All posts by Chris

Nintendo’s 1976 Toy ‘Beam Gun Duck Hunt’, With Spanish-Language Instructions

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In 1976, just before it got into the video game business, Nintendo released another toy in its famous “Beam Gun” series of electronic light-gun games. You might have heard the name before, because it was called Duck Hunt.

Yes, the famous NES game that came nearly a decade later was based on this toy, which projected duck-like light patterns on a wall that you could “shoot” with the Beam Gun. I have wanted one of these for a long time. There was always one in the Akihabara store Super Potato, but it wasn’t for sale. Once I came across a pair of these in the store Friends, but they were both busted and the guy wanted about $150 for the pair. I passed, worried about bringing such fragile things (they used a lightbulb!) home in my luggage. And I’ve regretted it ever since.

So recently I saw that one was up for open auction on eBay, from a seller in Venezuela. I won it, it came in today, and although the box is coming apart at the seams, the rest of it is beautiful, and I don’t think it’s ever been used:

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But here’s the crazy part: It came with a set of Spanish-language instructions. (In a true test of prioritizing preservation over collectible value, I took the staple out to scan these.)

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Much like the Rifle-Roulette set I posted about last year, this is proof that old Nintendo toys were, somehow, distributed outside of Japan and into the West. Now, I have no idea where this instruction sheet came from. The Rifle-Roulette English language instruction manual showed signs that it was produced in Japan, like the fact that it referred to battery types by their Japanese names, not their American ones. But this looks much more handmade, so it’s not likely that Nintendo made it.

But it’s really interesting to think that kids in South America were playing with Gunpei Yokoi’s Japanese toy designs a decade before the NES.

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Final Fantasy V, My New Book, Is Out Now

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I wrote a new book! It’s called Final Fantasy V, and it’s about the game Final Fantasy V, and a lot of other things besides: Like most books from the publisher Boss Fight books, this one blends history, criticism, and autobiography to discuss why a certain game is so important to a certain player (me, in this case).

You can buy it now at Boss Fight Books’ website (it’ll be coming to more retailers soon) in ebook and paperback, and read more about it on this page, where I’ll be adding more information now and then.

Making Japanese Curry Rice at Home From Bricks

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While my preferred method of eating Japanese curry, the world’s most perfect food, is to fly to Japan and have an expert make it for me, sometimes I make it at home. In all the times I’ve ever made curry, though, I’ve actually made it from scratch — like, scratch scratch — once. And that was mostly my wife doing that. The secret to making curry at home is to just use the curry bricks they sell in grocery stores, but to do it the right way, and then to jazz it up at the end with ingredients they’d never put on the directions on the box. That’s what I’m gonna show ya.

Look, if you want to make it from scratch, go ahead. Just prepare to spend all day doing it. There’s a reason even Iron Chef Morimoto says, in his cookbook, to just use the damn bricks. Their combination of flour, fat, and spices is already perfectly proportioned, and it takes out a lot of the need for precision and timing.

But brick curry tastes a lot like, well, brick curry — it can have a bitter aftertaste, it’s a little thin in terms of its flavor profile, and it’s just miles away from the best stuff you can have in Japan. I can’t make anything as good as the best Japanese stuff, but I can fake it, and so can you.

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The best bricks to start with are Vermont Curry. You may have to go to an Asian specialty store to get these, but you can also find them on Amazon pretty easily. This has a sweeter flavor (although it doesn’t exactly taste like honey-drenched apples as the box implies) than the others. And since I like sweet curry, this is a good place to start. (The procedure below will work with all bricks, but really, try to get Vermont.)

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Bad restaurants and many Japanese moms like to put gigantic chunks of barely-cooked vegetables into their curry. No thank you! If you like huge veggies in your curry, go for it, but these would be considered an optional topping at a Japanese curry joint, not an essential ingredient.

That said, we can add some rich flavors to our curry with some finely-diced veggies that we saute well in the pan first. (If you have a Le Creuset or other enameled cast iron Dutch oven, this is the time to let it shine.)

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Butter is a delicious condiment or just as a snack by itself. Use a bunch to saute the veggies! It’ll all just go into the sauce later and make it delicious.

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Don’t just “sweat” the onions and carrots. Really cook the crap out of ’em. If they start to brown too much on the bottom because your heat is too high, throw in some water to deglaze everything. Or hell, throw in some white wine. Might as well start building the flavors now!

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When everything is nice and mushy and brown, throw in some salt! Seasoning at every step is one of the things that home cooks often forget to do. My guests often comment on how good every little piece of onion tastes. It’s because they’re seasoned!

