Japan is often held up as a retro game buyer’s dream, with bargains to be found lurking in every corner. That certainly used to be true, but the reality in 2023 is… well, it’s complex.
In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish. Or in this case, something slightly different. Hey, it’s my format, I can do with it as I like!
I’ve said it many times before, but I never actually set out to be a retro games collector. It just sort of happened because I kept stuff rather than trading it in or throwing it away.
Moreover, I don’t like to think of myself as a “collector”, because these days that’s often conflated with the kinds of speculators that like to try to drive game prices up into the million dollar range.
I guess that’s capitalism for you, but don’t try to argue with me that those folks care a whit about classic gaming; all they see when a classic game box comes into view are dollar signs.
Still, I have a games collection, and I do like playing actual legit copies of games. Over the years one of the ways I’ve supplemented that collection significantly is with the purchase of Japanese retro games. Why Japan?
Basically because there’s much longer been a culture there of second-hand use, recycling and keeping items in good condition just because it’s a smarter thing to do. So while many copies of games (especially in those iffy cheap cardboard boxes Nintendo used to love) in the Western world got trashed, many were kept in very nice condition indeed in Japan.
This created a market, and it’s long been held that Japan is a retro gamer’s paradise, just waiting to sell you games at a fraction of what you’d pay on the likes of eBay, Facebook Marketplace or any retro games store.
However, over the years, it’s definitely changed. I recently took the first trip to Japan I’ve been able to make for several years now — and if you don’t know why, I can only assume you’re a recent arrival from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and you haven’t done your research properly — for a light, relaxing holiday.
Because I’m me, I didn’t relax much, walking at least 15km a day to see sights and, increasingly, do a little retro shopping and research.
Lots of walking. Including through this place.
What follows is anecdotal and I can’t pretend it’s any kind of long-term study, but I can back it up with many years of experience. This wasn’t my first trip into the retro gaming scene in Japan.
Look, I can prove it; here I am back in 2011 shooting video (very badly) of Super Potato in Akihabara as it was back then:
It’s probably good that this is at stupid high speed, because the relative prices in 2011 would make me weep now.
I had a list of games I wanted to add to my collection; a mix of more common titles I just didn’t have along with a few retro rarities that I knew were likely to stretch my wallet just a little bit further. But hey, the common wisdom says you can pick up just about anything for a few bucks in Japan if you look hard enough, right?
Yeah… no. Or not quite. Across retro game shopping excursions from Hiroshima to Osaka to Tokyo, here’s my observations of where retro game buying sits right now, and what it likely means for anyone thinking of a quick retro game shopping jaunt to Japan.
Rare bargains? Basically forget it
Hey, it’s Shadowrun for the MegaCD! Great… if you’ve got about $200 AUD to spare.
This was also the CHEAPEST copy of this I saw anywhere.
There was a time when it was somewhat feasible to pick up a relative bargain on genuinely rare, highly desirable retro titles for a number of platforms in Japan. Even on my prior trips, I’d noted how those titles were becoming much harder to find at all.
In 2023? Basically forget it. Even the junk shops will have glass cabinets with what they pick as “rare” (this can vary and get a bit weird in itself) sealed away from the more common titles, or games in worse condition.
Although, not always. Yes, that’s a copy of Castlevania Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine, loose on a Book-Off store shelf in Ikebukuro. Yours for around $240 AUD.
I have a copy anyway, but didn’t touch it for fear of dropping it…
There’s a much wider awareness of what people are likely to be willing to pay for those titles, so stores and sellers are trying to get what they can. That’s capitalism for you!
The small scale upside here is that while you’re not likely to find that copy of Elevator Action Returns for the Saturn in a 100 yen junk bin, it’s still going to be a tad cheaper than you’re likely to see elsewhere online. Not inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination, but not quite as stupid as some asking prices I’ve seen recently online for certain titles.
Akihabara might not have what you’re looking for
Akihabara, the golden paradise of retro game buying, am I right?
I am not… or certainly, again, not as much as it used to be.
My trip didn’t actually see me in Tokyo for all that long, mostly because I’ve done a lot of Tokyo travel and I had broader horizons to fill. More on that shortly, but I did make time to stay in Akihabara and take in the classic retro game shops there, from Super Potato to Trader, Mandarake to Retro Game Camp and one of my previous personal favourite places to shop, Friends.
Friends is… a little more off the way, and I know there’s quite a contingent of online retro game fans who haven’t rated it over the years. Still, it had long been one of the best sources for me, especially for slightly more obscure titles that might not have been “rare” but were instead “hard to find”, if you get the distinction.
But… not any more. Friends was a bit of a ghost town when I visited, only open on select days on one floor, and with maybe 10% of the stock on that floor that it used to have. I’m not exaggerating there, either. I’m probably being too kind if anything.
On prior trips I could have spent hours there browsing the shelves.
