One day, on my way past the outskirts of KabukichÅ â Tokyoâs red-light district, infamously depicted in the Yakuza games â I spot a curious advertisement. At first glance, it looks like nothing out of the ordinary: a woman cheerfully donning a VR headset, with kanji lettering welcoming passersby to come in and try the technology for themselves. As my eyes wander to the logo in the corner, I realise that the poster is promoting Soft On Demand â one of Japanâs biggest porn, or âAVâ (adult video), companies. Iâm staring at a billboard for a virtual brothel.
A stoneâs throw away is Bandai Namcoâs massive VR Zone complex, an indoor, 38,000 sq ft all-VR theme park that opened just over a year ago. And further south, on the artificial island of Odaiba, Sega recently cleared out a massive room in its Joypolis amusement park to make space for Zero Latency VR, a âwarehouse scale, free-roam, multiplayer virtual reality entertainmentâ where a team of zombie hunters are equipped with âmilitary-gradeâ motion-tracking backpacks and let loose on the undead with an arsenal of plastic firearms.
In the west, a couple of years after the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets became available to the public, VR hype is fast evaporating. Rather than setting the standard for interactive entertainment, the technology has remained a novelty â despite the backing of companies such as Facebook and Sony (whose Playstation VR headset, though relatively successful, has been adopted by just under 3% of PlayStation 4 owners).
In Japan, on the other hand, the hype only started building after 2016. With interest in consumer headsets nonexistent, âthe VR pioneers shifted their focus to applying the tech on a different target group, and under a totally different business modelâ, says Serkan Toto, CEO of the Tokyo-based analyst firm Kantan Games. In other words: they put all those leftover headsets to use in Japanâs âgame centresâ instead.
When I visit Sega Joypolis on a weekday, thereâs barely enough people lined up to fill the eight player slots, but the simulation is impressive enough to turn anyone into a VR evangelist. Before weâre shepherded into the cavernous Zero Latency area, one of my Japanese teammates mentions he has little interest in games that donât predate the 1986 Famicom. Afterward, he breathlessly announces his intention to buy a PlayStation VR headset.
âWhat arcades are trying is to make VR social,â says Toto. âThe goal is to get in multiple customers at once: couples, or a group of friends.â
With Japanâs arcade market in sharp decline due to increasingly powerful home consoles â the number of game centres has dwindled from 44,000 to 14,000 in the past three decades â VR doesnât represent a futuristic new paradigm as much as a return to the industryâs roots. The first Japanese arcades were offshoots of the full-blown amusement parks that used to be located in (or on top of) big department stores back in the 1940s and 50s. Itâs no coincidence that one of the most successful arcade games in recent memory, the robot combat sim KidÅ Senshi Gundam: SenjÅ no Kizuna, with its cockpit-style controls and massive âpanoramic optical displayâ, is more theme park attraction than video game. It is impossible to replicate in an ordinary Japanese living room.
Daisuke Watanabe, a gaming historian at Tokyoâs Meiji University (and one of my co-pilots in the VR Zone Evangelion simulator), traces the roots of todayâs VR arcades to the taikan (âphysical feedbackâ) games of the 80s, such as Hang-On and Afterburner, which would place you in the seat of a replica motorcycle or fighter jet. In his view, VR Zone and its ilk are not designed for profit but rather to showcase VR and eventually turn the games into literal money machines for regular arcades.
Japanâs gradual adoption of VR has given developers time to come up with some impressive technological solutions. Visiting VR Zone, for example, is nothing like plodding through a VR game on your sofa. Instead youâre strapped into a series of increasingly complex machines; one has you lying on your back, twisting, turning and rumbling, as youâre piloting a mech from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Mario Kart VR puts you in a skeletal go-kart frame that mimics your in-game movements and even uses a wind machine to simulate speed. Others, however, feel more like flimsy tech demos, such as the aptly named Segway simulator Jungle of Despair.
Judging by these early attempts, itâs difficult to tell whether VR is indeed the long-term fix the arcade behemoths have been looking for. Shinjukuâs VR Zone â recently outfitted with âfield activitiesâ on the same scale as Joypolisâ Zero Latency â is intended to be the blueprint for more than 20 locations worldwide and âthe flagship of next-generation entertainmentâ. Meanwhile, Adores hails its VR Park â which Watanabe considers the âsymbol of profitable VR arcade game marketâ â as a success that will ârevolutioniseâ the industry.
And if this gamble doesnât pay off in the long run, the arcades can always sell their arsenal of VR equipment to Soft On Demand. When âadult VRâ was first demonstrated in Akihabara two years ago, the event was so crowded the organisers called it off for fear of a riot. Clearly, virtual reality has already found at least one home.