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Even if you’re going to have katsu curry or other toppings, you still want a nice fatty cut of meat in there, because the fat’s gonna render out and continue to make the curry delicious. This is a chuck steak that I cut into 1-inch cubes and browned in a frying pan. You can do this in the Dutch oven too, just throwing them in once the carrots and onions are done. I just, uh, forgot.

When the beef is brown on all sides, season it with a pinch of salt!

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To your carrots, onions, and meat, add the amount of water that the directions on the brick box say to. Should be 3 cups of water for a half-size, 6-brick box, or 6 cups for a full-size 12-brick box. I always make more curry than I think I need. On the incredibly rare chance that there are leftovers, it reheats beautifully.

Bring the water to a boil. And now…

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Brick time! Break ’em up and toss ’em in. Stir until they’re dissolved. Now simmer it for about 10 minutes, and watch as the pot of thin brown water magically thickens up into curry. Curry that looks like this:

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Now, the box says to just eat the curry as it is right now. And you could. And it would be… okay. Aftertaste-y. Somewhat satisfying. At this stage, try a spoonful and see what it tastes like, for comparison purposes later. Because we’re not stopping here. Note that there are many, many places you could go, but here’s where I’m gonna take you:

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Secret ingredient #1: Milk chocolate! I found out about this from a friend of a friend way back in the day, and I’ve never made curry without it since. In this case, I use one standard-size Hershey bar for a 12-brick package of curry. This doesn’t make it taste like you’re eating hot chocolate. What it does is round out the flavors, take away all that bitter aftertaste left by the bricks, and make it taste a bit more like the curry you’d get at a curry shop in Japan, many of which use chocolate in their recipes.

Melt it all in (it’ll take a bit longer than the bricks). Taste again. You’ll immediately get it.

Secret ingredient #2, which I didn’t take a picture of: Honey! As I said, I love my Japanese curry on the sweeter side, but there’s no sweetness in the bricks. You’ve got to add your own, and honey is a great way to do that. For a pot this size, I threw in 2 tablespoons. But again: taste, and try it, and maybe you’ll want more!

 

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Secret ingredient #3: Shredded cheddar! Now, cheese is a somewhat popular topping on Japanese curry in Japan — like, they’ll plate your curry, then throw some shredded cheese on top. Usually, this cheese wouldn’t be something with such a strong flavor as cheddar. That would overpower the taste of the curry. So they’d use something on the order of Monterey Jack — creamy and melty, but something that blends, not overpowers.

But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re melting this cheese into this curry. Do it a bit at a time, melting a pinch of it (as above) fully into the curry, then another couple of pinches. This will continue to add different flavors to the curry, while softening up the texture of the whole thing. Again, taste it after you add each pinch of cheese, and watch it transform bit by bit.

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Are we done now? Yeah, if you want to be. You’ll notice in the pic above that there are still some little flecks of unmelted cheese. This won’t be the case if you now do what I did, which was to transfer the whole pot into a slow cooker and leave it on Low for a couple hours prior to dinnertime. Everything will totally incorporate, the hanger-on bits of cheese will melt, and people will be very surprised when you tell them there’s a fistful of cheddar inside the pot, because this will be the best damn “homemade” Japanese curry they’ve ever had, guaranteed.

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(Final photo is terrible because we only had a little bit left after everyone was done voraciously eating it.)

Other potential secret ingredients: How about grating some apple into the curry? What about throwing in a cup of strong coffee to replace some of the water? Both of these are common bonus items that I didn’t use this time, but have tried in the past to great success.

A note on toppings: Of course, having the traditional pork or chicken katsu is always nice, although that doubles the complexity of your dinner plans since you have to bread and fry a bunch of cutlets. At least you can make the curry entirely ahead of time, get it into the slow cooker, and have it piping hot and ready to go as soon as the cutlets are done.

If you don’t want to bother with that, another good topping popular in Japan is gyoza, aka potstickers. You can buy frozen ones and they taste pretty good with not very much prep work needed, and they work great floating in curry.

Good luck!

My 2001 Review of Ico

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With this week’s release of The Last Guardian for PlayStation 4, the third game from the creators of Ico is finally available, after a very long wait. I’ve been writing for WIRED long enough to have reviewed both Last Guardian as well as the team’s previous game, 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus.

My review of Ico ran in Animerica magazine, the first outlet for which I did a substantial amount of work, in the year 2001. Since it’s not available elsewhere (and I don’t think was ever posted online in the first place), I wanted to reprint it here just as a look at my first stab at evaluating a game that would eventually become known as one of the all-time classic works of art in the medium of videogames. (Happy to say that I gave it four out of four stars in that issue.)


