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The Video Game City Week: Yakuza's arcades are clean, oddly studious, and a delight

The sense of place can get downright uncanny.

Welcome back to The Video Game City Week. Now: we'll need some arcades.

Yakuza's Arcades

I think some of the allure of Japan, for a foreigner, is the chance to see the world as it used to be - at least, some version of that world as you like to imagine it was, and not for too long, and filtered through a culture different enough to give everything a pleasantly dreamlike feeling. Visiting a Sega arcade in Tokyo felt like dropping in on someone else's hazily remembered childhood. Hospital-bright and hospital-clean, with pleasant electronic chirps and 8-bit musical queues designed to soothe and engage your brain, and an oddly studious atmosphere, as the other customers (tipsy, all about my age) zoned in on various high scores. It was a surreal place to walk around in, and not just because of the second-hand nostalgia. It was because I'd been there before - in Yakuza 0.

In January Donlan wrote a lovely piece about the pleasure of small open worlds. I think A Short Hike is probably my all time favorite in this esteemed genre, but nothing can beat Yakuza's Kamurochō for detail, for sheer hand-crafted vibes. It's not quite as accurate in the open streets (the hired tough to punter citizen ratio feels a little bit off at 1:1), but in the interiors the sense of place can get downright uncanny. The harshly lit convenience store, the clinically friendly 'Smile Burger', the teeny-tiny upstairs salons with red trim couches, the intimate grot of the karaoke bar. The streets of Yakuza are packed with weird little nooks and crannies that I don't want to spoil, and I'm sure everyone has their favorites. But for me, hands down, it's gotta be the arcades.

It's not just the spot-on atmosphere. If you don't know, the Yazua arcades have games. Real games. Games for days. Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, bloody OutRun!!! These are all arcade classics taken wholesale from the Sega coffers, each one absorbing enough to warrant a full dive down the rabbit hole, to go back back again and again like a schoolkid with too much summer on their hands, trying to nudge up that score, break through to that next level. All of a sudden the realities start to overlap. You're not having some gorgeous approximation of the eighties arcade experience. You're just having it.

Sega recently announced that they are shutting down their arcade division, the latest in a long series of nails hammered into the retro arcade coffin. Of course, absorbing single-player games like Yakuza are part of what made these places obsolete. There's something a little perverse about sitting alone at home with your console plugged in, walking around simulated streets, and killing a few hours on a simulated device in a simulated room, playing at the experience that machine under your TV helped to kill.

So, by royal decree, I would like to place a Sega arcade downtown in our imaginary Video Game city. It will be open 24 hours a day and contain as many consoles as we can cram onto the cheap linoleum floor tiles. A dreamy little fragment of a past that never was, dreamed on for a little longer - with claw machines! What's not to love?

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