Akihabara still shows off Japan’s love for physical media

If you are a video game collector, you have dreamed of visiting Akihabara or have already gone there. To be honest, Tokyo’s electrical mecca isn’t what it once was; It used to be the best place in the world to look for rare releases, but that was before the internet trivialized buying used games. Akiba (as it is commonly known) has moved with the trends over time and usually doesn’t offer the same value or exclusivity as it once did. You’re much less likely to successfully dig through the crates for your personal holy grail, let alone find it for a reasonable price.

But when you take a step back, Akiba’s place in the world feels more valuable than ever. While brick-and-mortar game stores in the West are now mostly associated with meme stocks and Funko Pops, Akiba holds its own as a sizable neighborhood in the world’s largest megalopolis, where you can reliably go shopping for both old and new video games.

In 2012 I wrote further The edge about how Japan was out of step with the rest of the world when it came to media consumption. At the time, I was describing a country that still had few digital media options beyond the widespread use of DVRs to record television broadcasts. Music and video streaming had yet to make a serious mark; CD and DVD rental chain Tsutaya remained ubiquitous. That has all changed. Spotify and Netflix are as prevalent as anywhere, while Tsutaya has closed more than 500 stores in the past five years, according to the business magazine Toyo Keizai.

Video games, however, are a different story.

“Compared to other markets, it seems that Japan is still absolutely into physical games,” said Serkan Toto of Kantan Games, a veteran watcher of the Japanese industry, pointing to the latest research from the Japan Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association (CESA ). CESA found that physical games accounted for about 70 percent of total sales in Japan in 2022, including 65 percent of PlayStation 5 games and 77 percent of Switch releases. By comparison, Sony says 70 percent of all PS4 and PS5 game sales worldwide in 2022 were digital.

Of course, it’s not just Akihabara. Physical video game stores can be found all over Japan, from large chains like Book Off to small family-owned stores. People in Osaka will tell you how much better their own local Den-Den Town district is than Akiba for retro games these days. (As a former Osaka resident, I’m inclined to agree.)

“People here in Japan are still used to going to stores and buying physical items,” says John Ricciardi, who runs the Tokyo game localization company 8-4 and now SuperDeluxe, a new publisher of physical games for the Japanese market. SuperDeluxe is a joint venture between 8-4 and Limited Run Games, known for selling special edition physical games in the West.

One reason for starting SuperDeluxe as a separate publisher was the viability of the retail market in Japan. “We immediately knew that we had to involve the retail sector to keep that big stick behind the door,” says Ricciardi. “Every game we make is available at retail and on our site from day one.”

So far, SuperDeluxe has released physical versions of classics such as Radiant Silver Gundeep cuts such as Gimmick!, and recent indie hits such as Unpack. The catalog ranges from extensive special editions to more standard editions, although these also benefit from greater attention to detail; for example, there is always a complete printed manual. “We want people to have the opposite experience [of regular physical releases]like you open it and [go]’Oh my God, there’s a manual in there, people don’t do that anymore,'” Ricciardi says.

“It’s just easier to achieve these things in Japan.”

Retail sales data from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu shows that the PlayStation 5 with disc drive outsold the cheaper digital model in Japan by more than 6 to 1. The supply of both PS5 models was limited for a while after launch, but FamitsuThe latest weekly data shows a ratio of almost 3 to 1 in favor of the disc drive version. That’s even after Sony revamped the PS5 design to allow for the addition of a disc drive after purchase.

The Nintendo Switch is obviously the dominant platform in Japan, and every version of the console comes with a physical card slot. Nintendo doesn’t provide regional breakdowns for digital and physical sales data, but its latest earnings report says digital represents about 51 percent of total sales, well behind CESA’s 77 percent figure for Japan in 2022.

The digital-only Xbox Series S has now slightly surpassed the Series X, but the Xbox platform is so niche in Japan that the physical gaming market is almost non-existent.

