Away Games: Recommendations for Places That May No Longer Exist

In the long years without videolamer updates, I passed time staring at walls, counting the seconds until death would release me from my meaningless existence, and watching TV. I also did a little bit of traveling. Whenever possible, I coerced, tricked, or bamboozled my girlfriend/fiance/wife/ex-wife into doing something at least video game adjacent on these trips. And so I present you with my research and recommendations for places to visit that were likely closed years ago due to the pernicious whims of capitalism. With pictures!

Galloping Ghost Arcade: Illinois

A family vacation to South Bend put me within (multiple hour) striking distance of this arcade I had read good things about. Knowing fellow videolamer contributor and all-round site admin Chris was from this region of Earth, I asked if he would like to meet and play some games. I think he drove for 4 hours to reach the Galloping Ghost, so hopefully I paid for breakfast. Depending on when you read your internet, this arcade has the most or close to the most game cabinets in North America, including a few prototypes that are either unique or exceptionally rare. They charge a fixed fee up front I recall as reasonable and then you stay as long as you’d like, though likely they’d ask you to leave when they close for the night. We enjoyed a few rounds of Rampart, a game I had always ignored when renting Genesis carts from Palmer Video, and The Cliffhanger: Edward Randy who hangs cliffs much better than Stallone in both the movie and Sega CD game. If for some reason you find yourself within 4 hours of Chris’ house, I recommend the Galloping Ghost over the standard Indiana attractions of commercial duck production, hardwood veneer, wood office furniture, and wood kitchen cabinet manufacturing.

Bad picture, good game.

Musee Mecanique: San Francisco, California

This museum of old, often mechanical (if my French is correct) games has been a fixture of Fisherman’s Wharf for 20 years. As an aside, about 6 years ago the Idle Thumbs guys mocked people for visiting the tourist areas in San Francisco. I’d like to defend both seeing cliched destinations and wandering off the beaten path. Leave some room in your vacation schedules to hit the big spots and also see some lesser traveled areas. Getting a wider breadth of experiences is better than actively avoiding popular spots because you’re some god damned hipster already from the Bay area who is too busy making VR games and shop interfaces to record podcasts or finish work on a second unique adventure game.

The answer was “oxygen.”

Anyway, I first heard about the Musee Mecanique from an episode of Game Center CX. Surprisingly, the owner has never seen his interview with Arino because he says he does so many it’s not that big a deal to him. I aspire to be interviewed at all so this guy’s operating on another level of success entirely.

Generally speaking, the older and less impressive the attraction, the more interesting it was. One that Arino featured also enthralled us – you put a quarter in and some wind blows over a diorama – excellent in its nothingness. In conclusion, this place doesn’t even have a Tekken 3 cabinet so I score it a 6 out of 10,000.

Classic Game Exchange: Rohnert Park, California

This is much like other independent game stores, but I like the area around Santa Rosa (go see the lawn sculptures in Sebastopol). Inside I found some guys hanging out who seemed to work there or be friends with the guy behind the counter. I overcame the mild social obstacle that is other humans and spoke to the cashier a bit. It turned out that he had previously worked at Visual Concepts, which was once a Sega subsidiary. 

Knowing too much about nothing, I asked him if they ever started work on a Floigan Bros. Episode 2. He was amused and said he keeps in touch with people from the studio who were there in the Dreamcast days and it’s apparently something they still talk about making. A new Weaponlord would also be nice. I bought Tactics Ogre GBA because I felt guilty stopping by, getting a cool Sega story, and just leaving empty handed. Plus, the copy I got from Goozex years earlier was counterfeit and “lost” in the mail when I sent it to their headquarters for inspection.

Den-Den Town: Nipponbashi, Naniwa, Osaka

On my first visit here in 2007 I was guided by videolamer’s own Tyson. He hosted me in Japan, showed me around, and did not murder me. He also showed me Trainman on his laptop, which was either good or just being in Japan and watching a movie was good, hard to tell (though I suspect the latter). My first time in Nipponbashi (Den-Den Town) I bought an R4 for my DS, brought it home and then, in a fit of guilt, threw it away. Returning during my latest trip to Japan was not as riveting as my first visit, but it’s certainly a place to check out and I didn’t buy then discard any expensive electronics.

Den-Den Town is a bit like a smaller, less commercial Akihabara, complete with a Super Potato (which I enjoy wandering through – see rant on popular tourist spots above). My girlfriend was nice enough to not point out the many creepy anime things riddling the game stores; unfortunately I no longer find that crap as hilarious as I did when I was dumber.

Come for the security cameras, stay for the keys.

Star Club – East Shinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo

This place was called Muteki Mario when I first visited in 2011. Returning 5 years later, they had renamed it to the Star Club, no doubt because Nintendo threatened to crush them. Shiki, who speaks English, was my bartender both times. She invited us to come back in 2017 (I think) to celebrate their 10th anniversary. I did not make it, but will try to figure out how to get a family there for the 20th anniversary.

We met Pat, videolamer editor and actual human friend in human life, in Tokyo and he joined us on the Star Club excursion. One of the gimmicks of the bar, besides a lot of video game toys and crap all over the place, is a Wii stocked with Virtual Console games. Pat played a few rounds of Puyo Puyo before noticing Super Dodge Ball for NES, or Nekketsu Koukou Dodgeball Bu for the Famicom, to be more accurate. He played through the whole game while loudly boasting of his ability to the other patrons.

One of those other patrons was a 20 something American who was fun to talk to. He had planned a trip to Japan with a friend who canceled at the last minute. This guy decided to go anyway and was drinking his worries away. We thought he was cooler than the Canadian at the Fire Ramen restaurant in Kyoto who mockingly broke the news to us that Trump won the election. This stood-up bar patron also seemed impressed by Pat’s video prowess, so that earned him extra points. I didn’t get the guy’s number, but the odds are he is still alive doing things somewhere. If you ever stop by the Star Club, tell Shiki you know Jay, and she will have no idea who you are talking about. 

