Where to shop, what to buy and what’s happening with games pricing if you’re a retro gaming enthusiast.
I’ve just returned from spending a very enjoyable week in Tokyo and Yokohama as part of an all-too-rare holiday from writing. Part of my plan for this holiday was to extend my collection of retro gaming titles in a couple of particular ways. It’s a topic I’ve written about previously, noting that prices were rising as collectors swooped into to secure all the shiny mint-condition copies of games they’d long coveted and had heard could be bought for only a couple of dollars in Japan.
The Dark Side Of Retro Gaming
Retro Gaming: It’s getting worse
Bad news for those folks, I’m afraid, because that party is (mostly) over. Shop in the usual, well-trodden locations and you’ll find plenty of retro gaming titles at fairly stiff prices, and more than a few a jaw-dropping ones. Your dreams of finding that ultra-rare retro gaming titles of your dreams for only 100 Yen are most likely dreams, because the businesses that largely trade in retro are, in the internet age, all too aware of what they’ve got and what it can command. That’s business, and I can’t entirely blame them for it.
It’s especially true when you consider that they’re dealing from retro gaming stock that’s shrinking in volume every single day. Retro gaming has a certain chic right now, no doubt helped along by Nintendo’s own impending Mini NES console, and that only adds to the feeding frenzy. If you’re a business and someone will give you five times the price you’d previously asked for your retro gaming goods, it’s pretty much natural that you’ll up the price to meet demand and maximise your profits. It even insulates you against the folks who won’t buy at that price, because you can (with careful balancing) meet the rent with fewer sales. But enough business philosophy.
Retro Japan: The Good news
All of that sounds rather dour, but there are some silver linings. Compared to the last time I was in Tokyo, when shopping at specifically “retro” themed stores, there was clearly an effort to have a lot more available stock on shelves.
Yes, prices are up, and that’s a trend I don’t see reversing any time soon, but with the exception of the outright absolute rarities, if you want it, you can have it, at a price, in your hand relatively quickly and without fuss. A couple of years ago when I was there the shelves were markedly more bare, and I suspect that’s to do with retro buyers swooping in and grabbing the deals while they could be had as bargains. Yeah, I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else. Still, this time around I saw titles I simply couldn’t find two years ago, which suggests that market pressure is leading to more titles in the stores that sell them if you’re keen.
It does help if you’ve got a little bit of conversational Japanese to speed the process. Yes, in the central Akihabara stores they’ll generally cover your English if you have no Japanese at all, but a little effort does go a long way.
All too sadly and predictably, I did see some terrible arrogance/rudeness from some shoppers that made me quietly hope they were buying rotting silicon, because store staff are still human beings. Equally, talking about them in English while they’re serving you is risky because they may well understand everything rude you’re saying to them.
It’s not actually all that tricky to learn simple stuff like “excuse me” or “this one, please” for example (“Sumimasen” and “Kore/Sure Kudosai” are your friends, folks, and that’s only just scratching the surface of what is a fascinating language. There are more polite forms for a start. But I digress.)
Retro Japan: Be prepared
If there’s one bit of advice I would give any retro games shopper hitting Tokyo (and that’s mostly what I did; I can’t speak with any experience about the games scene in, say, Osaka), it’s to be prepared.
Specifically, work out what it is that you want, and what your total budget will be. You might not find all of it (I didn’t, and I knew where to look), you might not be able to afford all of it (ditto), but if you go in thinking of just browsing, you’re likely to run out of time, or patience for flipping titles out of shelves. Space limitations (a reality of life throughout Tokyo) mean that most retro games are packed into shelves spine first, which means that unless you’re fluent in reading Japenese (and I’m not, for the record) you’ll spend a lot of time flipping titles out just to check what they are, let alone what they might cost you.
Having a prepared list of the specific titles you’re looking for makes that easier, although it can still be mentally exhausting. There is some fun finding a title you didn’t know existed in amongst the chaos, but it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed.
