Virtual necessity: can VR revitalise Japan’s ailing arcades?


VR may have lost the sofa war to home consoles but the format once heralded as the future of gaming could yet revive the glory days of the past

One day, on my way past the outskirts of Kabukichō – Tokyo’s red-light district, infamously depicted in the Yakuza games – I spot a curious advertisement. At first glance, it looks like nothing out of the ordinary: a woman cheerfully donning a VR headset, with kanji lettering welcoming passersby to come in and try the technology for themselves. As my eyes wander to the logo in the corner, I realise that the poster is promoting Soft On Demand – one of Japan’s biggest porn, or “AV” (adult video), companies. I’m staring at a billboard for a virtual brothel.

A stone’s throw away is Bandai Namco’s massive VR Zone complex, an indoor, 38,000 sq ft all-VR theme park that opened just over a year ago. And further south, on the artificial island of Odaiba, Sega recently cleared out a massive room in its Joypolis amusement park to make space for Zero Latency VR, a “warehouse scale, free-roam, multiplayer virtual reality entertainment” where a team of zombie hunters are equipped with “military-grade” motion-tracking backpacks and let loose on the undead with an arsenal of plastic firearms.

Game time … VR Zone in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Photograph: Alfred Holmgren for the Guardian

In the west, a couple of years after the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets became available to the public, VR hype is fast evaporating. Rather than setting the standard for interactive entertainment, the technology has remained a novelty – despite the backing of companies such as Facebook and Sony (whose Playstation VR headset, though relatively successful, has been adopted by just under 3% of PlayStation 4 owners).

In Japan, on the other hand, the hype only started building after 2016. With interest in consumer headsets nonexistent, “the VR pioneers shifted their focus to applying the tech on a different target group, and under a totally different business model”, says Serkan Toto, CEO of the Tokyo-based analyst firm Kantan Games. In other words: they put all those leftover headsets to use in Japan’s “game centres” instead.

When I visit Sega Joypolis on a weekday, there’s barely enough people lined up to fill the eight player slots, but the simulation is impressive enough to turn anyone into a VR evangelist. Before we’re shepherded into the cavernous Zero Latency area, one of my Japanese teammates mentions he has little interest in games that don’t predate the 1986 Famicom. Afterward, he breathlessly announces his intention to buy a PlayStation VR headset.

“What arcades are trying is to make VR social,” says Toto. “The goal is to get in multiple customers at once: couples, or a group of friends.”

Crash course … Mario Kart VR. Photograph: Alfred Holmgren for the Guardian

With Japan’s arcade market in sharp decline due to increasingly powerful home consoles – the number of game centres has dwindled from 44,000 to 14,000 in the past three decades – VR doesn’t represent a futuristic new paradigm as much as a return to the industry’s roots. The first Japanese arcades were offshoots of the full-blown amusement parks that used to be located in (or on top of) big department stores back in the 1940s and 50s. It’s no coincidence that one of the most successful arcade games in recent memory, the robot combat sim Kidō Senshi Gundam: Senjō no Kizuna, with its cockpit-style controls and massive “panoramic optical display”, is more theme park attraction than video game. It is impossible to replicate in an ordinary Japanese living room.

Daisuke Watanabe, a gaming historian at Tokyo’s Meiji University (and one of my co-pilots in the VR Zone Evangelion simulator), traces the roots of today’s VR arcades to the taikan (“physical feedback”) games of the 80s, such as Hang-On and Afterburner, which would place you in the seat of a replica motorcycle or fighter jet. In his view, VR Zone and its ilk are not designed for profit but rather to showcase VR and eventually turn the games into literal money machines for regular arcades.

Japan’s gradual adoption of VR has given developers time to come up with some impressive technological solutions. Visiting VR Zone, for example, is nothing like plodding through a VR game on your sofa. Instead you’re strapped into a series of increasingly complex machines; one has you lying on your back, twisting, turning and rumbling, as you’re piloting a mech from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Mario Kart VR puts you in a skeletal go-kart frame that mimics your in-game movements and even uses a wind machine to simulate speed. Others, however, feel more like flimsy tech demos, such as the aptly named Segway simulator Jungle of Despair.

Returning to past glories? … VR Zone. Photograph: Alfred Holmgren for the Guardian

Judging by these early attempts, it’s difficult to tell whether VR is indeed the long-term fix the arcade behemoths have been looking for. Shinjuku’s VR Zone – recently outfitted with “field activities” on the same scale as Joypolis’ Zero Latency – is intended to be the blueprint for more than 20 locations worldwide and “the flagship of next-generation entertainment”. Meanwhile, Adores hails its VR Park – which Watanabe considers the “symbol of profitable VR arcade game market” – as a success that will “revolutionise” the industry.

And if this gamble doesn’t pay off in the long run, the arcades can always sell their arsenal of VR equipment to Soft On Demand. When “adult VR” was first demonstrated in Akihabara two years ago, the event was so crowded the organisers called it off for fear of a riot. Clearly, virtual reality has already found at least one home.

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