Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Japanese Retro Game Shops Are So Much Better Than North American Ones

ne of the things that I've noticed here and on other blogs and retro game sites is that pretty much every North American retro game collector's mission in life is to one day come to Japan. Why? Because of the amazing retro game stores the country has - best in the world by far.

This makes a lot of sense to me. My memory of video game stores in Canada is pretty bleak. They just kind of....suck. Very unattractive decoration, very limited stock of old games (if any) and very few bargains to be found (if any). I'm sure there must be some good game stores in Canada, but I've never actually seen one myself.

As my experience is limited, I wanted to check if there were any amazing retro game stores in big American cities like New York. So I did a Google image search for "American retro game stores". Ironically most of the hits in the first page were actually pictures of Japanese retro game stores. I did, however, find this blog here, which has a write up about a few decent-looking shops in New York. I note that one of those shops is run by a Japanese guy and another, ToyTokyo, is consciously modeled on Japanese toy stores.

So anyway, I think it is safe to say that Japanese retro game shops are in general much better than American ones. The question I am interested in answering is why.

If you think about it, it is kind of a mystery. America has a much larger population (and hence gaming population) than Japan and a much larger economy. Retro video games have a much longer history in America too, the industry didn't really take off in Japan until the Famicom's release in 1983, by which time there were so many video game consoles and games being produced in the US that the whole industry crashed.

These factors suggest that America should have better retro game shops than Japan because it has a larger base of gaming enthusiasts and a larger supply of retro games and consoles. But it actually doesn't have better shops. Here I'm going to just suggest a few factors that might explain the mystery, in no particular order.

1. Japanese Houses are Small

This is kind of an odd one, but consider this statistic: The average American home (about 2400 sq. feet) is more than twice the size of the average Japanese home (about 1000 sq. feet).

This has a big effect on people's lives, part of which has to do with storage space. Japanese houses do not have basements or attics and, if they have a garage, it is for keeping the car in and not storing crap.

North Americans on the other hand have insane amounts of storage space. They can keep stuff for years and years even if they don't use it. Case in point: my childhood Commodore Vic-20. The last time I (or anyone) played it was in 1991. The 20 years since then it has sat in a box in storage at my parent's place, waiting for the day when someone takes an interest in it again.

I suspect that a huge wealth of North American retro video games are similarly stored right now, just sitting there collecting dust rather than, say, sitting on the store shelves of retro game stores.

Japanese people, for the most part, don't have that luxury. Their cramped living quarters prevent the accumulation of crap that they don't use. Closets are in short supply.

The up and up of this is that compared to North America, very few Japanese retro video game consoles are collecting dust like that. People get rid of them. And where do they get rid of them? The retro video game stores that buy them, of course.

I'm theorizing here, but having all of these things in circulation gives retro game shops here a ready supply of retro video games being sold by people who don't really care what they get for them, so long as they are out of their homes. This obviously gives them a big advantage. Mandarake, for example, has two entrances - one for people looking to buy stuff in their store and the other (which is just as big) which is exclusively for people looking to sell stuff. They have no problem finding stock, it finds them. North American retro game stores, on the other hand, probably have a lot tougher time finding good stuff.

2. Japanese Cities Have Much Less Suburban Sprawl

This is another odd one, but it bears thinking about. Japanese cities do have their fair share of ugly urban sprawl, but in general cities here are much, much more compact than American ones and have bustling city centres that are densely populated and pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

American cities, by contrast, tend to be sprawling messes surrounded by god-awful subdivisions and box stores for as far as the eye can see.

I think back to a year I spent living in Winnipeg, which in most livability ratings ranks just ahead of Kabul and a hair behind Baghdad. It sucks. The city centre is a dead zone and the suburbs are just a depressing, sprawling mess.

This carries over into the retro game shops. I drove around to a few while I lived there. All of them were in strip malls surrounded by massive parking lots and completely inaccessible except by car. They looked like your typical strip mall store - bland. They didn't have much selection, their prices weren't very good and the whole experience of going to the places was just unpleasant.