Akihabara – Akihabara, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Kanto

Saying Den-Den town is only ok after you’ve been there a few times sounds kind of douchey. But saying it about Akihabara, well that just makes you sound like someone who knows what’s up. This place has seen actual decline separate from a single person’s subjective diminishing reaction to spectacle (known as the E3 Effect). In 2007 there were simply more retro game stores, and according to old people who visited even earlier the place was already in steep decline by then. Every year that passes leaves the remaining stores more barren, picked over by vultures like me, all while prices climb. I am still mad I didn’t buy every PC Engine CD game I could when I came here 15 years ago. Stupid hindsight. At least I bought that Duo R that eStarland refuses to recap because electricity apparently works differently in Japan.

Walking from Akihabara to Ueno while drinking is a must do.

Traders is still a good place to shop and I recall Pat buying a few games there while my girlfriend watched a demo reel of Uncharted 3 or 7 or XIV, and we found and patronized a store called Friends, which I believe was a Jeremy Parish recommendation from one of his 249 podcasts and video series. It was above a massage parlor (or something) with some suggestive images of mostly nude women on the outside, which was a surprise. Maybe I bought the Japanese version of the Wii Metal Slug Collection? I don’t know, you tell me. The best part of my 2016 visit was finding a good ramen place, which does not exist in Akihabara according to the hipster contrarians of the Insert Credit Show. It’s hard to imagine there is a ton of great vegetarian ramen in the country, honestly.

This place’s spicy ramen is very spicy.

Dobuita Street – Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Kanto, Honshu, Japan

Pat and I finally made our Shenmue pilgrimage to Yokosuka, which is an area in the original Dreamcast game. Honestly, it was underwhelming but still neat to see Dobuita Street and some vistas that looked Shenmue inspired. Weird for them to build a town based on a game, complete with a US Naval base. After having been here, though, I can without a doubt now say that any true fan of the Shenmue series has flown to Japan, made their way here, taken a picture of the Dobuita Street manhole cover using my portable camera, and then written this article about it. This may explain Shenmue 3’s sales. After finding things reminiscent of Ryo’s historic journey, we found a pretty good Indian restaurant near the train station.

And there you have it: two states, two countries, two cities in Japan, and many mediocre pictures later I have returned to my desk, travel only a dream of a post-pandemic world. What will the post-apocalyptic future hold for video game related travels? Skee Ball in Singapore? SG-1000 collecting in France? Virtual reality bars in Bermuda? The future is wide-open, except for now when it isn’t and possibly also the future when it won’t be.

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2 years ago

My 2c having been to Japan a couple times (in ’05 and ’13) –

As you said, Akihabara was pretty awful in terms of how much you have to search to actually find a video game store (or floor) and there was enough of a downturn between the two that it is probably now a Super Potato sandwiched between 5 maid cafes, 2 model stores, a store with 5 floors of porn and 1 of games and a Softmap. If you’re into that other stuff, you’ll have a great time though.

Den Den Town is good (although it’s small) – make sure you know where you’re going. It was not easy for me to find, having no phone internet in ’13. Hopefully things are easier now.

If you’d be going out of your way to visit either, consider just finding random book-off, GEOs (apparently they still exist) or other 2nd-hand stores near where you are staying. You’ll probably get better prices although the selection won’t be as good. I scored my favorite soundtracks from the ’13 trip from book-offs. Although the Osaka aquarium is great, so go there.

2 years ago

Thanks for the informative (and funny) recommendations (and for the followup, Chris), and for all the links. It does sound like some sort of Videolamer world reunion tour is in order with all the mentioned connections with other editors :)

For my own part, Galloping Ghost Arcade is within striking distance, though I live enough in the stix that the thought of real city driving burrowing deep into Chicago to complete the mecca gives me pause. Still, pretty tempting!

Is Tyson still in Japan at this point, and would any of the esteemed editors here make the trip out that way again in the near future?

2 years ago

Galloping Ghost was a lot of fun, but I don’t think I would have gone on my own (I’m not that passionate about arcades specifically) – although they have an impressive variety, some of which were a trip down memory lane. It’s not that close to downtown – as I recall there was relatively clear street parking around the building. Wasn’t hard to find.

All the arcades being free-play made some arcade classic genres (beat ’em ups, especially) feel a lot more repetitive. I think the limitation of money made those more tense (like gambling with a touch of skill). Games like Rampart that had unusual controls, or Elevator Action 2 where the characters were pretty distinct from each other were more fun.

Only speaking for myself – I’d love to get back to Japan someday, but it’s probably several years away with young kids and trying to see family again.

2 years ago

isn’t mandarake still good? i remember buying a bunch of stuff there including the dark souls artbook by design works, which is really nice.

most of my trips to japan have been tacked on to work travel. depending on the future course of the pandemic i am likely headed back there sometime later this year. ill try to carve out some time for games shopping while i am there and report back.

i have been to both yokosuka and aberdeen in hong kong so if i ever make it to guilin my shenmue pilgramage tour will be complete. i might have enjoyed yokosuka more than jay. there was nothing overtly tied to the game, but the layout of the town, a lot of the sights, and the general vibe (there is a large naval base which makes the sailors stuff from the game make sense) are pretty well captured in the game i would say. i felt similarly about aberdeen, which also has the look and grit of the in game location. though neither place had advertised themselves as destinations for crazy shenmue fans, the local tourism bureau in yokosuka eventually published a map of the town with locations relevant to the game. you can still find the pdf online if you are interested.


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