So Winnie and I decided to hit Taiwan and Japan for our honeymoon and I couldn’t help myself from making trips to the arcades while we were there. Ever since we were children, I grew up with my brother Khoi playing fighting games together, hoping that we’d someday make it to Japan to play and challenge the best–so that was a really big aspect of the trip I was hoping to see for me when when I was finally out there. A fulfillment of a childhood dream. Really, the only thing that could make it sweeter is someday going out there with my brothers and friends. Back to this post, I’m going to talk about what games are being played at this moment, what I think about said games (and their future in the States), my arcade impressions, and of course my personal play log!
In typical fighting game fashion, let’s start with a Japanese tier list. For fighting game popularity. Yup.
The Japanese arcade fighting game popularity tier list.
Note that this list was created by visiting Akihabara in Tokyo and Kyoto both on the weekdays and the weekend. The arcades included here are Sega Akihabara, Club SEGA, Taito Game Station, Hey! owned by Taito, Sega UFO, and A-Cho.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. Full Boost (technically not a fighter, but is very close to one)
Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax
Tekken Tag Tournament 2
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-
Ultra Street Fighter IV
Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax
BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma
Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown
Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate
Arcana Heart 3: Love Max
Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code
Street Fighter III: Third Strike
Guilty Gear: Accent Core + R
Super Street Fighter II: Turbo
King of Fighters XIII
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late
Aside from these games, you had a wide variety that saw cross-pollination either with fighting game players or didn’t see much play at all. Of the ones I noted, many rhythm games had players who later migrated to fighting games during the night on weekdays since the skill-set of those games (executing combos) shares lots of similarities between the genres. From these rhythm games, it was clear Taiko Drum Master, Kumamoto, Hatsune Miku Project Diva Arcade, Groove Master, etc. were all popular. Then you had arcades like “Hey!” owned by Taito that had lots of great classics as well as shoot-em-ups (shmups) like Gradius that had lots of good play. Cabinets that were plentiful, that I never saw people on included lots of light gun games, Puzzles and Dragons Arcade, Dragon Ball Z Zenkai Battle Royale, etc. There were some plenty of other games that had cabinets and play, but none so popular that they need special mention here.
Taipei special mention–Tom’s World.
Taipei is a special case and deserves to be separated from the Japan tier list above simply due to how different it is. Arcades here are dead. But nestled in the heart of what they call the “Taipei Akihabara” is a single arcade, named Tom’s World, at the top of their main electronics building. This arcade is a weird mish-mash of a Japanese arcade (in terms of some modern offerings of rhythm games and Gundam) and third-world arcades (Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Singapore, etc.) in that classic King of Fighters still dominate the scene. It just reminds me of how SNK needs to recapture that magic.
King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match Final Edition
King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match
Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition 2012 (hopefully they update to Ultra soon)
Tekken Tag Tournament 2
BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma
Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. Full Boost
The games and my play log.
Here, I’m going to go over the games, my impressions of how it’ll fare in the States, and my play log if I got any matches in with said game.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Extreme Vs. Full Boost
Gundam deserves a special mention here, despite it not being a true fighting game because quite frankly, it’s played by many fighting game players and shares many of the same skills with spacing, resource management, positioning, setups, and canceling. The magic of Gundam–besides the awesome robots–is that you can always find someone playing it no matter the arcade you’re in. Even during the weekday when no one is around, you’ll find a good amount of people to play. During prime-time on weeknights or weekends, you’ll see Sega Akihabara’s floor filled with only Gundam machines (something around 20 head-to-head setups or 40 cabinets) be totally filled up and lines of people waiting for next.
With Bandai Namco choosing not to localize these games and trying to push their US Gundam clone, Rise of Incarnates, we’ll likely never see the adoption here that this game deserves. When I left Japan, I kept thinking that I wanted to put in my PS3 copy that my friend Justin Li imported and learn how to really play. If only there were enough other people back in the States.
Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax
Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax is clearly the #1 fighting game in Japan right now. It also won’t be localized and will likely not be relevant in the United States. This game is the “Marvel vs. Capcom” crossover game of Japan, featuring characters from ASCII Media Works’ Dengeki Bunko light novels. This includes a lot of popular franchises that are synonymous to the anime genre for better or worse. It also features two of Sega’s characters as end-bosses, Akira Yuki with his assist Pai-Chan. And while Sega is “making it,” it’s Ecole Software and French Bread (UNiEL and Melty Blood) that is clearly the main mechanical force behind the game.
The game plays like UNiEL meets Persona 4 Arena meets Marvel vs. Capcom. Here is a quick bullet list of things I found within my first quick play-through:
- Ground-based play with no air-dashing, but still juggling and chaining like UNiEL.
- Universal armored overhead that leads to an air combo like Persona 4 Arena.
- If you burst someone mid-combo (while they’re in hit-stun and you’re in recovery), they’ll pop-up, likely reducing hit-stun deterioration and damage scaling exactly like One More Burst in Persona 4 Arena.
- The game also features a push-block and suffocating assists that lead to extremely nasty pressure much like Marvel vs. Capcom.
- The game had a burst that came back about more frequently than I’m used to.
- You can cancel out of things and call your assist instantly if you’re willing to use up a stock.
For my limited arcade time (I am on a honeymoon after all), I made sure to put in sometime with it since everyone was playing it. I even happened to stumble on the arcade on the night when a huge 3 vs. 3 tournament was going on and they had to change half the cabinets to be running the game. So when I sat down with the game for the first time, I ended up picking the main character of Sword Art Online, which I don’t even know the name of (just seen him in a lot of promotional material for the anime or game or whatever). I know, I know–I don’t watch much modern anime and even I know you anime connoisseurs consider Sword Art Online really really bad, written for fans who are okay with the terrible writing and mainstream generic-ness that much of the genre is plagued with. So don’t send me hate mail about anime, I know a lot of mainstream anime nowadays never lives up to the manga its based off of with its poorly-paced adaptations (caused by being too decompressed), I know many never live up to the games that it constantly rips off of, I know many are laden with too many tropes, I know many are too derivative, and I know that many of them are outright trashy in its animation. But, I also know there are some non-mainstream jewels that deserve more attention like any other form of entertainment out there. Just have to take everything with a grain of salt.
Now that we’re past that, the reason I picked him was that he was a standard looking guy with a sword–I knew he was going to be easy to play. I quickly grasped the game, noting a lot of things above. I also noted that his jump normals didn’t cross up on most characters well and that he gets two activations of a super sword mode (throughout the entire battle) that he can cancel out of anything to extend combos as well as increase the range on all his normals (solving the cross up problem). I quickly came up with a standard combo ABC > 236C > A+C (activation) > ABC > 236C > 4C > 6C > 8C to end it with an option 236B+C (2-stock super) or 214B+C (3-stock super) to end it. I also quickly found out that I could get into an activation off of the universal overhead to launcher A+B stuff with j.ABC > air 236C > A+C (activation) and I also noted that if you caught someone with a jumping air normal that you could likely do something like j.BC > land > j.BC > air 236C > leading to the same stuff above. It was also obvious that the character was going to be mostly a fundamental character with good hit-boxes and reach rather than pressure and mix-ups. I tested a few assists and was good to go. First match, I almost won. Went 1/3 with a very close round. The one that I won was super stylish. I had to head out though, so I left thinking about how to better play the game. Later when I came back to the arcade, I lost horribly to a very seasoned player. Later again, when I finally started putting everything together (and just had 2 arcade routes and 2 actual matches under my belt), I was winning. I was winning a lot. 8 game win streak from good spacing into 2As and 5Bs to smart resource management for damage led me to those wins. I was eventually defeated by a weird zoning character with a brutal assist pressure trap that I wasn’t used to, but I felt pleased. I never reached that level of success again, but I continued the rest of my visits with moderate success, trading wins and losses.