Japan's game shops? Well, take Mandarake here in Fukuoka. It is in the middle of a bustling, vibrant city centre. Nobody drives a car to get there, it is on a street bustling with pedestrians and cyclists and with a subway station just up the block. I go there by bicycle pretty often as it is on the way to other stuff. There are cafes and parks and other cool stores nearby. All of this makes me want to go there and makes it easy for me to do so. Akihabara in Tokyo and Osaka's Den Den Town are in similar neighborhoods.

My point here is that good gaming shops thrive in a certain environment. Japanese cities do a good job of providing such an environment, American ones much less so (though New York does have some similarities and, not surprisingly, seems to have the best American retro game/ toy shops). Shops in such areas have a ready supply of potential customers in the thousands of people just walking past their store fronts each day. Strip malls surrounded by seas of asphalt do not get customer traffic like that - basically only people who specifically plan to go to that specific shop and are willing to go out of their way to do so will visit. That is a huge disadvantage that really limits their growth potential.

3. Alternate Means of Distribution

One thing about Japan is that flea markets and garage sales are not a regular happening. There is a flea market at a shrine near my place once a month that I write about here sometimes, but that is basically it.

A corollary of this is that outside of game shops there aren't a lot of places to buy or sell retro games at here. Yahoo auctions is about the only one I can think of.

In North America though? You've got weekend garage sales, regular flea markets, Salvation Army stores, pawn shops, Ebay, Craig's list and a crapload of other places to buy retro games in.

Bottom line: North American game shops face a lot more competition from other means of distribution than their Japanese counterparts and this probably explains a bit of their general suck-iness.

4. Japanese Stores in General are Nicer than American ones

This is something that maybe relates a bit to culture. Presentation is - in general - much more important in Japan than America. Most game shops invest a lot of time and money making their merchandise look good - for example by putting those cute handwritten labels on everything - just because that is the way things are done here. This makes the shops look way nicer. A lot of the game shops I went to in North America just haven't gone that extra mile.

I have to be careful here though. Not all Japanese game shops look great, and some North American shops undoubtedly do. A lot depends on the efforts put in by the individual owner. I think in general though that more Japanese store owners/ staff do this than American ones do.

Conclusion

Anyway, that is just four possible reasons that popped into my head to explain why Japanese retro shops are so much better. There are undoubtedly others that I haven't thought of. The only thing that I know for sure is that the shops I've been to here are really, really great and if you haven't been, be sure to do so someday.

Related Posts:
- Fukuoka Famicom Shops 1: 007
- Fukuoka Famicom Shops 2: The Decline and Fall of the Famicom Empire
- Fukuoka Famicom Shops 3: Mandarake
- Fukuoka Famicom Shops 4: Flea Markets Brought to you by the God of War
- Fukuoka Famicom Shops 5: Don Quixote and Village Vanguard
- Fukuoka Famicom Shops 6: The New 007 and Hakozaki Flea Market
- Fukuoka Famicom Shops 7: The Other Omocha Souko

28 comments:

  1. Great post - I think a lot of that is right on the money. I also think that the concept of solely of a "retro game store" is a new one in North America - for a long time, there were just regular game stores that had a couple of old game carts that the owners either had no idea how to price, or in the case of Gamestop, just shipped off elsewhere. By the time I'd seen places open that catered to retro games, the culture of eBay, Craiglists and so forth had already been well established. The only way for retro game stores to survive is to target the nostalgic non-gamers by charging $20 for common-ish games like SMB3, while people in the know are forced to look online for reasonable prices.

    Decor plays a bit part too. There are two decent retro game stores in NJ - Digital Press and Next Level - and while they are functional they are really not pleasant in the way most Japanese stores are. Video Games New York looks like someone's rape basement, and you can almost inhale the dust that have been sitting on the overpriced crap that likely hasn't been touched in at least a decade. Toy Tokyo I can vouch for being very nice - I wish there was a game store set up like that, and one that didn't charge $20 for random, common Saturn games.