Some Japanese filmmakers of the 1920’s were proponents of something called the “Pure Film Movement.” They felt that the cinema of the time was too theatrical – that the movies themselves were like recorded plays – and that there should be more of an effort to do things with film that only film could do, and in that way advance the legitimacy of the medium. In that light, Sony’s Ico might very well be seen as the beginning of a “Pure Games Movement.” Ico sports very few of gaming’s artificial trappings – score counters, lives, vast menus, maps, lengthy text boxes full of dialogue, etc. Most of the time, the only things you see on screen are your characters and their environment.

The characters are Ico, a 12-year-old boy, and Yorda, a mysterious young girl. Ico has been imprisoned inside of an evil castle, and he must make his escape. But he can’t escape without Yorda’s help, and the evil queen of the castle is determined to make sure that neither of them leave. Ico – directly under your control – can move about the castle easily. Finding, or creating, a path for Yorda is the hard part. So in one sense, Ico is a traditional block-pushing, door-opening puzzle game, and in another sense it isn’t, because you never really feel like it is. Indeed, what you really feel like you’re doing is exploring a giant, sprawling castle.

This is thanks in part to Ico’s incredibly realistic 3D environments, so amazing not because of high polygon counts but because of sheer style, combined with a lighting system so gorgeous that it seems like you can just reach out and touch the sunlight. Music is minimal; mostly you hear the actual sounds of the environment. Ico and Yorda are cartoonish in appearance, but the character animation is key: their movements are so fluid and so human-like as to actually bring out their personalities: the awkward, impulsive Ico and the brave but hesitant Yorda.

All these factors combine to produce a level of emotional involvement with the characters like you’ve never felt before. Because the whole adventure is so real, you end up identifying with Ico and Yorda like you identify with your favorite characters from a book or movie – even more so, since you really are in control of their actions. Your actions end up reflecting your personality, or the personality you choose to give to Ico: you can drag Yorda around by the hand, or let her follow you independently. After a narrow escape, you might stand on a ledge with Yorda, simply holding her hand and looking at the scenery, just because.

As a game, Ico is neither challenging nor lengthy. The puzzles, while they do require a bit of thinking towards the end, are hardly stumpers. The entire game takes about eight hours from start to finish. Fighting the shadow-creatures that attempt to take Yorda is neither involved nor difficult. But none of this actually matters: running around the environments mostly unhindered by difficult puzzles just makes it more fun, and the fights are so well-placed and exciting that your heart rate really gets going. Having to save Yorda from the barrage of monsters makes you care for her even more.

In short, Ico is possibly the most memorable gaming experience I’ve ever had. It stays with you – even while writing this review I’ve found myself reminiscing fondly about my favorite scenes and wishing there was more. Ico deserves a lengthier critique than I’ve given it here, something on the level of a thesis paper or shot-by-shot analysis. Ico shows us what video games can accomplish, and I look forward to what future games it inspires. In the meantime, Ico is truly a must-own title.

New Books By Chris Kohler: Power-Up and Good Job, Brain!

Two new books, by me, are now available! Here’s the rundown:

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Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life

amazon buyMy first book, Power-Up, was originally published by BradyGames in 2004. Building off the research I did at Tufts University and a Fulbright scholarship to Japan, it’s an examination of Japanese video games from a variety of different angles. It explores the cinematic nature of games like Donkey Kong and Final Fantasy, and features in-depth, original interviews with industry luminaries like Shigeru Miyamoto, Fumito Ueda, Masaya Matsuura, Eiji Aonuma, and many more.

Power-Up went out of print many years ago and has been unavailable to purchase ever since, so I’m very excited that an all-new, updated for 2016 edition is available as of October 19, 2016 from Dover Publications. The new edition has a foreword from Shuhei Yoshida, the president of Sony’s worldwide game development studios and one of the key figures in the Japanese gaming industry. I’ve written a new essay about Akihabara, Japan’s gaming district. Finally, there’s a massive new chapter all about the life and work of Nintendo’s late president Satoru Iwata. There’s also a beautiful new cover by my friend Karen Chu.

Even if you own the original, I hope you’ll want this new definitive edition as well. (More information here on its own dedicated page.)

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Good Job, Brain: Trivia, Quizzes, and More Fun From the Popular Pub Quiz Podcast

amazon buyAlong with my friends Karen Chu, Colin Felton, and Dana Nelson, I’ve been co-hosting a pub trivia podcast called “Good Job, Brain!” for the last four years, and playing in a pub trivia league for the last eight. Along the way, we’ve collected a whole library of crazy-but-true stories, funny quizzes, tricky puzzles, and helpful tips for winning at your local trivia night.

