TVGame: a guide to purchasing
by brandon sheffield
06072003

 


I do not exaggerate at all when I say that I had a significant amount of trouble with my game purchases in Japan. I bought two Towns Martys with messed up disc drives, one Duo R with the wrong adapter, and 5 rather expensive games which require boot discs that were not included, nor mentioned to be excluded. More words will be written on this subject in a later feature. It’s actually rather rare to get screwed over this way in Japan. They don’t do it on purpose, that much is certain. Well – not so much certain as that’s what I’m told. There’s not a lot that I can do about it now, so...the only positive thing I can do is help you to not make the same mistakes, along with some general helpful guidelines.

Here’s a nice preliminary rule. When going to Japan, try to know Japanese. It’s a good language, and not as tough as everyone says (well – the written part is, but speaking is not bad). You can get a good knowledge in three years, a cursory knowledge in two.

Let me tell you, if your games or systems are not right, ignorance of Japanese basically means you’re screwed.

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The Basics:

Game stores are largely set up in similar ways. You’ve got midline kiosks full of games with very narrow aisles between them (in the small shops). Larger stores look more like this. Different consoles are broken up of course, and the titles will generally be categorized loosely by genre, then Japanese alphabetical order. If you don’t know what that is, learn Japanese.

Or do this. Check out this kana guide - it has roman characters on the left, hiragana in the middle, katakana on the right. Once you absorb that, check this out. See? You’re a master already.

The floor will generally be rather small, but often there are multiple floors containing different things. One floor for new PC software, one for new console games, one for used console games, etc. Naturally you won’t find many deals on the ‘new’ floor, unless you’re in Sofmap. Say, who are those two strapping young lads in front of it?

Sofmap sometimes dumps a big glut of old, brand new software for dirt cheap. In Den Den Town, a Sofmap was selling three Wolf Team Mega CD games and Valis for the Megadrive at 200 yen apiece. PS2 ascii controllers were going for 980 yen, simply because they had Capcom vs. SNK millennium on the box, not CvS 2.

Be aware that almost as a rule ‘used PC software’ means windows hentai games, if that’s all the store carries. Our friendly neighborhood Henry Moriarty let me in on this. I asked him – "do Japanese people get tricked by this crap too?" That’s when he told me the truth of it. The home PC was only truly embraced in Japan because of the platforms’ universal embracing of the pornographic game. This got the nerds in on the ground floor, paving the way for the inevitable ‘you don’t have a PC?’ elitism that spurred the rest of the market.

Regardless, if H-games are what you’re looking for, I - of all people - will not judge you. Just know that if you’re searching for FM Towns titles or some Falcom stuff, you’re better off looking in a shop with multiple levels. It’s pleasantly disturbing to see that even the big places like Asobit City and Sofmap have whole hentai floors. They’re fun to walk through to be sure, but...it makes me feel a bit strange. I guess the US’ protestant roots have gotten to me a bit, in spite of my silly past attempts at decrying them. Try bringing a girl up with you, and the entirety of the clientele will FREAK THE HELL OUT. As much as they can without making a scene of course. Double takes, looks of confusion...it’s all very inspiring.

Also keep in mind that ‘import games’ written on a sign outside a store means overpriced US games in this case. Only worth checking out if you want to know what a 30,000 yen Jaguar looks like. It’s…surprisingly similar to a $20 US one.

When trying to find the best deals (assuming you’re a gamer first and a collector second), check out the ‘damaged’ section in the software racks. These are usually either at the end of the rack for any given console’s section. The stuff in the baskets near the isles is considered ‘junk.’ I’ll explain more about ‘junk’ in a bit.

The damaged section is only in some shops by the way. Many stores will simply not accept games with any sort of scratches on them. Those that do are more plentiful in Osaka’s Den Den Town than in Tokyo’s Akihabara. But some exist in Tokyo of course.

The scratches you’ll see on games are pretty minimal in general. I’ll use the store Retro Game Revival as an example because they’ve got a nice system going on. They have a small tag that goes on the game’s seemingly home-spun plastic wrap. This tag describes the fault they’ve found with the game, the degree of its seriousness and the resultant discount. A game with very small scratches on it gets a 10% discount. These are like the hair-line scratches you get if you brush the CD on the way in or out of a CD folder. Sometimes very tough to see. At about the 30% discount area, you start to be able to pull the scratches up on visual without straining. These are still games that EB would sell as ‘new’ if you returned them within 7 days. The level is about what you’d expect on your average American top-sale used music CD. Still pretty minimal. At 50%, the scratches are pretty noticeable. But the games will still be entirely playable. Past this, the games go into the junk pile.

So-called ‘junk’ games, are usually totally playable. They’ve either got some big scratches in them, or are missing the box. If the manual is missing, expect to pay just a few yen for the game. I bought Art of Fighting for PC Engine Arcade card for 10 yen with box, but no manual. Sure I already had a complete copy, but hell – it was 10 yen. Unlike Tim I stayed for only two weeks, and thus had that to spare.