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  2. Oh, sure, rub it in, why don't you? :P There's a pair of supposedly nice Japanese retro game stores here in Seattle, but I have yet to go to either of them. (I've avoided it thus far because I'm pretty sure that once I break that barrier there'll be no going back.) Other than that, though, I've never even heard of any retro game stores (Japanese or otherwise) here in the States. How sad.

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  3. Stop making me want to live in Japan! It's not fair :( Interesting post though, thanks! Some good points too. Is eBay not popular in Japan then?

    Retro shops are practically non-existent here in the UK. I can't think of a single one that's dedicated to retro gaming and the only ones that even stocked any were Gamestation stores which had very little, undesirable, and over-priced stuff (although I did get Mega Bombmerman there once).

    I remember reading a few times about Brazil's apparently lively retro scene. Master System games were released there until the late 90's and there's millions of clone machines, for example. But when I first went there I saw nothing. Barely any current-gen stuff nevermind retro! I've been there a few times now and found a lot of Japanese-style shops in Sao Paulo (which has a large Japanese population), but the stores were mostly anime and manga-related ones. There was even a ninja weapons store, but no retro games :(

    Have you ever been to Super Potato? I hear it's awesome (and has a great name) :)

    *must live in Japan one day*

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  4. Discoalucard - that is a very good point about the timing. Online shopping isn't quite as big in Japan as it is elsewhere and I think most of the retro game shops pre-date that. Decor is also very important as you say. No rape basement retro game shops in Japan at all!

    Product diversification is another one I just thought of. Most Japanese retro game shops aren't JUST retro video game shops, they sell other stuff like comics, toys, etc too. Mandarake for example is probably only about 20% video games and 80% everything else. That gives them a lot of alternate streams of income, which is an advantage.

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  5. Bryan - now that you mention it, I think I have heard of a famous retro game store in Seattle (Pink Godzilla or something? I think it has the word "pink" in the title anyway). I'm surprised you haven't been!!

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  6. Simon - yeah, the situation you describe in the UK sounds exactly like that I remember in Canada - just nothing!

    Interesting about Brazil too.

    I've never been to Super Potato actually. There is one in the Kansai area and I did live there for 5 years, but at that time I wasn't into retro game collecting so I never bothered.

    Really wish I had though...

    The missus and I have vague plans to spend a few days in Tokyo (originally planned for this summer but now postponed to next year). A trip to Akihabara and the Super Potato there are in the cards!

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  7. Simon - interesting, the situation you describe in the UK is exactly how I remember things in Canada - just nothing! Interesting about Brazil too!

    I've never been to Super Potato. I lived in the Kansai area for about 5 years but never visited the one there as at the time I wasn't interested in retro gaming. Really wish I had now though...

    Might be visiting the one in Tokyo sometime next year though. Massively looking forward to that!

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  8. First of all - I have been reading your blog for quite some time now, keeps me entertained - not only at work. ;)

    Secondly some thoughts from a fellow Famicom collector, although I live in the greater Tokyo area.

    1. Superpotato: Uh, their selection is really neat & great and all, but their prices are markedly on the 'steep' side of things. They charge 1.980yen for the common SMB3 cart while keeping a straight face. Quite a feat actually.

    2. Japanese retro shops being nicer. Yes I agree, they really put in some effort. But -- if you walk around Akihabara, for example, there are also a share of 'rape-basement' shops that I dread to go into. Actually I haven't visited most of them because.. I keep telling myself they probably don't have anything I want anyway. Maybe one day I will persevere...

    3. Oh and also agreeing with an older post of yours that the shape and state of cartridges doesn't matter to me that much. I love when the kid wrote his/her name - some of them even have passwords or hi-scores written on them. Same goes for FDS games with saves on them. I try to keep them.
    Generally I think it's awesome, because someone obviously loved these games very much, also I keep wondering what might have happened to their owners...

    Okay enough ranting -- awesome site Sean! Keep going!