The best of our work has now been collected into this massive trivia book, now available from Ulysses Press. Besides a greatest-hits collection of bits from the show, there’s plenty of new material, too. Especially for the book, I teamed up with my friend, five-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament winner Tyler Hinman, to create a devilish “cryptic crossword” guaranteed to test the brains of even experienced puzzle solvers.

Some of my other contributions to the book include a poem to help you memorize the Bill of Rights, a story about a ship full of garbage that sailed up and down the United States, and a quiz about the movie Troop Beverly Hills. Although most of my other work involves videogames, this is a 99% video game-free book, making it a perfect gift for any brainy person in your life. I’m sure you know one or two.

Japanese Curry: My Totally Not Comprehensive Guide

Photo: Michael Saechang (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo: Michael Saechang (CC BY-SA 2.0)

So, I’m kind of into Japanese curry. You may have seen that I was in the April issue of GQ Japan, eating curry. I wrote a story about my love for this most perfect of foods in 2008 in WIRED, and it was translated into Japanese and it went viral in Japan. It was a weird time.

With Japanese curry getting more popular in the U.S. as of late, I have to do a lot less to convince people that this strange dish is something they need to try, and more giving out recommendations for where to go. This gets a little trickier when friends go to Japan, because you can’t walk 50 feet without finding some totally new place that serves curry, and it’s usually pretty good, and maybe it’s mind-blowing I-will-never-enjoy-another-food-again good.

In other words, I could go live in Japan for 10 years and still not feel like I knew everything about the curry you can find there. But since I’m often asked about this, I’m writing down what I do know, to give you some kind of starting point.

Update, October 2, 2016: Having just returned from Tokyo, I bring news of more exciting curry options for you!

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Let’s get the real easy stuff out of the way first. It won’t be too long into your stay in Japan before you instantly begin to recognize the beautiful, gleaming yellow sign of Coco Ichibanya, the nation’s biggest curry chain. This is like the Subway of curry, in the sense that they’re everywhere in Japan. Cocoichi is very good, I eat there a few times every trip to Japan, it always adds some new twist on the curry (the latest as of this writing is letting you select the level of sweetness, not just spiciness). It’s better than almost any curry in America. But it’s not the only great curry in Japan!

Some CocoIchi restaurants now serve vegetarian curry, made without any animal products (so I think it also might be vegan?) — this is specifically in order to help serve their foreign customers who might not eat meat. The branch we found in Shibuya that had the vegetarian curry had a sign on the front door in English advertising it. So if you’re traveling with a vegetarian friend, you can still have curry! But not all branches have it.

Go Go Curry, about which I wrote for WIRED in 2008, is another chain that’s been expanding a lot lately. You’ll certainly see it if you spend time in Tokyo. Go Go is a certain regional variation of curry — Kanazawa curry, which is sweeter, darker, thicker, and has a few other distinguishing characteristics in the way it’s plated and served. I also eat here once or twice every Japan trip. It’s also not the best curry in Japan.

There are lots of other smaller chains, tiny shops in train stations, etc. that you’ll find everywhere. They’re OK! You’re probably not going to have a bad plate of curry in Japan.

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On this most recent trip to Japan (2016), I finally had Hinoya Curry (above). This is the shop that won the Curry Grand Prix in 2013. It is wonderful! I think this might be my current favorite of the quick-stop curry places — the sauce is sweet and tangy, with a nice complex flavor profile. The katsu is awesome, the balance of the plate is perfect. It has its own unique flavor. They will serve you a raw egg on top of the curry if you want, which works really well, but it’s entirely optional.

Similar to Hinoya, and also one I discovered on this trip, is Joto Curry. Like Hinoya, it’s sweeter, but rich and unique. There also happens to be an unmissable one right on the main street of Akihabara, although the Shibuya branch I visited had a much nicer decor. (They’re both tiny little bar-seating places, though.)

If you’ve had a lot of CocoIchi and Go Go Curry, I’d really recommend you seek out Hinoya and/or Joto on the next trip. I also love how both of them present the curry: They slice the tonkatsu in one direction, then make a big slice in half, so you have twelve small pieces instead of six long ones. This then goes on top of the rice, and curry goes all over the whole thing.

The Gourmet Stuff

It took me longer than I care to admit to learn this, but just like how Tokyo has its videogame district, its nightclub district, and its plastic-food district, so too does it have a curry district: Jinbōchō. This area of the city is better known as being the used and rare book district, but it’s also the hot spot for 欧風カレー. This means “European curry,” but make no mistake, it’s distinctly Japanese. But better. More expensive, but more delicious. The top shelf.

