Akiba in the East, ‘Ponbashi in the West (東のアキバ西のポンバシ)
Japan is the Xanadu for retro gamers, especially those who are keen on finding older Japanese consoles in their natural habitat and playing games in an undecipherable language. Older video games can be found in Japan in almost any independent game store, recycle store or video rental store as well as sold by established chains such as book off and hard off. ‘Who would dare ask for more’ I hear you ask? The piece de résistance of places such as Akihabara in Tokyo and Nipponbashi in Osaka is the concentrated nature of facilities offering games from the good old days. During my pilgrimages I have spent hours and hours roaming the neon-lit streets of Akihabara, yet my true home ultimately lies just outside of exit 1-B of the Ebisucho station far to the west.
In the following post, I will unravel some of the mysteries that surround the internationally much less known nerd heaven that is Nipponbashi, also known known as Den Den Town.
Man, it’s good to be a nerd these days
While the history and general information about the Nipponbashi area can be read on Wikipedia or Den Den Town’s own Japanese homepage, what I will offer here is a more pragmatic approach to those who wish to plunge into the wonderful world of Japanese Retro Games in the area. After extensive research and several dozen visits, I have delimited the main retro gaming core within a rather small area on the Sakaisuji Avenue, which comprises the majority of the video game offering of Den Den Town. Compared to all the stores selling computer hardware, furniture, anime, comics, music, movies not to mention porn, places with a reasonable offering of older generation video games are actually few and far between. The key is to find them.
Handheld consoles are something I have never owned and therefore have close to no knowledge or interest in the matter. Thus, I will not mention that specific area of gaming here. For those interested, the amount of handheld products in the following stores is always proportional to the amount of normal ones.
I do believe, and certainly hope, that most people looking for old video games do not constantly want to find themselves surrounded by Japanese genitalia-pixelating smut, and for this purpose I have gathered the locations of the five main stores to check when looking for some old classics. All of these lie on the west side of the Sakaisuji Avenue, within a couple hundred meters of each other, as can be seen on the map below.
View Retro Avenue in a larger map
By far the best way to reach the mother lode is by taking the Sakaisuji Metro Line and exiting it at Ebisucho station, exit 1-B. The entrance to Super Potato is situated roughly 2 meters to the right of the exit. This strategy has allowed even someone with no sense of direction or spatial memory such as myself to arrive at the premises without getting lost. Alternatively, Den Den town can be reached by walking North from Shin-Imamiya JR station or South from Nipponbashi Metro station for those who enjoy longer walks or want to check out other stores on the way.
In Osaka, there exist two institutions that are almost completely dedicated to the promotion and sales of retro gaming memorabilia. Game Tanteidan and Super Potato Seven take the idea far enough to build their entire business plans around selling old videogames to nostalgic nerds. In accordance with those plans, the atmosphere in these stores is heavily dependent on 8-bit music and consoles set on autoplay.
Super potato is an institution that any self-respecting gamer coming to Japan will be able to name. The franchise has a dozen of stores throughout the country, out of which at least the Super Potato Seven in Nipponbashi and Super Potato Retro-kan in Akihabara are mainly focused on older consoles and titles.
Less well known but very prominent in the Osaka gaming scene, Game Tanteidan is an independent player located roughly 50 meters from its aforementioned Den Den Town competitor. These two stores will easily supply anyone with the bulk of whatever they need gamingwise, while other stores on the subsequent list are relevant mostly due to the higher probability of finding more common games at lower prices. Or abundant games for practically no money whatsoever.
During opening hours, the entrance to Tanteidan is impossible to miss. Nevermind the huge Post-it Mario on the wall and six TV-sets showing autoplay demos of old favorites in a never ending loop, the sheer 8-bit energy emanating from the place is enough to draw the interest of passers-by.
Once inside, a whole new world opens. The floor and walls are covered in old posters, news articles and screenshots, all hovering around the same general topic. Relics ranging from R.O.B.s to Megaman plushies are hanging from the ceiling as ears soon begin to tingle from the soundchip-produced bliss.
Possibly the single best retro-cave currently, even surpassing the legendary Super Potato, Game Tanteidan offers a large variety of everything ancient. The first floor is heavily focused on the 3rd, 4th and 5th generations of console gaming. This includes games for all major consoles by Nintendo (Famicom, Famicom Disk System, Super Famicom, Nintendo 64, GameCube) and Sega (SG-1000, Mark III / Master System, MegaDrive, Saturn, Dreamcast) as well as less popular competitors Neo-Geo, PC-Engine and 3DO.
The rarest and most expensive treasures are safely behind glass doors next to the cashier. On the opposite side, a wide range of consoles and peripherals from the Neo-Geo to the Famicom Disk System are sitting on a shelf. Another couple of adjacent shelves are dedicated to official and less official guidebooks and obsolete game journalism.