It’s funny to see Sega finally put effort in a new fighting game, but know that it will make no attempt to make it popular in the States. While this does align with their stance on games like Yakuza, it’s still a shame to see. I suppose it’s hard to blame them when the cast is filled with so many pre-established characters that most Americans don’t know. The game is solid though and easily replaces UNiEL, but I doubt I will ever put in a lot of time with the game with Guilty Gear Xrd coming so soon and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax already here.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is easily the one game franchise that I felt guilty for not playing. Everyone played it, everyday. Weekdays? No problem, there is still a line. Just visit Sega Akihabara and see the ten head-to-head setups (20 cabinets) filled with lines waiting to play all night long. The game is a heavy favorite there with its colorful cast, advanced movement canceling (all Marvel players who love the Marvel movement should be playing Tekken), and flashy offense. When you see it in the arcades here, you realize why the Tekken franchise is the favorite son of Bandai Namco and not Soul Calibur–it’s clear that its complexity and charm is what keeps people coming back to it, night after night. Simple games lose that appeal quickly. It’s also this very reason that it dethroned Virtua Fighter after its resurgence with Tekken 5. Considering that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has been home in consoles for two year, its turnout is ridiculous to behold. No other fighting game that has been offered at home even comes close in comparison in terms of this popularity.
Tekken has obviously been well represented in the States. While the recent years have seen some diminishing turnouts, Tekken 7 aims to do right by the franchise soon enough. I wish I put some time into this game when it came out more and will likely think heavily on trying to now that I’m back in the States. I don’t have much else to say about the game other than the fact that the game is so popular that it is the only game that can support a cabinet that only supports the game with a card customer/replay viewer that you can see below. For those in love with Tekken, you have to make it out to Japan.
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-
Guilty Gear Xrd was a clear third after Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax and Tekken Tag Tournament 2 in terms of popularity. While Xrd hasn’t seen a console release yet, I’m sure that for gatherings and weekends, it’ll still see a lot of play after release this December.
While there, I managed to play through multiple arcade routes during the day when few were there, getting a hands on with Sol, I-no, Ky, and Ramlethal. The overall game feels meaty and weighty with new character models that occupy big parts of the screen with slower X axis movement. This is alleviated with roman cancels, which are now easier to do since they can be canceled at any point, slowing down the opponent allowing you to outpace them for a small amount of time. These changes end up making the game feel right and more importantly, feel like Guilty Gear, yet still inviting new players.
Sol feels like Sol, back to his classic #Reload incarnation for the most part. His nuanced combos based on characters are a lot less complex here and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be one of the directions they keep developing him as the game moves forward. Continuing on the same note, Ky feels almost exactly like his #Reload incarnation and everything that you know about Ky will work the same way. He feels right and there’s a reason why I make comparisons to Ryu and Taskmaster when I talk about Ky. I-no on the other hand has had a huge overhaul, mainly around her new horizontal and vertical chemical love. Since this move has changed to its simple 214 (or qcb) input, it also had to be rebalanced, leaving her with versions of the projectile that only cover about 50% of the distance it used to. This is extremely noticeable and her ability to zone well has dropped dramatically. Her style of bad normals and weird movement that leads to fuzzy pressure still creates a huge charm for the character though and for those that keep at probably one of the most awkward characters in the cast to get a handle of, they’ll be rewarded with a stylishly fun character. Ramlethal on the other hand takes extremes on a new level. Her normals are either extremely short-ranged and fast or long-ranged and requiring a lot of setup. This awkward gap of not having auto-pilot chains, needing a lot of setups for simple pressure, and a lot of forward planning should give people a complex character that will take a lot of time to unlock her potential and have fun with. The consolation is that her high-damage combos seem to be easy to achieve once the hit is earned.
Also, 4/5 setups had either Sol or Ky on them. One of those four setups likely had Sol vs. Ky–so if you hate mirror matches or need to be a unique snowflake, these characters aren’t the ones you’re looking for. Other than that, Slayer trailed slightly behind those two and I saw equal representation across the board for every other character with skilled characters other than I-no. I didn’t spot an I-no player once the entire time.
