I was never really big into arcade games. Being a 1983 child, by the time I was in my prime arcade going teens, the UK coin-op scene was limping along into death, as the technical advantage dedicated cabs had over home consoles was all but eliminated by the polygon pushing power of Playstation and the 2D sprite supremacy of Sega’s Saturn. Yet while arcades faded away completely in the West, I’d always read about the continuing popularity of the arcade sector in Japan, where the social experience of crowding around an arcade machine was still a thing.

Game centres were in the midst of a change by the time I arrived in Japan in 2005. Where western arcades never really adapted to the challenge faced by console competition, they survived and thrived here (and still do, for the time being) by changing focus. Dingy rows of old school fighting games were out, and in their place, brightly lit and well furnished spaces with purikura photo booths and mechanical UFO catchers appealing to youngsters by providing old school fun, but fun that couldn’t be replicated at home. The classic games were moved upstairs and into corners; buoying their flagging intakes were lavish setups that relied on users buying and trading in expensive cards for use in AR gameplay; titles like Sega’s World Club Champion Football were supporting the arcade industry in a significant way, while the everlasting (and frankly ever confusing) popularity of Pachinko would help make up the rest of the difference.

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Cross pollinating with Pachinko companies was a means for classic arcade figures to survive, but had mixed results; SNK’s acquisition by slot machine giant Aruze was an absolute disaster for the company, with Aruze intent on castrating the once proud maker of the likes of King of Fighters and Metal Slug; eventually a coup by original founder Erikichi Kawasaki and his new company Playmore lead to the SNK name and IP being saved. For Sega meanwhile, merging with Sammy saved the firm from the brink of extinction, but lead to a steady withdrawal from the arcade market (WCCF excepted). By the time I arrived here eight years ago, there was little reason to be into arcade games; the classic cabinets of yore being increasingly marginalised.

Yet there were a few shining beacons that kept the old arcade spirit alive, and Kaikan Monaco was one of them. Located in the heart of Shibuya, just opposite the iconic 109 department store, Monaco was an institution since the Space Invaders boom of the ’70s. Even as the rest of the industry shifted around it, Monaco was steadfast in its approach to bringing classic arcade style gaming. A recent stroll through its floors for me saw rows of cabs, some new, most old, and most at the low, low price of 50 Yen per play. Its sign welcoming you in is old school garish neon, warning signs prohibiting outside food and tobacco and cautioning against pickpockets unchanged in decades. Upholstery, paint, flooring? Unnecessary. This, as Reggie Fils-Aime might put it, was a place you came to Play. The. Game.

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Yet the Monaco of 2013 was an anemic shadow of what it was in its prime. Once busy and crammed wall to wall with cabinets, numbers have consistently dwindled to nothing, and at the time of this writing, in two days (Sunday, August 18th) Monaco will finally close its doors.’It’s been a long, slow death, and has been a shadow of itself for quite a while now’, Jean Snow, co-author of Arcade Mania: The Turbo Charged World Of Japan’s Game Centers, remarked on Twitter. ‘The Monaco you see now is already quite different from the Monaco in the (2008) book’. ┬áIndeed, my visit was to a depressingly sparsely populated place. Admittedly lunch time on a weekday might not be the busiest, but one guy on an SF2 cab, a couple of teenage girls on DDR, and a middle-aged salaryman unnaturally adept at Konami’s rhythm actioner Jubeat was the extent of the crowd.

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A simple short goodbye is posted in the arcades, reading:

Thank you for your use of Shibuya Kaikan Monaco. For various reasons, our shop will be closed on August 18, 2013.

Thank you very much for your patronage over the length of more than 35 years from Space Invaders on.

Deep thanks to all our employees, and best of luck in the future.

It’s painful to have to close our business after so many years of service. We’ll do our best until August 18th.

Thank you very much.

Shibuya Kaikan Monaco Staff

Where does Monaco’s closure leave the arcade scene? Game centres in general will continue to exist for a while yet, but it’s indicative of the traditional arcade game all but finally dying. The amusement industry at large though, faces another threat, this time from smart phones. Arcade games are home to the very first microtransactions, it can be argued, and free to play mobile titles are now encroaching on coin-ops’ territory, with the likes of Sega’s trading card based WCCF title under threat from similar, but much cheaper to make social games. There are already signs sprouting up in Tokyo game centres prohibiting smart phone usage, and likening a quick go at Puzzle & Dragons in the arcade to bringing outside food into a restaurant. Arguably the original social gaming experience is now being squeezed out by a much less communicative one, and that can only be a shame.

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Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)