Secondary advice would be, alongside tempering your expectations around pricing, to be willing to adapt and compromise. I’m a gamer who plays retro games rather than collecting them, which is why I do get annoyed by those folks who insist on only having “mint” games so they can seal them away in graded boxes never to be played. It feels like a waste to me, but it’s their money, and the one upside of this is that loose cartridge games still play just as well if you can find them. I managed to get about 40% of what I wanted from my wish list, which isn’t a bad strike rate, but it left me with a fair amount of allowable budget in hand. Bear in mind that was a retro gaming budget that was markedly higher than previous years, because I was prepared. Yes, I did spend more on individual titles than in years past, and I was ready for that.
So I made a judgement call and switched approaches, instead deciding to pick up a Japanese Saturn along the way. I’ve always rather liked that basic white model, and they’re not terribly expensive. Switching approaches meant even more flicking through CD spines, but also uncovered a wealth of Japanese-only titles at only a few hundred Yen each. Would they have been cheaper a few years ago? For sure, and equally I’m aware that it’s not actually that hard to either skip region coding, or modify saturns for CD-R “backup” purposes, but I have a nostalgic attachment to the real thing.
There’s also some risk with CD-based games purchases given the ease of scratching compared to cartridges, but I’m happy to say that everything from the highest priced game I bought (Bubble Symphonies, and I’m certain that anyone who knows me isn’t surprised by that) to the lowest priced (Nights, which at 47 Yen was an absolute steal, albeit a steal from a junk pile) all work fine. If I’d stuck to my “only games on the wish list” mentality, I wouldn’t have that fun ahead of me.
Retro Japan: Where to shop
There are those retro shops that get all the press, and those that are not-quite-as-well-known. I’m not certain that there’s that many unknowns these days, but anyway, here’s my take on them.
Super Potato: Everyone knows Super Potato, or at least knows of them in Akihabara (Map link), which is where you’ll find most retro tourists anyway. Their happiness to let you film or photograph anything almost certainly helps in this regard; I shot this wonky video of the store’s contents back in 2011 without issue, for example.
Super Potato catches flack for its high pricing, but this isn’t an absolute matter. Some of the cheapest games I’ve bought have been there. It’s a question of careful price checking, because while Super Potato is a general high watermark store, it’s not the absolute high watermark.
Rather like Skywalker children, though, while Super Potato in Akihabara is well known, there is another. I was staying in Ikebukuro, and there’s a Super Potato store there as well (Map link).
It’s much smaller in floor space than the Akihabara store, and a little trickier to find, but it’s packed floor to ceiling with games and is almost always quieter than the Akihabara location. Oddly, prices aren’t identical across stores, so if you’ve got the time for a little comparison shopping it’s well worth your time. Ikebukuro’s a lot of fun for general non-games time as well, which is important if you’re travelling with folks who don’t share your retro passion.
Mandarake: If you want the actual high watermark for retro gaming, Mandarake is your man. Erm. Shop, that is. In retro terms there’s the big complex store in Akihabara (Map link) a few blocks from Super Potato with an entire floor of retro goodies, or if you’re also doing a little anime cell shopping, the Mandarake Galaxy store on the second floor of Nakano Broadway (Map link) to consider.
The good thing about Mandarake is they do have a copy of just about anything. The bad news is that you’ll pay through the nose, back out again, and then through again via radical plastic surgery for just about anything. I had a fair amount of time to trawl Mandarake’s shelves (my better half is an anime enthusiast, so the stores in Nakano particularly are suited to our tastes) but only purchased a single, suspiciously cheap copy of Sonic Jam for the Saturn there. The copy right next to it was nine times the price. I can only assume my copy was implicit in some kind of grisly murder to warrant such a discount. They’re rare to non-existent in Mandarake.