In the United States, more than any other air-dasher, this game stands a chance to bring a whole new set of gamers in as well as converting the old ones with its rock and roll charm and its quirky designs. We’ll see many types of players pick this up from other communities, from the new Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 crowd who is too sheepish to learn BlazBlue or Persona 4 Arena, but needing a new game to the old fighting game players who still remember when Guilty Gear carried the scene with the most innovation. Even the Street Fighter 4 crowd that has never air-dashed before stand a good chance to be united with Xrd’s big models and slower gameplay that drills down to the essential mechanics that make Guilty Gear. The future is bright for Guilty Gear Xrd.
Ultra Street Fighter IV
Ultra Street Fighter IV sees no play during the weekdays at all. The only time you’ll really see people play it is during the weekends, where a eight head-to-head setups (16 cabinets) will be filled in Sega Akihabara. While there won’t be any lines for it, you’ll be sure to find intense competition with everyone doing long links and ambiguous setups at a very high proficiency.
While I was there, I had the chance to sit down and play many games of it against competitors. I picked Guile because he was by far my best character, primarily because of my lack of effort with the Street Fighter IV series and him being so close to what he was in Street Fighter II. I was able to take quite a few players–including those that played Poison, Sakura, Blanka, Ken, and Ryu. My longest streak was 6 games, but I was eventually ousted by a Dictator (while I was playing Sagat–I could never figure out that match-up despite playing Denny Pryds so many times) and later a Gouken. One of the things I forgot about the Ultra changes that make Guile even easier to play was the fact that his jab links have become stupidly easy. I don’t think I dropped jabbing into s.HPs or c.MP xx special the entire time. Lots of successful reads and just solid SF2 style play got me the wins. Japan isn’t really that scary like many think, but I didn’t play the guys who were running explosive characters like Yun, Evil Ryu, Ibuki, etc.
As for the game, until Ultra Street Fighter IV, the Street Fighter IV series lived in a precarious state for me. On one hand, it brought SF back to its roots (kind of) and revived the United States fighting game scene. On the other hand, I didn’t grow up with it and it certainly isn’t my favorite Street Fighter. I also didn’t really like the game very much until Ultra Street Fighter IV, at which point, I felt kind of late to the party. I disagree with many of the design decisions such as cramming together characters that shouldn’t be in the same game engine (without real changes to their kit) and I didn’t think many of the universal decisions were even reasonable until the latest version.
I mean shoehorning classic SF2 designs and balancing around them such as SF2 Guile and Honda meant that if those characters were ever the best, the game would be dumb since they could just deny characters from doing things the entire time. Even if they were designed to be competitive (as they are), they’d be using only a handful of moves that had to be tuned to be extremely effective since they didn’t have that much nuance to their move list. Factor in early glitches/balance problems like true unblockables, the vortex nature of best characters of the cast being extremely effective, and looking at design decisions like allowing DP xx FADC > Ultra confirms just made for a lot of dumb auto-pilot play. Ultra Street Fighter IV fixed all of these and the only gripes I really have left is that plinking is in the game and that block-strings still don’t feel as right (as they do in any other SF and even in SFxT), but that is minor.
One fact stands though as a testament of how great Ultra Street Fighter IV is and it is that it is easily the most balanced Street Fighter ever made. Almost every character is usable at any level of play given the right amount of work and they’ve managed to make a game where a simple character like Guile can face off against a nuanced character like Ibuki–two characters that shouldn’t even exist in the same game–work. That in itself makes SFIV worthy of its name. I just wish it was designed with more interesting risks that were taken with its universal mechanics like SF3, A2, A3, CvS2, etc. or with design decisions that didn’t hurt and skew the games for so long. I do appreciate what it did for the fighting game community though–it revived the scene in the United States. But it really is looking long in the tooth now and needs a sequel, despite Ultra being so good and the Omega update promising a lot of fun.
Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax and BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma
These games now occupy a weird space since they both have been ported to the console with very feature-rich ports and good netplay. You can tell that many of the machines that the arcades have invested in have suffered as a result. But despite that, you can always find a few players ready to play there. And they’ve brought a lot of coins and their Nesica cards as well.