“I think this is also the case in Japan, but at a much slower level,” says Ricciardi of the global trend towards digital. “Physical is still strong here, and there’s still value in releasing your game on the first physical day, even if you’re playing an indie game. Because people generally just start buying things.”

Unless you’re looking for Xbox titles, physical games are still easy to buy in Japanese cities. Even if you’re in a rural area, you can generally expect fast shipping on the day of release, thanks to Japan’s relatively small size and high population density. (Amazon and other retailers do comment on remote areas such as Okinawa and certain other isolated islands.)

“I’m not a prophet or anything, but I believe physical media will have a longer life here for the same reason I think magazines do, which is that anyone can step out of their house and walk five feet. [to buy one],” says Ricciardi. “It’s just easier to achieve these things in Japan.”

But even if you live within easy reach of a game store, there’s still nothing like Akihabara. Its sheer size puts it above any comparable electronics district in the world, with everything from major retailers in multi-story towers to small independent component sellers located beneath the train tracks.

It’s changed over the years, that’s for sure. Iconic stores like Super Potato have had their shelves cleared of coveted stock, while beloved mainstays like Game Hollywood and Tokiwa Musen have disappeared altogether. The rise of maid cafes in the early 2000s was shortly followed by the arrival of the previously dominant J-pop idol group AKB48, a handful of members of which would perform daily from 2005 onwards at a theater on Akihabara’s main strip. The district’s identity became less focused on video games at a time when the Japanese industry was facing challenges.

“You would have a checklist of about ten different places you wanted to go in a day. You spent the whole day there.”

However, Akihabara existed as an electronics market before video games even existed, and the neighborhood simply continues to change with the times. A few years ago, the AKB48 theater sign was replaced with advertisements for the Chinese game Genshin impactwhich would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. Genshin marketing is still everywhere in Akihabara, as is promotion for Apex Legendswhich has taken off in Japan like no other Western first-person shooter before it.

The recent rise of PC gaming in Japan is another trend that has changed the makeup of the neighborhood. High-end hardware boutiques would entice customers with VR demos, although that has died out a bit late. You can find custom mechanical keyboard studios, and on a recent visit I saw a new store dedicated entirely to PC handhelds. These companies could not have existed before, but today they strengthen Akihabara’s gaming culture despite not selling physical games.

“When we came back, we would take an extra suitcase with us to go shopping,” says Ricciardi, who first came to Japan in 1997 when he worked for Monthly electronic gaming. “And it wasn’t to resell things, but just because, oh my God, I could finally get my hands on all those things I read about in magazines as a kid. It was affordable and it was everywhere because there were shops all over Akihabara. You would have a checklist of about 10 different places you wanted to go in a day. You spent the whole day there.”

Those days are over. There are still great retro game stores in Akihabara – Beep is a perennial favorite – but this is no longer normally the best place to buy games. Mercari, a hugely popular Japanese startup that has developed a kind of mobile-first eBay, is now the first port of call for buying or selling retro games for almost everyone I know.

As far as more recent used games go, Akihabara is still a good place to get a deal. “It’s very, very easy to sell used games in Japan,” says Toto. “Not only online as everywhere in the world, but also just by walking into one of the many, many second-hand stores we have in this country.” It might not be as romantic as finding a long-out-of-print Sega Saturn game, but hey, you can still save a few thousand yen on a copy of Final Fantasy XVI.

Regardless of what you want to buy, Akihabara is a testament to the survival of physical media in Japan. You have gigantic, towering stores like Bic Camera and Sofmap, devoting every floor space to physical software that a GameStop could only dream of. And they are surrounded by streets and alleys dedicated to different aspects of gaming culture.

“I believe the shift to digital will continue even in Japan in the near future [few] years, albeit at a smaller pace compared to other countries,” says Toto. I agree that it seems inevitable in the end. But in Japan, the wind usually blows slower, even when you know which direction it is going. If you value the preservation of physical games, there may still be no better place in the world right now than Akihabara.

Photography by Sam Byford for The Verge

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