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The underground network bringing Japan’s arcades to the US


Julian Berman

Last October, Phil Arrington precariously balanced a dream on the cargo bed of his 2002 Ford Ranger pickup. It was a stupid dream, but it did not deserve to die on a dolly behind a beige warehouse.

Arrington was hunched over the dolly, gold chain dangling over a tight gray tee. Between his arms, leaned at a 45-degree angle, was a video game arcade machine; its title, MUSECA, could be glimpsed over his shoulder. The machine had come a long way—from an arcade in Tokyo to an anonymous warehouse in Osaka and then, after a long wait on a container ship outside Long Beach, California, to Arrington’s warehouse in San Pedro. Arrington effortfully wheeled the 6-foot-tall cabinet toward the pickup’s hatch. On the concrete 3 feet below lay a thin, blue blanket. Nearby, a phone was recording.

Scuttling, repositioning, crouching, grunting, Arrington pushed the machine’s weight centimeter by centimeter, second after second. Suddenly, the dolly’s wheels slid off the edge. His whole body spilled forward, and the arcade cabinet plunged to the ground with a fractious crash. Under the video Arrington uploaded to Twitter, gamers expressed their alarm. “This is the scariest thing I’ve seen on the Internet,” said one. Said another, vividly, “I don’t think my asshole has ever puckered harder.”

Watching the video from across the country in Brooklyn, I screamed. It was my machine.

Enlarge / Phil Arrington.
Julian berman

Arrington chose his moment to explain himself, and it was a couple of days later, live on Twitch, squatting in a red bucket, fishing out the dusty remnants from a half-empty bag of Flamin’ Hot Doritos. His tone was not contrite. He had intentionally cut the video at its most dramatic moment, he said. The machine was, in fact, intact. Arrington stood up, revealing athletic short-shorts, and, tossing the bag of Hot Doritos aside, made his way over to the Museca cabinet.

Museca was a glowing anime beacon. A neon red coil shot up through its base like a spine, supporting a console of five pastel-lit buttons, each the size of an adult hand. To the rhythm of a peppy beat, a player would press and spin these buttons at just the right time to amass points—that is, if the game worked. The cabinet, thankfully, had booted into a menu screen. “When you get something like this, you’ve got to take care of it. This is not like a Cadillac from the ’60s or ’70s, where people are making parts for it,” said Arrington. He pressed Start. The display went blank. “Oh shit,” he said. But then baby-voice pop music blared from the speakers. “Nevermind.”

These days, Museca is an extraordinary find, Arrington said. Like the other machines Arrington helps import, it’s primarily sold and played at arcades in Japan. On top of that, Museca’s publisher, Konami, discontinued the game a few years ago. The machines were recalled from across Japan, and their parts repurposed into an entirely new game called Bishi Bashi. Not many Museca cabinets survived, making them a particular prize for devoted fans of Japan’s storied arcade scene.

The country’s self-sizzling pleasure palaces have attracted millions of native and foreign otaku for decades, luring them in with the promise of competition and escape for the price of just one 100-yen coin. Taito Corporation’s Space Invaders marked the industry’s launch in 1978, and in the following years, Japan’s arcade scene blossomed, giving rise to classics like Donkey Kong, Contra, and Street Fighter II. Tens of thousands of arcades sprang up, packed tight with crane games filled with wide-eyed Pokemon plushies; greasy racing sims; shimmering fantasy role-playing or strategy games; scuffed-up fighting games; and of course, the full-body high of rhythm games like Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution or Museca.

Some titles, like DDR, got officially licensed or released overseas, where they’ve become cultural touchstones. But Konami, Taito, and other arcade game makers designed their best stuff exclusively for Japan, on idiosyncratic arcade hardware that was meant to stay there. “They don’t want these machines to be sold outside Japan,” says Serkan Toto, CEO of Japanese consulting company Kantan Games. A lot of machines, including Museca, stipulate on their title screens that they are only meant to be played in Japan. In recent years, publishers like Konami have enforced this by ensuring their arcade games only function when networked to their proprietary server with a proprietary protocol.