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  9. I think Discoalucard is onto something here -- that the presence of eBay and craigslist and other sites have kind of kept retro-gaming stores from taking a foothold here in NA. Also, like you said, Sean -- many of the stores you frequent in Japan sell other things like comics, etc. I could see such stores working more in NA than game-only stores, but even then I have a feeling eBay and craigslist would trump them for the most part.

    As for Seattle's retro-game shop(s) -- you're right, Sean! They're called Pink Godzilla. I haven't been to either of them because I don't have a car (thankfully that will be changing in two weeks) and both of them are located in parts of the city that aren't all that accessible to me. Plus, I know that they would drive me crazy, what with their selections of Famicom and PC Engine games. I have a hard enough time keeping myself from going nuts on eBay -- staring at such games, face to cartridge, likely would put me over the edge in some way.

    Still, I'm planning to visit at least one of them at some point. I'll be sure to take photos and tell you how the visits went :)

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  10. Manuel -

    Thanks for the good comment and the insights on the game shops in Akihabara (a place that I have not been to - yet).

    About your point 1, I've also noticed that Super Potato's prices on their website tend towards the high side. I want to go there, but I'm not sure I would actually buy much. Mandarake seems a bit more reasonable, they sell SMB3 for 525 yen at their Fukuoka store, which is fair.

    About point 2 - good point. I've never been to a rape basement (a phrase fast becoming a term of art) retro game shop in Japan, but I'm not surprised to hear that some do exist. I think I was speaking more in general - the ratio of rape basements to nice stores in Japan is probably much lower than in North America. Actually probably most of the shops in North America aren't rape basements either, most of the ones I've been to are too boring and bland for that.

    About point 3 - bang on! I love that stuff. Therein lies the true history of retro games - the names on carts, high scores saved, etc etc!

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  11. Bryan -

    Yeah I totally understand your hesitation! Actually until Mandarake moved to their new location last month I usually avoided it for the same reason - they had way too much good stuff that posed way to grave a threat to my savings account to let me loose in there.

    Turned out it was a good idea to avoid the place. After they moved I went on a massive, unrestrained spending spree at their new location spread out over about a 3 week period that I have only now gotten under control (only after I bought most of the stuff I wanted). One month's worth of financial responsibility down the drain...

    Now that you are getting a car though......might be a nice place to visit and write about on your blog! :)

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  12. One more thing - what are Japan's feelings on emulation? I know here the attitude of a lot of people is that you can just download it for free, so why pay for it? Is that a common sentiment? (Of course, in a roundabout way, emulation popularized the retro scene, so how much harm that would've done the retail scene is up for debate.)

    I'm headed off to Tokyo (and Kyoto and Osaka) in a couple of months, looking forward to exploring the corners a bit more. Last time I went I spent a good chunk of time with my mouth agape at Super Potato, though I think the only stuff I bought was out of the 100 yen "damaged" bin - Japan's loose definition of the word is such an amazing boon for gaijin collectors!

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  13. Great article. You reasons make perfect sense to me. I will say that I am fortunate enough to live 15 km from one of the best retro gaming stores in Canada. I work there part time a couple shifts a month, and people come from all over Western Canada (many from that cess pool known as Winnipeg) to Regina to shop at Replay Games. There is this one guy who drives 2 hours twice a month just to shop there. Check out the site at www.replaygames.ca, although those pictures are pretty old (just after they moved to a bigger location) and do not do it justice in the least. I will snap some good pics the next time I am there.

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  14. Discoalucard - that is a good question. There is an emulation scene here and a lot of the Japanese language Famicom related websites contain info on emulation.

    I think the retro game stores themselves explain part of the lasting appeal. Probably one of the reasons emulation became so popular elsewhere is simply because people couldn't go out and get copies of the games due to the lack of decent stores.

    Playing games on original consoles rather than emulators provides a more authentic experience, with the controllers and all. That is why I only play games on the old consoles.