Two places in Jinbōchō you might want to try are Bondy and Persona. Bondy would be my personal pick for “best curry I’ve ever had in Japan.” In that issue of GQ Japan, there’s a place called Kitchen Nankai that I’ve never been to, but that looks amazing.

If you want to try some Jinbocho curry without actually having to go there, we found a great option on our last trip. There’s a small chain of curry stands called 東京カレー屋名店会, or “Club of Tokyo Famous Curry Diners.” They serve curries from five or more different gourmet Japanese curry places, including Japanese takes on Indian curry or dry keema curry, and you can order sampler plates of all five — curry flights! There’s one in Akihabara, in the “Atre” building, and it’s very convenient — it’ll be just to your right as you walk out the Electric Town exit.

Another place I fell in love with last time was called Moyan Curry — there are several, but we went to the one in Ikebukuro (conveniently, right across from the Super Potato retro game store). They actually had a curry buffet for lunch, if you can believe that. I ate a lot of curry that afternoon.

If you want to go even deeper into places I haven’t had the chance to try, Bento.com and this Japan Times story have lists of more upscale, historical, or just plain recommended curry places to get you outside of the Coco-Go Go rut.

Anyway, this is just a starting point, one I will update as I am able to try more places. Going to Japan on a curry binge is awesome. Have fun!

Nintendo’s “Rifle-Roulette”: Was the “Beam Gun” Sold in America?

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Nintendo of America was established in 1980 to sell Nintendo’s arcade games and Game & Watch handhelds in the U.S. But Nintendo products had been imported into the U.S. before that. This pre-NOA history is not well-documented. Nintendo was just one of many makers of inexpensive goods from East Asia that were sold in bargain stores and chintzy gift shops in the U.S., and nobody took much notice of this until recently. But you could definitely buy Nintendo-branded products here, particularly the “Roulette” board games it produced in the 1960s and 1970s. I have a Roulette board game with a price tag from the Circus Circus casino gift shop, and a smaller portable Roulette that’s been engraved with the name of a Las Vegas TV station — probably a promotional giveaway.

So I’ve tried to keep my eyes open for any Nintendo products with English packaging. “English” doesn’t mean “America,” of course; there’s a version of the classic Nintendo Ultra Hand toy that was apparently sold in Australia (the package art even features a kangaroo). But if I find something in English that seems like it’s been in someone’s attic in America for a really long time, that’s a clue that it might have been sold here in America.

Anyway: I can’t find any information online about this item I bought recently.

It’s Nintendo’s Kousenjuu (Beam Gun) SP, but it’s got stickers over the Japanese text on the packaging that read “Rifle-Roulette.” It’s in two pieces: the electronic roulette wheel itself (called “Electro-Roulette” in Japan) and the gun (called “Rifle”). These were sold separately in Japan — the rifle was actually the premium accessory, since you could also just buy a pistol-shaped gun that would work with the roulette wheel. Here, they were probably — probably — sold together. But who knows?

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Everything is in ratty condition, so bad that I wouldn’t have purchased it if it wasn’t the only example of this Anglicized version that I could find. The boxes are trashed, and the rifle itself is severely warped. But amazingly, the English-language instruction booklets for both the wheel and the rifle are still mostly intact. I say mostly because they are starting to disintegrate. Fortunately, I got them before they fell apart entirely, and I’ve scanned them in.

These are pretty fascinating to flip through. Note that both of the manuals actually had an additional warning (about not leaving batteries in a toy if you’re not using it) printed up on a mimeograph machine, and hand-pasted in to each book. These manuals were probably created by Nintendo in Japan — note that they refer to “UM-2” and “006P” batteries, which is how they refer to C batteries and 9-volt batteries, respectively. So there’s a hand-written note in pencil in both books, maybe written in once the games got to America, to use “C” cell batteries.

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The Beam Gun was a huge hit in Japan for Nintendo, and of incredible historical significance: It was Nintendo’s first collaboration with Sharp, which to this day is its close hardware partner. Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi worked with Sharp’s Masayuki Uemura on the Beam Gun, and Uemura eventually moved over to work for Nintendo, becoming the principal designer of the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Until I saw this, I hadn’t seen any examples of a Beam Gun product in English.

The fact that the manual was probably made in Japan, and thus possibly by Nintendo, is a bit of evidence that we are looking at an official product made by Nintendo for export, rather than a U.S. importer buying Japanese stock and making their own ersatz English version by swapping out the manuals. But it’s not proof, either.

