. I don't think I'd ever consider taking a date to an arcade in America, not simply because there are hardly any left I just don't think I know many girls who would think that was a good way to spend an evening. There were also a fair number of single women there. Now please understand, I'm not being sexist here, but women are a very underrepresented portion of the American gaming community. There aren't that many (that we know of) and the few that are there are usually marginalized into some stereotype of people who can't actually play games well but only do so to meet boys.
Anyways, it was an interesting look into video game culture in Japan. It's really not surprising considering that the modern video game were born here in Japan. But I have to say, being someone who was raised in arcades in America it makes me a little sad and jealous knowing that our arcade culture is slowly disappearing.