Take me down to Famicom City

Tokyo's game bars, where nostalgia flows as freely as the drinks...

As gamers who grew up with early games consoles become adults, gaming in public has exploded into all-new territory over the last couple of years. Forget sitting in your tiny apartment and playing online: Tokyo's thumb-twiddlers prefer to come together in game bars.

Opening in March last year, Famicom City occupies the fifth floor of a building in the shopping district of Shibuya (Tokyo's version of Oxford Circus) and caters to gamers with a retro itch that can't be scratched by their oh-so-modern Wii or DS.

Before the lift doors even open, visitors' ears are greeted by the nostalgic sound of coins being collected in the SNES classic Super Mario World, running not on the Wii compilation disc but a real old-school cartridge.


Famicom City has a swollen collection of consoles - NES (that's Famicom in Japan), SNES, Neo Geo, Sega Saturn, PlayStation and so on - and a library of roughly 600 games, stored behind the bar and listed in a menu like the ones you'd find at a karaoke booth. Choose your game and the staff will hook up the relevant console and peripheral for you.

You can then play as much as you like, swapping games or even consoles as your little heart desires, for a fixed hourly rate of around 1,280 (£9.50, although the lousy exchange rate makes it sound more expensive than it is), depending on the time of day. And get this: soft and alcoholic drinks are included in the price! Food is also available, so you can really make a night of it.

Dream date "Oh, great choice!" says bartender Yusuke Shimizu as we select Kirby's Dream Course, a SNES game from 1994 that has you putting the inflatable mascot around a psychedelic golf course. It's a Tuesday night, but Famicom City is already packed, meaning all the NES consoles have been bagged by other customers.

Not that we mind, as we switch over to another SNES title, Yoshi's Island, for some monster-munching platform action. The 16-bit SNES (known, logically, as the Super Famicom in Japan) was massively successful in Japan. "We thought about also getting a Sega Mega Drive, but it was never as popular here as it was in the west," says Shimizu.

The bar looks like, well, a bar. There's a counter with seats for four or five customers and three flat-screen TVs, perfect for solo gamers or couples on a playdate. There's also several screen-equipped booths of various sizes for groups of two to ten, where chic women and suited young salarymen can settle on sofas for extended sessions.

Classic NES carts grace arty picture frames and revolving jewellery displays dotted around the bar, while heavy-duty joysticks, Game Boy Color consoles and GameCube bongo drums line the higher shelves - all playable by request. Behind the bar - chaos.


Consoles and controllers clutter every shelf, and the staff duck as they pass from one end of the counter to the other, taking care not to obscure your view of the screen behind the bar, and stepping over and under cables. There's a crash as several consoles fall to the floor while in another corner an over-excited customer has spilled beer all over a NES.

But it all goes to prove how much sturdier and well-built those old consoles were: their chunky plastic casing and simple chipsets made them practically indestructible, so they're quite happy in here. It's not just Famicom City where you can get your sociable gaming fix.

The nearby Dogenzaka Cafe is another fully fledged bar that hosts themed game nights - Monster Hunter PSP team sessions are the most popular - while Shibuya Portable Game Space offers a nerdier vibe in a boxy space that recalls an internet cafe.

  1 2