Just a few days ago we ran news about the DVD release of a new documentary called 100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience. After giving sitting down and giving it a thorough watching, here is a review is maybe semi-spoilerific although applying the term spoilers to documentaries may be a little heavy-handed. Thanks to Chris with Strata Studios for providing the screening copy.
As the name implies, the primary focus of the film is on Japan and how gaming evolved into something more than a hobby in the culture there. It begins a summarized rundown of Japanese culture followed by a brief history about one of the major Japanese manufacturers, Taito. They do not do the same for the other famous development houses although each has such a rich history that it would have been difficult to integrate their stories into the film while maintaining the primary narrative. Taito serves as a good choice due to their mega-hit of Space Invaders which is a perfect setup for what follows.
This leads to the first half of the film being broken into three parts: shooter games, fighting games and music games. The focus isn’t on spelling out each title in the genre and what they contributed to it, like Space Invaders the discussion is mostly on catalyst games that created a major course correction for the industry. That doesn’t mean that you won’t catch one of your favorites in the many shots that are looking over rows and rows of machines. During these segments, they interview players and designers to dig into what is appealing about each one of these genres. Shooters being the man vs. machine, fighters for the human interaction, music games for more mass appeal, etc. They talk to a wide variety of people that have been involved in the industry there – players both hardcore and casual, arcade operators, arcade employees, game producers and designers, tournament organizers and champion players. What was particularly engaging is the discussion with the players about what it is that drives them to put thousands of Yen into these machines. The answers they give provide the strong arguments for what it is about the arcade idea that is unique, no matter where in the world one happens to be. 100 Yen spends some appropriate time on these issues which are validating for us hardcore arcaders but equally useful for initiates or “arcade luddites” to hear. Likewise a bit of time is spent on the tournament scene and some of the players behind that exciting aspect of the scene.
Visually, they captured the action at good angles and the color tone is warm throughout. This matches the general feeling of the work, which is a message of optimism. There is footage from various game centers in Japan, both “mom-and-pop” and famous major corporate venues. At one point the typical game layout of a modern game center is brought up to demonstrate how these locations draw people in by using more casual prize games near the entrances and more hardcore content as you dive further into the recesses on a center. Just about every aspect of a major location is given some screen time, the only part missing would be the “kid vending” type games like Pokemon or Animal Kaiser. There is a lot to see as the camera swims through a venue but keep in mind that if you are not used to watching subtitled shows that there are times where is a lot of them to be found here so you can end up just focusing on the text and not catching some of the games shown. It gives you a reason to either rewind or watch it again though if you feel you miss out on anything important.
After the genres, much time is spent on getting into the social aspect of arcades and some of the well-known players that bring attention to arcade gaming through their skills. There is some discussion about Western arcades after the middle part of it and if I had to choose a weakest part of the film that would be it. Of course that is not the primary thrust of this film, being about the Japanese arcade experience so its not a hugely negative thing. Since the subject is dealt with however, more credit could have been given to Western developers who are still in the game of producing top-selling titles.
There is more to it than that but no need to discuss all. That can be saved for you to check out.
All in all is this worth watching? For some of us, even though arcades are a part of our daily ritual there is enough here to keep even the jaded engaged. For those that may have written arcades off a decade ago, 100 Yen presents arcade gaming in a way that praises the unique aspects which make it an enjoyable activity for millions of players in Japan and beyond.
If interested, once again you can pick it up here.