While I didn’t play any of the games directly, I find it sadly ironic that I was here in Japan while the US release of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax happened in the United States. I can’t wait to crack it open and put some real work into it. I know I’ll love it.
As for its adoption here in the States, Arc System Works fighting games have done historically well leading the air-dashing sub-genre–both with good turnout and now prize pools. With more companies directly contributing to prize pools such as Atlus or Arc System Works themselves, these games will find a skilled audience here in the States.
Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown
Virtua Fighter is in a very precarious state of affairs. You cannot find any VF5:FS machine anywhere, but Sega Akihabara. Given the indicators of Sega developing Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax (which is impressive since it’s been awhile that Sega has developed another fighting game property other than VF), how Sega has been pulling out localizing triple-A games like Yakuza that they deem too Japanese, and the fact that VF5:FS came to us in such a stripped-down manner (especially when compared to the excellent classic console version of VF4:EVO)–you have to wonder if another VF is coming.
However, despite how bleak Virtua Fighter’s future looks, you can still find people playing this franchise on a floor dedicated to it in Sega Akihabara. The age demographic for this game is interestingly skewing much older with many players in their 30s-50s, likely those who came onto the franchise during its heyday. Sega just doesn’t seem to want to attract new players anymore with VF. And without Yu Suzuki, maybe they don’t know how.
Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate
Dead or Alive has a special place in my heart since I made one of my best friends, Michael Ferguson, playing it online way back in Dead or Alive 2 Ultimate. Boy, the landscape to online play has changed so much since then. To see it come back full-circle to the arcades in a cabinet meant a lot to me and to see it regularly played by people with Nesica cards was a treat. Despite that, there are only a handful of players, though they seem to be dedicated enough to have thousands of games played on their cards.
While I was in Japan, I definitely played this game a few times. I beat a few casual arcade players; an Ayane and a hooded Kasumi player with my Ein. Then I traded a few games with a Hayate and Leon who both came with their Nesica cards and many coins. It was a hell of a time and I wish I was doing higher-level things besides playing such a basic character and using such universal mechanics. Despite that, it was still a blast.
Dead or Alive is already alive and well in the United States, especially in the east coast and majors like Summer Jam, Northeast Championships, and The Fall Classic where it is one of the headliners. If you love Soul Calibur, there is no reason you shouldn’t be playing Dead or Alive. I definitely feel like I should be playing this franchise more now that I’m back in the States instead of having neglect it for so long. Only time will tell.
King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match Final Edition and King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match
It’s great that these games timeless classics remain being heavily played in countries (who still have an arcade scene) outside of Japan. Seeing the rows of King of Fighters head-to-head cabinets in Tom’s World brought a tear to my eye–it was beautiful. Since the Neo Geo had a lots of legs in these countries, you have a subculture created around the crown jewels of SNK, King of Fighters ’98 and 2002. They were subsequently updated and still played, regardless of hardware, simply because of balance, ease of play, and fun. Seeing Tom’s World in Taipei reminded me of why it’s no surprise that many of these best KoF players are from Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Singapore, and Brazil. For those looking to try these iterations of these classic fighters, Shoryuken.com reported that we’ll be seeing them soon at the end of this year for the consoles.
Arcana Heart 3: Love Max, Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Super Street Fighter II: Turbo, King of Fighters XIII, and Guilty Gear: Accent Core + R
There isn’t much to say about these games other than that you’ll definitely find people that play it if you look in the right places for the small groups that still play it. So without further ado, here’s the list of places I know you’ll find people to play:
- Arcana Heart 3: Love Max can be found with about five head-to-head cabinets (10 cabinets) in Taito’s Hey! in Akihabara.
- Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code can be found in Sega Akihabara in the corner of the Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown floor with three active head-to-head setups (6 cabinets).
- Street Fighter III: Third Strike can be found being played at almost any arcade, just on a single cabinet though usually.
- Super Street Fighter II: Turbo can be found at Taito’s Hey! for only 10 YEN per play! Lots of old-school players love the place.
- King of Fighters XIII can be found usually being played on one head-to-head setup (2 cabinets) in Sega Akihabara.