This time I was in and out in under five minutes.
I have no specific knowledge of that store to speak of, but it absolutely wouldn’t surprise me if Friends was out of business before the year is up.
It was… better in other stores, but not by much. While that video above is way too fast to take in titles in any detail, the reality for Super Potato was that it had plenty of only partially-filled shelves in Akihabara.
To digress for a second, Osaka’s Super Potato was a little better for this, but sadly the two shops that Super Potato used to have in Den Den Town are now reduced down to just one, seen in this video:
Back to Akihabara, the availability story was much the same in Retro Game Camp and Surugaya, slightly worse in Trader.
The one store in Akihabara that had reasonable levels of stock was Mandarake, and I’m certain that’s not by accident. Mandarake has long had the highest prices for anything in Akihabara especially, and that means that they’ve been the last to be extensively picked over by retro gaming fans.
Ultimately this shouldn’t be that shocking, because, fellow retro gaming fans, this is our fault..
I’m to blame, and so are you.
I enjoy the retro games collection I have on my shelves, but, critically, they’re games that were in Japan and are now on my shelves. They’re not going back any time soon, and the games produced 20+ years ago were only made in certain quantities.
Scarcity was always going to happen, and while some of that has (sadly, in my view) been fuelled by the whole retro-games-as-investments craze, it wasn’t as though retro game stores and Book-Offs could draw from some magically replenishing stock of games forever.
So it’s game over for retro game shopping in Japan?
Or as Private Hudson might have put it…
No, not entirely. It very much depends on what you’re looking for, where you’re at in your retro gaming journey and of course, your budget.
I’ll give you some examples. As I noted last week, I picked up a very inexpensive copy (cart only) of Final Fight for the SNES amongst other titles while I was there. Not a rare game, not a copy in minty-mint condition, but not something I had, and for the fine asking price of 600 yen I wasn’t going to pass it up.
Equally, I had on my to-get list a copy of Umihara Kawase for the SNES, because it’s something of a slightly-hidden gem, but one that I knew commanded some solid prices.
This it did; one store had a very nice boxed copy for sale, but they wanted $200 for it, a little too rich for my tastes.
The cart only copy I saw in another store for $60? That one came home with me. I knew I wasn’t going to see it for 600 yen anywhere any time soon.
I also picked up Umihara Kawase Fresh! for the Switch while I was there. It was considerably less expensive.
Slight diversion, but it’s well worth your while learning just a few key Japanese phrases if you’re shopping from the pricey cabinets; it speeds the process and makes life easier for the already-overworked clerks.
Endearing yourself to store staff is rarely a bad idea; in the case of Umihara Kawase, the clerk rather nicely pointed out a much better quality copy hiding behind the shelves at the exact same price, suggesting that I should buy that one. Dear reader, I took his advice.
If you were just starting a retro games collection to play, then there’s still good deals to had on common but classic and well-regarded games out there. Prices do still vary from store to store, because it’s not as though there’s a centralised pricing authority for 20+ year old games anywhere.
Also, if for some strange reason you had a hankering to own way too many copies of Derby Stallion ’96 or countless baseball games, then you’ll be able to fill a suitcase full of them for very little money indeed.
Or old cameras and lenses. Not my thing, but I’m sure there’s some out there that might salivate at this haul.
I nabbed some games that I saw for two to three times the price in other stores, while a couple of titles I picked up I later saw a little cheaper elsewhere. That’s all part and parcel of the retro game shopping experience, I find, and the important thing is to make sure that you’re happy with a purchase and its price when you’re making it.
Or you could spend $400 AUD on Dr Terrifying Chicken, MD. It’s up to you.
Don’t forget to actually SEE Japan while you’re there
I did all of these things while I was in Japan too.
There’s always something to do or see, you just have to find it.
All of this might seem as though I spent my Japanese holiday exclusively chasing down retro games for my collection, but that’s far from the truth.
If you just went to Japan to chase down games, while you could spend a lot of time, I’m going to argue that you’ll also waste a lot of time and a lot of other opportunities.
Amidst the game shopping, I also indulged in many tasty (and highly affordable) restaurants serving a variety of regional cuisine, walked through shrines, forests, gardens and neighbourhoods, chatted in my still-awful-but-I’m-trying Japanese to train station staff and elderly Japanese ladies (they’re the best!), checked out a few out-of-the-way museums and exhibits and plenty more besides.
I’m told some people go on holiday to relax.
That’s not my style; I’d go nuts sitting on a cruise deck burning my skin away, but seriously, if you’re going to spend the time travelling to Japan, make sure you see more than the condition of an old Famicom cartridge. You can thank me later.
And if you do want to thank me, I’ll point out that this site is entirely self-funded (with ads, it’s true); if this has been useful to you, consider dropping a tip in the Ko-Fi tip jar below. Oh look, here’s a handy link!