I’m mostly posting this because, as I said, I cannot find any other examples of this on the Internet. I’d love to hear from anyone who has encountered this as well, or any similar situation in which a Japanese pre-NES toy was stickered over with English or given an English manual. This shows, I think, that there are still things to be discovered—or at least documented!—about Nintendo’s early history outside Japan.

Retro Game Shopping In Japan

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Where do I go to buy old games in Japan?

I get this a lot. Don’t get me wrong; I love when people ask me this because I love talking about buying games in Japan because it’s the next best thing to actually doing it, which I don’t get to very often. 2016 marks my 15th year of shopping in Akihabara, and I wrote a guide very much like this in 2001 when I started.

Anyway. When somebody asks me where to buy games I usually end up writing them a long email or Facebook post or something. The idea here is that I can just link them to this page, at least for starters. Odds are you are here because you’re going to Japan soon and I linked you here. Hi.

In 2016, it is harder now than it has ever been to find old games in Japan. All available evidence points to the rise of Internet sales and the exploding popularity of videogame collecting. Collectors around the world are starting to desire Japanese games more and more, and once the games flow out of Japan, it’s less likely that they’d flow back in. I wrote about the disappearance of games in Akihabara in 2015 and boy were people mad! Because the Internet. But specifically because they thought I was ignoring the fact that you can find games outside Akihabara, and you can find anything if you’re patient enough. Well, sure you can! But that doesn’t help you when you’re on a one-week trip to Tokyo and only going to Akihabara for half of one of those days.

Point being, I don’t want or need to write a guide to shopping in Japan for people living in Japan. If you live in Japan, that’s awesome; feel free to drive out to tiny shops out in the boonies and then you can write a blog post that maybe I will read someday. The questions I get asked are exclusively from people who are short on time and opportunity. Where do I go?

Well, of course you go to Akihabara. But the classic games there have been compressed down into just a few stores, so you don’t really have to go poking your head in every single storefront looking for them. I’ll tell you what those are (as of January 2016). If you’ve got a very specific shopping list, go to Akihabara and knock them off one by one. I often do. But I also bargain-hunt, and fill my suitcase with things I didn’t think I was going to buy but found amazing deals on. And so I’ll show you where to go treasure-hunting, too, outside Akihabara but still within Tokyo city.

UPDATE, September 21, 2016: Updated the Akihabara section, after my most recent trip to Tokyo Game Show this month. All in all, Akihabara in 2016 was fairly disappointing: The stores were full of games again, but wow, the prices had exploded. I bought less on this trip than I ever have in all my years of Akihabara shopping. The good news is that more stores have opened and there’s been a new emphasis on classic Japanese PC software, which I have never seen much of in Akihabara stores before.

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Japan’s “electric town” turned “nerd mecca” is home to many of the most amazing videogame stores in the entire world. Until recently you could assume that at least one copy of every ultra-rare Japanese game ever made could be found here on any given day, at one store or another. It’s still the densest collection of rare shit on Earth, but now it’s more a 90 percent chance of finding [game], not 100.

So this is where you go when you have a specific punch list. It used to be the case that there would be Famicom games around every corner, but by and large they’re now all concentrated into 6 stores: Super Potato, Mandarake Complex, Trader, Friends, Retro Game Camp, and Surugaya. There are another two stores I’d recommend you check out as well: Kaden no Ken-chan, and Beep.

Super Potato: I have a theory as to why Super Potato (map) is so well-known. Most Japanese game stores (or stores in general) stop you if you try to take any photographs whatsoever of anything. Not Super Potato! They’d let us go in there and film entire episodes of Retronauts. Well, of course they’d become the most popular store in the world. This is full of all kinds of classic games and hardware. They also have large collections of rare classic strategy guides and music CDs.

Mandarake Complex: Just up the road from Super Potato is this massive black monolith of a building with eight floors of nerd heaven (map). Take the elevator to the 6th floor and you’re in a videogame store as solid as Super Potato. Lots of rare stuff in the glass showcases, lots of not-for-sale museum items to gawk at, and actually fairly good prices on some games. Don’t forget to go in here even though you can’t see it from the street.

Trader: My first stop on any Akihabara trip. There are three (or more?) Trader branches in Akihabara, but you want the really big one that’s on the main Chuo-doori street (map). Used current- and last-gen games at great prices on the first floor, retro just up the stairs. There’s a JUNK section in the corner where you can actually find some great bargains at deep discounts, but they’re on clearance and you can’t return them. (I’ve never had anything not work.)

Friends: Everyone’s favorite Akihabara store. A true Mom and Pop shop (Mom runs the downstairs counter), Friends (map) usually has a big ol’ pile of rare games in their showcases too, and often have the best prices of anywhere. It’s hard to find – there’s a little tiny door you go in, right next to a coffee shop called Segafredo – but really, you do not want to miss it. (Cash only!)