    That said, there is some evidence that emulators are doing damage to the retro game industry here too. GEO - a major nationwide video rental chain - just liquidated their entire stock of Famicom/Super Famicom/ N64 generation games for next to nothing about 6 months ago. I guess it just wasn't profitable anymore. I've noticed most shops seem to be lowering their prices too - the golden days of shops being able to charge whatever they wanted are long gone. Its kind of a boon to people like me as I've been able to build up a massive collection of Famicom carts (about 2/3 of them) on the cheap.

    And I do love that generous interpretation of "damaged" cart too! Seems even the slightest blemish will save you a ton of money at some shops!

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  15. Videogamesarerad -

    LOL, I have to admit that when I wrote this post and that line about not having ever seen a decent Canadian retro game store I expected somebody to bring to my attention a cool Canadian store in Vancouver, Toronto or maybe Montreal.

    Not in my wildest dreams, however, could I have predicted that such a store would be in Regina;)

    That looks like a good place, I like the N64 glass case. Do you guys have any Famicom or other Japanese stuff? Definitely put some more pics up, I'd be very interested to see them.

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  16. Hmm… it’s not just North America that is like this though. Houses tend to be smaller in the UK, we don’t have as much ‘yard sale’ type outlets… we call our closes equivalent ‘boot-sales’ by the way.
    But games shops still tend to be based on the American model, and things are getting worse!
    Game Station used to be decent, with varying levels of ‘retro’ stock. Now they are just ‘Game’ with a different name. And Game very-much follows the American (latest most sellable things only) model.

    I think it really must just come down to culture. The games those Japanese shops carry, old and new, also cover a vastly wider range of genres that our games shops do. They are basically full of FPS a 3PS 3D games.

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  17. Interesting points, Garry! Sorry to hear that things in the UK are following the American path to mediocrity!

    You are probably right about culture playing a role too. The Japanese stores do carry a good range of games from all generations and don't focus on any particular genre. I guess the demand is diversified enough here for them to do that. It is definitely a different gaming culture than in North America anyway!

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  18. Your comment that Japanese have small homes and regularly turn over personal affects is the most on-point. ebay is actually surpassed in japan by yahoo auctions so its not a factor. Japanese stores look better than US ones? not really, I've been into plenty of Japanese hobby stores with cobwebs everywhere, dust on all the boxes and stock randomly strewn everywhere - those are the best ones though.

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  19. I don`t know. I actually like the crowded ones with cobwebs everywhere so perhaps that is affecting my judgment. Beauty is in the yee of the beholder as they say.

    True about Yahoo auctions.

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  20. Er, the eye of the beholder. The yee of the beholder is something else entirely.

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  21. BRazilian reporting in, kinda off topic and late commentary, but one more thing to add to your list is country size. Japan has one of the smallest territories in the world, while Brasil is the 5th largest, and it sucks because of the few retro game enthusiasts there are, all are spread out. You can't just take a bullet train to the other side of the country if you hear about some rare deal on the internet. That's a huge advantage to Japan.

    Also, because piracy is so widespread, like in China and Korea, without a mint condition box, booklets and fliers, and with japanese bootlegs being so easy to find, old games aren't worth much and there's just no sense of rarity.
    Kids usually rather giveaway or keep their old games than sell their stuff for nothing.
    Which is why there are very few game collectors. AFAIK I can only find them on web forums, and their transactions are all done through mail anyway so might as well use ebay. Most just use emulators.

    Sorry for being horribly uninteresting, this is the part that might get your attention.
    Like what RetroKingSimon said, most Brazilian's first console was the Master System.
    It was so popular, people associated home consoles with Megadrive/Master Systems rather than calling everything Nintendo like in America.
    All because apparently Nintendo took to long to make an official release here.
    Behold, the BR NES, the Phantom System! (apparently consoles just HAD to have system in their names)
    http://produto.mercadolivre.com.br/MLB-222932125-phantom-system-zerado-_JM
    That is NOT one of those lame 10,000 games in 1 consoles that look like modern machines on the outside but play early Nintendo games. It's the OFFICIAL product, distributed by Gradiente in 91 I think.
    Gradiente localized Nintendo products up to the N64 until the earlier 00s when the dollar ramped up. Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gradiente
    So anyway, as you can see in the pictures it looks exactly like a Master System, with a SMS pistol, and a Megadrive controller.
    By the time it came out it was dead on arrival tho, every kid had already switched to the Megadrive. The SNES did have a decent official launch on time, but struggled with piracy unfortunately.