Use your own discretion when purchasing these of course. Junk games aren’t guaranteed, so if it doesn’t work it’s on you.

Another interesting bit is the ‘junk system’ section. Again, only a few stores do this. Super Potato in Den Den Town is a good one, as is Max Load in Akihabara. This is crap that either doesn’t work, they don’t feel like testing, or is missing everything, like hookups, controllers, lids, etc. But these are good for harvesting parts from, getting alternate colors of neo geo pockets, and trying your luck. In the Super Potato they had a junk section of MSX I and II systems for 500 yen each. They had proper working systems for 3,000 yen. But these systems weren’t necessarily broken, they had only tested the ones that were cosmetically the nicest. The 500 yen systems were untested, because of their great numbers, and lack of interest on the part of the staff. Buy a couple and see how it goes. I got myself a PC Engine cart add-on (sans CD attatchment) for 100 yen, and a 180 yen neo geo pocket, the one with the red pad and the silver buttons.

Of course, it’s very important to price around. The pricing on used games is completely arbitrary in Japan. X game will still be rare, but just how rare is up to the individual staff. So you’ll see a copy of say Sapphire for PC Engine ranging from US $250 to US $400. In general, I say price everything against Sofmap. Sofmap has fair prices for games, and they’re fairly uniform in their decisions, so safe as a ‘base’. If you can find it cheaper, which you usually can with effort, you’re probably pretty safe. Of course, do not take this as the rule. Mandarake in Shibuya can be cheaper sometimes. Max Load is quite expensive...well it can be at times. Again, it varies from game to game. I bought two games at Mandarake that I later found in a Den Den Town Sofmap for the equivalent of US $20 less EACH. That hurt me dearly. So be sure to check several shops first. You really need to budget yourself a full day to walk around, find out prices, then do your shopping at the end. This requires willpower of course.

Now regarding stuff that does not work. Returning is easy if you have the time and the ability to explain your situation. Make sure you budget enough time to test and return your stuff. This was my big mistake. It happened to me with the Towns Martys because I wasn’t able to find the systems and the software at the same time. I bought the last of the software the day before I left, and it was at this point that I realized for one thing that some games needed boot discs, and for another that the Martys’ disc drives themselves were shot (to varying degrees).

I figured I was safe in this regard really, because Japanese game stores are renowned for their honesty, at least in terms of selling stuff that works, or at the least – telling you if it doesn’t. But the older or more obscure a system you’re dealing with, the more likely you are to experience errors based on pure ignorance.

But double check to make sure that the ignorance isn’t on your part. Check the boxes beforehand to see if they’re tagged as missing something, junk, or incomplete. Because in that scenario you’re totally on your own.

Getting around:

Den Den Town is a bit of a walk from the main Nanba JR train station. Once you can find the street, you’ll notice that it’s all pretty straightforward. Just walk up one side, then back on the other once you run clear of the game shops. Not much in the way of side streets, hidden upstairs fortresses and whatnot. This makes finding things in Den Den town much easier, and since it’s got a little brother complex when comparing itself to Akihabara of the Kanto region, the prices can be much more palatable.

Akihabara is easier to find. If you take the proper exit from the train station you’ll actually wind up in the middle of the action. Just follow the ‘Akihabara Electric Town’ signs. But once you get in there, it can be tough/overwhelming to navigate. The main street is the one that has the big Sofmap and Asobitcity on it. But you’ll find smaller shops upstairs, in alleys, and on adjacent streets that parallel and intersect the main road. It can be tough to hit them all, and it’s easy to get lost in the side streets since there are Sofmaps everywhere (11 in Akihabara, I think), and many stores use the same face on different corners. Just do your best; it’s worth the effort. But after a while it all starts to look the same, and you get really tired of accidentally walking into hentai shops.

Console vs store recommendations:

Mandarake in Shibuya – Good for PCE as their prices were quite nice on the carts. No new games really. Lots of Famicom stuff and the occasional wacky item. I found a Playdia there for $30 that was just waiting for someone with the suitcase space to take it home. That person was not I, very regrettably.

Retro Game Revival in Osaka’s Den Den Town - they supplied me with many ‘damaged’ games. If I can still play them, I don’t care of some kid sneezed on them or something. Look fine to me. They also have some cheap game music CDs in the corner. Plus this was the only place I was able to find a Towns Marty. Who knows what else they’ll get in.

Super Potato in Den Den Town - Great fun to be had looking through the junk systems. You can get a junk Playdia here with one complete game for 2,000 yen. Rock all the way out. Good selection of MSX stuff, famicom, superfamicom, and megadrive. A fine PC-FX selection as well. Just in case you don’t figure it out for yourself, the good stuff is on the second floor.

Mandarake in Nakano – got my Supergrafx here for 7,000 yen with instructions, hookups and official controller. Picked up a NEC Avenue 6 button pad for 400 yen. This was also the only place I found a reasonable Duo RX in box. Watch out for high software prices though, this is where I overpaid. So let’s call it ‘good for NEC hardware.’