Retro Game Camp: Easy to spot on the main street (map), but high prices. I don’t think I’ve bought very much at Retro Game Camp, ever. Possibly at all. But they might have that thing you want if no one else does. Because – I stress this – high prices. Retro Game Camp has been so successful that it opened a second location, Retro Game Camp Dungeon (map), in a basement store immediately across the street from the main branch. Different games, same prices.

Surugaya: The new kid on the block, Surugaya (map) just opened up its Akihabara store in 2016. It’s a tiny little shop jam-packed floor to ceiling with narrow aisles overflowing with classic games of every kind. Intellivision? They’ve got it. Old Japanese PC software? A big ol’ shelf, and that’s not counting the MSX, which has its own rack across the way. One more store to price-compare at is great news.

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These stores are where most of the games are, but there are more places you should also check if you’re in Akihabara.

Beep: Hard to find unless you know where you’re going (map), Beep specializes in classic Japanese PC software and hardware. If you’re looking to window-shop some amazing stuff, come here to see computer platforms you’ve never heard of, up and running in demo mode. Plus, many glass showcases full to bursting with weird old PC games you’ve never seen in person before and may never again. But Beep also has a couple of aisles full of console stuff, and since it’s not their specialty, sometimes their prices are better (but not always). It’s right next door to Surugaya.

Kaden no Ken-chan: Located on the first floor of the Tokyo Radio Department Store building (map) this is a little tiny stall packed full of games from all over the world. Prices are hit and miss, but sometimes you will hit! I found a rare U.S. Game Gear game there very cheaply, and he’s got lots of cheap junk items as well. If you’re seriously shopping, make sure to go here to price-check.

Now, when I go to Akihabara, I’m usually pretty jet-lagged which means that I get up super early in the morning. The first store that opens up, at 9:30 a.m., is Yodobashi-Akiba, the giant multi-level shopping complex by the train station. So I head in there and kill half an hour; they have substantially discounted prices on brand new software, accessories, toys, and such. At 10, I head over to Book-Off (map) also near the station. This chain of used book stores always (well, mostly always) has old videogames for sale, too. There’s also a Hard-Off in Akihabara (map) with games, but again, not at major deal prices anymore.

You might find a few other retro games here and there, often in shops that mostly sell porn. Your choice as to whether you want to bother looking.

Oh, by the way? There’s an on-again, off-again flea market that sometimes sets up in Akihabara. Definitely check Mottainai out to see if you’ll be there while it’s going on, because then you will definitely find some good deals on totally random games. (And you can haggle!)

Elsewhere in Tokyo

There’s Akihabara and there’s everywhere else. In general, here’s what to do: Keep an eye out for Book-Off. If you pass by one, go in. If you have a phone, check to see if there’s one near wherever you’re bumming around. The odds that you’ll find precisely what you’re looking for are low, but you might discover a treasure trove of uncommon old games at rock-bottom prices. In 2015, I did just that at random Book-Off stores in Tokyo. In 2016, they had all increased their prices, and I found no more amazing deals.

Here’s some specifics about other places in Japan.

Ikebukuro: Fast becoming another nerdy focal point in Tokyo, Ikebukuro actually has Tokyo’s second Super Potato store, and since it was less picked-over I found lots more stuff there that I was looking for. (There’s also a ridiculously good all-you-can-eat curry spot right across the street, incidentally.) Close to there is a giant Book-Off that had some rare games at slightly-less-than-top-dollar prices but also a whole section of cheap stuff.

Shibuya: The bottom floor of the Tsutaya across the big crosswalk from the station does carry retro games, although not that many. Up the hill is a Mandarake, which you’ll probably want to stop at even though it doesn’t have games anymore. But there’s also Yahoo-Off (map), which is a giant Book-Off (there’s some marketing tie-up with Yahoo! going on that I still don’t quite understand) that had great deals on old stuff.

Shinjuku: Nothin’ but a Book-Off, although one that I’ve gotten good deals at in the past.

Nakano: This is the home of Nakano Broadway, a multilevel ubergeek shopping complex filled with tons of stores selling all manner of nerd items. In here is Mandarake Galaxy, which is in the running for The Best Game Store Ever – like Mandarake Complex in Akihabara I’ve found the prices to be surprisingly reasonable on the rare stuff sometimes. There’s another game store in here somewhere too, and one called Big Mario that you’ll encounter on the walk from the station to Broadway. Neither are that great, but you won’t ever see me not investigate a store that sells old games, just in case!

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Outside of Tokyo

This is where my knowledge, especially these days, is a little fuzzy.