Trader: Trader has multiple stores in Akihabara, but the retro-themed part of the empire is found on the corner of Chuo Dori on the second floor (Map link). It’s always been a decent place for bargains if you’re prepared to do a little digging, and especially if you’re willing to risk the junk piles.
I take the general view that most stuff I buy won’t be tested until I’m back home anyway so warranty considerations are a bit moot, but your tolerance may vary. Equally, your willingness to sift through multiple copies of Derby Stallion ’96 (what is it with that game, Japan?) to find better fare may differ. Trader was where I found, for example a shelf of fairly common Saturn games at 47 yen each, so you can still get bargains on quite playable games, albeit not actually rare ones.
Retro Game Camp/Dungeon: This was my first visit since Retro Game Camp expanded to two locations. There’s the established store (Map link), known for its high prices, and the newer “dungeon” location pretty much just across the road, where prices are much… the same. Sorry if I got your hopes up there.
The dungeon location at least is a little easier to browse with more space between shelves, but discounts beyond the junk bin are few and far between, and the junk bin is mostly filled with copies of Derby Stallion ’96. Again. Although to be fair, I did pick up the single cheapest title of my whole trip there; a copy of Super Kick-Off for 30 Yen. I’ve always been more of a Sensible Soccer guy, but at 30 yen (38.4 Australian cents at current exchange rates) it seemed like it was worth a punt.
Friends: Friends has long been my favourite Akihabara games store (Map link), partly because it’s mostly quiet — too many stores either entice you with too many loud retro titles at once, or they’re just plain overcrowded — and because it manages that all too rare trick of being a business that feels warm and inviting, even though it’s still just a business.
A longer walk up the road than most locations (and, somewhat alarming if you’re travelling with others and especially significant others, also now in a building that offers “erotic teen massage”), Friends has decent stock at slowly rising prices. They’re great for casual browsing and finding copies of slightly rarer titles that other stores sell quickly out of. My copy of Saturn Bomberman came from there this time around, for example.
Suragaya: Surugaya’s the new kid on the block in retro gaming terms. The range is excellent, and clearly the brand is expanding with multiple outlets in Akihabara alone, although rather like stores such as K-Books the accent is on specific interests per store.
The retro games store is hidden away on a back street near the Mandarake complex (Map link), and while it’s a good browse for rarities, again the prices are generally unexceptional, and sometimes alarming. I very nearly dropped a Ranma 1/2 MSX game there when I saw the asking price. My wallet is very happy I didn’t.
Beep: Beep is just next door to Suragaya’s retro store (Map link), and is mostly a retro Japanese PC games store, which means it’s a fascinating history trip if nothing else. Also, like Friends, it manages that rare trick of seeming more friendly and less mercantile than other stores, although floor space is very limited.
Retro console stuff isn’t a specialty but they do sell games at somewhat decent prices. Annoyingly for the non-Japanese reader when I was there the pricing in the sifting/junk boxes was rated with text to match against a chart, which is a bit on the exasperating side if you don’t read Japanese. Maybe I should learn.
Book-Off: Book-Off is part of a nationwide second-hand chain that deals in everything from retro gaming to clothing and, well, Books. Stores are generally named for the specific thing that they sell, but for retro buyers most -Off stores will often have a gaming section, especially any Book-Off store to speak of.
The big store in Akihabara certainly does (Map link), but it’s also got the general cachet of historically being the most expensive of the Book-Off stores in terms of retro across Tokyo. I say historically because that used to be true; clearly the Book-Off folks have, like the rest picked up on the general value of their goods and priced accordingly, because while I never missed the opportunity to duck into a Book-Off if I saw one (and they’re everywhere in Tokyo) for the most part prices were near identical and often higher than in the dedicated retro stores.
That’s a risky proposition for higher priced buys, although as with anything else a little digging can procure some bargains. A Book-Off in Yokohama (where I took a day trip) revealed some cheap Saturn games and decent low-priced common SFC titles if that’s your thing.