Max Load in Akihabara – There are two of these, and they are the old games specialty stores of the Tokyo area. Pretty pricey in most cases, but if you want FM Towns or NEC PC 98 series games, this is your best bet for selection. Best bet for the consoles in the Tokyo area too, but…really expensive in that field.

Sofmap in Akihabara – The Sofmaps have good prices on most used games, and some new deals sometimes. There are a few FM Towns and PC 98 games here too, if you want to err on the side of caution – games here will be complete or someone gets fired. Not bad at all for superfamicom, megadrive, Saturn and PSX games either. There are several Sofmaps in the area, so check around. Prices won’t vary much, but selection will. Some of them are computer hardware only – don’t waste your time on them.

Sofmap in Den Den Town. This is a good place. Good prices on PCE, and the best Saturn prices I’ve seen, really. PSX stuff is not bad, especially in the biggest one. The staff are a little paranoid, but still a nice area to shop (there’s a story to this, but one I don’t feel much like telling just now).

Asobitcity in Akihabara – Here’s the place to go if you want to waste money, or simply need a brand new title. For new games, they may well have the best selection, though Sofmap will inevitably beat their prices.

Some personal-opinion-based broad generalizations:

Den Den Town is cheaper, and better for used stuff. But the selection of stores is much smaller, and the cosmetic quality of the goods will tend to be poorer.

Akihabara is good if you’re searching for a specific title, as more games total are represented here. In terms of systems, you’ll pay more, but they’ll be cleaner. Also good for electronics (digicams, etc).

Smaller, more hidden store does not necessarily equal better prices, better stuff. Notice how no matter how ensconced any store may be, you’ll never be the only people in there. You don’t even need a sign in order to run a business in these places.

Junk shops, if they have any games, will be very reasonable. Used/old computer shops sometimes have the odd game here and there, in general for far less than it’s worth. But this is a crap shoot of course. Most don’t have anything at all, game-wise.

Buying Saturn and PSX games in Japan is a little silly. There’s just not significant enough of a price difference to make it worth my while. Thus the rather noticeable emphasis on NEC and Fujitsu consoles for this trip. The price difference was within five bucks of what I can get at the local import shop or ebay. Basically what you save is those few dollars plus shipping. To me it was not worth the luggage space. Maybe on another trip I’ll find the stuff to be more significantly discounted from the US import price.

For doujin games, check any ‘used pc software’ shop. The hentai shops tend to be the places for this stuff, though every Sofmap carries the bigger titles. Surprisingly easy to get, really. Of course – places like Himeya and J-list are already localizing some titles, so this may be a moot point.

Don’t bother with duty-free shops. They make up for their lack of taxes by having higher prices. WOW, what a deal.

Specifics on NEC systems:

For Supergrafx games, don’t overpay. Every game aside from 1941 can be found pretty cheap. Try to pay in the 1,600 ballpark for Daimakaimura, and under 1,000 for everything else. If you pay over 200 yen for a complete Battle Ace, you got royally screwed.

PC-FX games are cheap, cheap, cheap in Japan now. Get them while they’re still in the shops, I don’t think they’ll be buying many back. Madarake has good prices on the systems too. You can find a PC-FX here and there for 5,800 yen or so.

If you want specialty NEC controllers, go to Osaka. When you find them, they’ll be 75% less than their Akihabara equivalents. I don’t know why, but I don’t argue.

You’ll often see multitaps in the junk boxes in Osaka. Buy them if you need them, there’s not much in there that can break. I got a perfectly working one for 100 yen.
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Final words:

This should help prepare you for the overwhelming confusion of shopping for games in Japan. Try to avoid shops that obviously have little variety in their software, and you shouldn’t get bored. When you get hungry, try Doutor Coffee shop – there are a few around. You can get good vegetarian sandwiches there, and their ingredients are much fresher than that of the Japanese Subway (the American one too, but…that goes without saying, doesn’t it?). My favorite place is a restaurant I found on the last day. It’s on the same street as the Tenya that Tim described, but closer to the far corner. Just go up the stairs there – you have to be greeted, have space made for you, then brought upstairs. Man. I found three whole dishes to eat there as a vegetarian. My girlfriend ate gobs of meat. I could go there again and find three more things to eat, and not repeat once. This opposed to every other place in Tokyo which has one vegetarian food item, if you specialty order it.

If you get too frazzled, go visit the Cure Maid Café in Akihabara. Don’t look the otaku clientele in the eye and you’ll have a grand time. The waitresses are in full maid cosplay, though probably because of this the prices are a shade high. It’s on the sixth floor in the one of the back alleys, above a proper cosplay and hobby shop. Actually, I take back what I said before. Do look at the obese otaku that frequent the pace. At least you can feel as though you’re better off than they are, however slightly.

brandon sheffield is now dirt poor

But this is only half of the story. This is what it's like to live there.