Osaka: If you are going to go to Osaka and Tokyo during the same trip, you might want to consider that the shops in Den Den Town, Osaka’s version of Akihabara, can sometimes have much cheaper prices for hard-to-find games. The best is Game Tanteidan (map) near Ebisu-cho station. There’s a Super Potato close by (in fact, there are many of them in Osaka). Osaka has two Mandarake stores, and last time I was there (which was a few years ago now) both had lots of old games. I’ve now heard that a chain of stores called Ojamakan is a great place for bargains, although I’ve never been to one.

Kyoto: Oddly, the home of Nintendo is kinda dead as far as retro game shopping goes. Apparently there’s a branch of a chain called A-Too in the Teramachi covered shopping street downtown, and there is an Ojamakan south of the city, but… I wouldn’t spend my time in Kyoto going game shopping, not when Den Den Town is just an hour’s train ride away.

Nagoya: Never been, but it has a Mandarake and a Super Potato. Apparently the Osu district is their Akihabara. Again: never been!

In Closing

 

I think people ask me where to buy retro games in Japan because they see all the games I buy and the good deals I get and assume there must be some Big Secret that I can let them in on. Honestly it is because I just spend way too damn much of my free time in Japan looking for old videogames. It’s less about knowing exactly where to go than it is about going to all of the places multiple times and being very thorough.

If that’s not your plan, and because you are not crazy I assume that it is not, ask yourself what your goals are. If you have a list of rare games that you want to buy, go to Akihabara’s big shops and grab them. You may find rare game in a Book-Off for five bucks but odds are it won’t be the specific one you want. If you just want to bargain hunt and hope for any kind of big score, you’re more likely to find it by hitting up Book-Off and other used-media stores in other districts, which you can do as you’re traveling around Tokyo to do other things. And if you just want to window shop, go to Super Potato like everybody else.

Here is an actual tracking report from a package I don’t have yet

It’s in reverse chronological order. Read from the bottom. Be amazed at the extensive multi-city vacation this package has been on.

The seller now has this package back in hand and is going to resend it tomorrow. Apparently.

Heckuva job, USPS.

Sorting Complete

Sep-17-12, 07:09 AM, LONG BEACH, CA 90804

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-16-12, 22:34 PM, LONG BEACH, CA 90809

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-15-12, 16:54 PM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94188

Missent

Sep-14-12, 10:01 AM

Depart USPS Sort Facility

Sep-14-12, 00:00 AM, RICHMOND, CA 94804

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-13-12, 16:17 PM, RICHMOND, CA 94804

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-12-12, 15:48 PM, LONG BEACH, CA 90809

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-12-12, 03:48 AM, LONG BEACH, CA 90809

Depart USPS Sort Facility

Sep-12-12, 00:00 AM, LONG BEACH, CA 90809

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-09-12, 18:15 PM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94188

Sorting Complete

Sep-05-12, 09:16 AM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94105

Undeliverable as Addressed

Sep-05-12, 09:05 AM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94103

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-05-12, 01:34 AM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94188

Depart USPS Sort Facility

Sep-05-12, 00:00 AM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94188

Missent

Sep-04-12, 10:30 AM

Out for Delivery

Sep-04-12, 08:36 AM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94110

Sorting Complete

Sep-04-12, 08:26 AM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94110

Arrival at Post Office

Sep-03-12, 13:06 PM, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94110

Processed through USPS Sort Facility

Sep-01-12, 19:08 PM, RICHMOND, CA 94804

Dispatched to Sort Facility

Aug-31-12, 18:01 PM, LONG BEACH, CA 90804

Acceptance

Aug-31-12, 10:32 AM, LONG BEACH, CA 90804

One Time, John Cena Freestyled a Kobun Heat Rap

It is May, 2004. I’m at my third E3. THQ is doing some kind of WWE videogame, as it often likes to do. I land interviews with a couple of its big stars, including John Cena.

Remember, we’re in 2004. So this is not John Cena, Incredibly Popular WWE Champion and Movie Star. This is John Cena, Relatively New Guy Who Likes to Rap and Wear Videogame Clothes to the Ring.

Cena’s star was definitely on the rise, but he’s a year away from the championship belt and thus has to sit in a tiny rooms on the E3 show floor and do an interview with some stupid doofus journalist. Carrying my official Kobun Heat-branded messenger bag and wearing a Donkey Kong shirt, I ask him about his love for old videogames, etc.

Finally, I ask: You freestyle really well. Could you do something on the topic of, say, Kobun Heat?

He could, as it happened.

Continue reading One Time, John Cena Freestyled a Kobun Heat Rap