- Guilty Gear: Accent Core + R can be found in a-cho in Kyoto where the Guilty Gear scene is alive and well. You’ll still see people playing the previous version side-by-side with the new Xrd because their mains are the older characters such as favorites like Johnny or Anji.
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late
I decided to mention this game because of its recent popularity in the States and unfortunately the game is effectively dead in Japan. Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax plays so similar to UNiEL with the additions of Persona and Marvel vs. Capcom mechanics that it has just simply replaced it. I feel bad for French Bread Developer since they wanted to create a new original property that would stand against the tide and remove themselves from the Melty Blood association, but until another revision comes out, I can’t imagine it fighting the gigantic light novel crossover that is Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax. I certainly didn’t see anyone pick this up once even during weekend prime time. I’m sure it’s being played elsewhere in some arcade somewhere and has a decent turnout at tournament brackets, but it’s gone from normal arcade play, which may simply be the cause of the console version coming out.
Quick impressions of the various arcades.
Upon visiting Japanese arcades, you’ll quickly realize that–like everywhere else–people have to go to work and school. However, when the weekend comes or when you hit the place later at night, you’ll find ample opponents ready to challenge you. So plan your trips to the arcade after all of the other major locations and stores close down at 6PM-8PM–people will be there.
At a casual level, you’ll find many UFO games and photo booths occupying the bottom of floors of these arcades (or sometimes the entirety of it if it is devoted solely to it) to attract various customers not interested in the hardcore offerings. You might even stumble into an Adores, which looks like an arcade chain until you realize that all of the machines in there are for gambling games. But as you ascend the steps of these legendary arcades, you’ll find yourself in a place where you can test the limits of your execution with the latest rhythm game or test your wits with the latest fighters. Just don’t be one of the foreigners that is too afraid to challenge someone.
Here is a quick list of Japanese arcades and their rundowns:
- Sega Akihabara – The main arcade you see when you get out of Akihabara station–go there. Many fighting games.
- Sega UFO – The small arcade you see on the side of Akihabara station, go there only if you want to play UFO games for prizes.
- Taito Game Station – Very small and really, not that many cabinets. Even when Daigo is known for playing Ultra Street Fighter IV there, there is only three head-to-head setups there for it.
- Taito’s Hey! – Located near Sega Akihabara, before Club SEGA, this place has almost every memorable cooperative game out there. Looking for Final Fight, Raiden, Gradius, X-Men, etc. they’re all here. Go here for all of your beat em’up and shoot em’ up needs. They also have Super Street Fighter II: Turbo on 10YEN setups for those who are dying to play the classic for dirt cheap. Add in some old fighting games and some niche fighting games and you’ll find a pretty awesome arcade.
- Club SEGA – Unfortunately, this place is no longer as cool as what Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution told us it would to be (in their virtual quest mode where you visit Japanese arcades). It has plenty of older games as well as new games, but not many people playing any of them. If you want to play single-player during prime-time for many of the big games currently out there, this place will usually have a cabinet or two for it.
- a-cho – Located in the heart of Kyoto, it continues to be a hotbed for all of the fighting game competition and streams, definitely a must visit for fighting game fans in Kyoto.
My closing thoughts on all of this rambling.
If someone told you right now that Killer Instinct doesn’t matter; Injustice and Mortal Kombat don’t matter; Soul Calibur doesn’t matter; Marvel vs. Capcom doesn’t matter; Even Smash doesn’t matter.
You’d call them crazy.
Yet that’s what Japanese arcades tell you. And they’d tell you with a straight-face, saying you’re playing the wrong games.
It’s amazing that there is still an arcade culture somewhere out in the world and Japan definitely fosters the most impressive one. I’m not sure how many people grew up like me and my brother Khoi, but the dream of finding the strongest opponents still live on here. While the desire to travel has been dulled greatly by the advancement of good online netcode for many as well as the internationalization of EVO, there is still some magic here. Lots of it. There just isn’t any place to play fighting games like there is in Japan.
Want more stuff on Japanese arcades? Check out this post with arcade tips in Japan!