    We are kind of a Bizarro country, interestingly SNK had a much bigger success on the arcades here than Capcom, because apparently CPS2 boards were impossible to pirate thanks to their suicide batteries. The only country in the world, maybe, where people liked Fatal Fury better than Street Fighter.

    I heard Konami's MSX also had a huge following and even an entire convention dedicated to it for some reason. I have no idea why though, I don't think the machine was ever officially released here either.

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  22. Thank you very much for the insights on the retro game market in Brazil, that is quite interesting. I hadn`t thought about country size but I can see your point - Japan is a compact country with all the collectors huddled around a few cities which makes game shops much more economical than in a spread out country like Brazil. Good point about piracy too.

    ALso its very interesting to see that Phanton system. Its very funny that it looks like a combo Master System/ Mega Drive but actually is an officially licensed Nintendo product. Bizarro country indeed!

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  23. I'm way late to this but I just thought I'd chime in on Pink Godzilla (now called Pink Gorilla for legal reasons). It really is a nice little store, and is clearly modeled on Japanese retro game stores. It's tightly packed but everything is really well organized, with expensive/rare games usually in cases (or whatever else they happen to be "featuring"), and bare carts hung neatly in polybags from the walls. They even store controllers and some accessories on the ceiling--something I remember being quite charmed by when I was in Japan. They also cater heavily to import gamers, especially since one of their locations (they've done well enough to have two) is in the international district. The other is in the University District, and these are both areas that get a lot of foot traffic, from both locals and tourists, they're really ideally situated. Another thing they've done really well is their branding, making sure people have heard of them and know who they are, with unique t-shirts, plush toys, and I think there was even a comic for a while. The one thing I can't really comment on is their pricing, which I haven't really researched.

    More local to where I live (also Seattle area-ish) is Another Castle, a great and similar type of store, but isn't located nearly so well, right off a busy highway. It's not so dire as a strip mall (there are a lot of local neighborhoods nearby) but probably doesn't get as many dropins as Pink Gorilla does. (However, I did see their sign the first time I went screaming by and made a note to come back!) Pure speculation on my part! Both stores also routinely have booths at local nerd conventions as well, like the local comic and anime cons in particular.

    The best thing, I think, about those stores in Japan though is that they just seem to be everywhere. It's cool that those little "pockets" of retro game culture exist, but it's just nothing compared to Japan!

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  24. Hi gsilverfish,

    THanks for the comment. I`ve heard about Pink Gorilla, it sounds like a very Japanese-like retro game store. I guess they are proof that cool retro gaming stores do in fact exist in North America, I have to get to Seattle someday just for a little visit!

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  25. I live in Canada and I've really only ever been in one really cool retro game store. When I was in Vancouver for my honeymoon I went to a store ran out of someones house and it was just packed with games. Unfortunately a lot of stuff was overpriced but they had a lot of harder to find games and it looked really cool.

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  26. Hi Alana,

    Interesting, I should have known Vancouver would have something (I used to live in Victoria)! As with most things in that city, I`m not surprised to hear that a lot of it was overpriced:)

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  27. " It is definitely a different gaming culture than in North America anyway!" I think you've hit upon one of the reasons we dont have retro gaming stores in the US. We dont have much of classic gaming culture in the US anymore thanks in part to the disappearance of arcades. The sad fact is your average american gaming consumer just doesnt care about retro games (at least enough to go to a specialized store), has never been to a proper arcade, and grew up during the x-box generation. Japan on the other hand maintains this classic gaming culture in part by having game centers in almost every urban area.

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