The shelves on the ground floor form three corridors. As a rough explanation, SFC and N64 titles are on the left, Sega titles from the SG-1000 to the Dreamcast as well as Neo-Geo and PC-Engine titles are in the middle, and Famicom and FDS titles are on the right. The supply should satisfy even the most adamant of collectors.
The second floor is more confusing due to a lack of focus. While it offers the largest inventory of MSX computers and games I have seen anywhere so far, another wall is covered with baseball cards, breaking the illusion. One shelf is filled with imported XBOX 360 games, another is occupied by game music soundtracks and there are a variety of Game & Watch handhelds in a glass display case. A coin-operated monster rally-pinball something-something arcade game is also present, as are a Virtual Boy stand and a soda vending machine.
As its name implies, however, Game Tanteidan (Detectives) is very knowledgeable on the value of its wares, and finding rare gems under market price may prove an insurmountable task. If money is no concern, it remains a great place to look for that final missing piece of a collection, as the supply is vast with more obscure consoles such as the Famicom Disk System and SG-1000 being well represented. And, with a probability that infinitely approaches one, the prices are still a bargain compared to Super Potato Seven.
Super Potato Seven hardly loses to Tanteidan in terms of elaborate props. The entrance is guarded by a, supposedly, life size Mario figure and a couple of smaller ones can be found after venturing deeper into the labyrinth. Game demos running on each side of the door mat are equally unambiguous toward nature of the store. The first floor is limited to newer releases, so traditionalists may want to strafe in the general direction of the stairway, which is left.
During the climb to enlightenment, preserved empty game boxes add to the unique ambiance of Super Potato Seven, as do the ridiculously narrow decorated corridors on the second floor. The naked light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling keep getting in the way of customers similar to stalactites in a cave. I’ve never been in a cave, but I’ve seen some in games; therefore, I know. Walking through the narrow corridors and constantly hitting your head in said lamps while listening to 8-bit classics and bumping into other ridiculous people might make you forget what decade it is as you keep fiddling with the Zelda game you always wanted as a kid but were never able to acquire.
On a general note, if you can find a game elsewhere, it’s most likely cheaper there than at Super potato. However, the emphasis here is on spectrum. Not the Sinclair Spectrum, though, the range of products available. Super Potato easily compares to Tanteidan in the amount of most old Sega products as well as loose Famicom and Super Famicom games. The N64 supply is relatively limited and CIB games for all consoles seem less abundant than next door. To counter this, Super Potato offers some overpriced gamer shirts and other extras like decrepit walkthrough videos of Famicom games from an era before the Internet.
Sofmap is an oddity found in between the two greater stores. It is a relatively normal Sofmap electronics store except it concentrates on video gaming and anime instead of computer hardware. The first floor has newer second-hand games, while the second floor holds most of the older produce.
Pecularities of Sofmap include having oldschool game consoles for sale at grotesquely low prices, the catch being that they haven’t been tested for functionality and the store offers no guarantee on whether they will work. Loose games are sold for peanuts as well and even some boxed ones can be discovered for cheaper than most places. Peripherals, controllers and rumble paks are also available in limited quantities.
A-Too is a self-proclaimed Media Recycle Shop located roughly one third of the way from Ebisucho station towards Nipponbashi to the north. The store stands in a league of its own, losing clearly to the top 2 in notoriety while also being exponentially better than either Sofmap or Geo.
It has, or rather had a a very distinct advantage over the retro gaming concentrated venues. I remember first having gone to A-Too in 2009 to buy a carftul of N64 games, not because I needed them, but because they were sold loose from a plastic trash can priced ¥5 yen /ea. Someone had to save them. The materials used in making the cartridge must be worth more. Although said box no longer exists, the store offers a variety of adequately priced Nintendo goods from the Famicom to the N64, as well as Saturn and Dreamcast games.
I recently bought a copy of Soul Calibur (Dreamcast) for ¥50 and Goonies (Famicom) for ¥300. Furthermore, A-Too offers the largest quantity of any store of the most common consoles and peripherals at very nice prices. One glass display is protecting the most coveted and exclusive titles, proving that A-Too is not entirely without merit in that area either.
Compared to the four other entries, Geo is almost useless nowadays. Although shelves still exist for retro products on the first floor, the oldest material to be found as of March 2011 are old DS Lites. On the second floor, in their ecological niche right next to women’s shoes, are the humble remnants of some more common Famicom and Super Famicom games that can be found at almost any other shop.
The reason to mention Geo is mostly because it’s a chain with manifestations throughout the country and the situation at said shop may well change. Some Geos (Hirakata) are bound to be better equipped retrowise than others (Nerima). Currently this particular one is only good for finding a couple of popular ones for a bargain. Still worth a look before heading to the more plentiful and expensive stores.
Thus ends my insight on retro gaming in the downtown Osaka area. Potential future updates will deal with shops in Hirakata, Nerima and Akihabara whenever I have the time to properly research them. In the meanwhile, here’s a comprehensive overview and picture gallery.