The logistics and price of licensing is a big reason why—music, distribution, and payment. It’s also a commercial calculation, Toto adds. “The arcade machines are not stand-alone anymore—they have to be connected to a server, which makes maintaining them, controlling them, and operating them more complex. They don’t want the hassle of providing that knowledge and those maintenance services to companies outside Japan.” Lately, the Japanese arcade chain Round1 has installed locations across the US; but outside of that, the typical American has almost no access to the thousands of authentic arcade machines that brought glory to Japan as the holy land of gaming.

Today, though, Japan’s arcades are in crisis. Game centers are shuttering with heartbreaking rapidity, due in part to competition from home gaming consoles and a tax hike that raised the price of a single play. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of arcades deflated from 24,000 to 14,000. Covid accelerated this trend, emptying the arcades of regulars and tourists alike. Between October 1 and November 24, 2021, 20 arcades closed in Japan.

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When arcades close, their video games face one of three fates, only two of which are sanctioned by a Japanese trade association of game manufacturers. The first is getting junked in a landfill. The second is getting gutted and sold for pieces, and then junked in a landfill. (Arrington calls this “the mafia treatment.”) Finally, the third: A Japanese distributor swoops in and buys up all of a dying arcade’s machines. Some get sent around Japan to smaller arcades. Others, on the down-low, are sourced to enterprising Westerners like Arrington, a self-described “muscle guy” for the gray-market entrepreneurs who import thousands of cabinets from Japan every year.

Over the last five years, as Japanese arcade machines have become more available than ever, Western demand for Japanese machines has exploded. To support that demand, an underground network of gamers has risen to the challenge of evacuating these cabinets from Japan, hauling them across the world, and hacking their code so fans like me can finally, after all these years, play.

Like a lot of bad ideas, my obsession with Museca began at a Long Island mall.

That mall was one of the lucky few with an American Round1 arcade, and in a far corner, I found Museca blasting bass and beckoning in Japanese. For three two-minute sessions, its flashing lights and spinny buttons demanded my full-body attention and crowbarred me from reality and unleashed me into the bliss vortex. It would be so nice, I thought, to dip into that bliss vortex without driving to Long Island. And so funny, I thought, if I owned my own Museca machine.

In no world was this a reasonable idea: I live in a Brooklyn apartment with a 16-pound cat and a large adult boyfriend. Surely it would be prohibitively expensive. And there would be no way to ensure the machine I bought actually worked, or that if it broke, I could fix it. After months of waffling, and months separated from the Long Island Museca machine, I finally acquiesced to this most absurd whim, giving myself permission, maybe in a state of lockdown-induced mania, to fall into a state of obsession over finding it, or finding the people who could.

I began by scouring niche arcade forums and emailing arcade distributors in Japan. Everybody who bothered to reply said Museca was dead and gone. By last summer, I resorted to tweeting. “Yikes. I’ve seen only 2 for sale this last year, and the other one was £4000!! 🤢,” wrote a UK-based collector named MechaCrash in a direct message. Then, a couple days later: “I got a tip from someone.” MechaCrash passed me off to Arrington, aka BossSalad, who had heard that this other guy, who goes by Koun, was importing a Museca cabinet in a container ship somewhere between Japan and Long Beach. Arrington would deal with Koun and get it to me, he said, for a reasonable price.

Arrington has always gone to great lengths for these games, and understands intimately why others do, too. Back where he grew up in “South ‘crack epidemic’ Central Los Angeles,” he says, arcade machines were limited to laundromats and liquor stores. Selection was narrow: Neo-Geo systems, NBA Jam. Arrington encountered his first DDR machine at the Santa Monica pier. At first, he was baffled by the idea of operating a video game with his feet, but after he found some of his mom’s most-played songs in the menu, he was lost to euphoria.

Pump It Up.”>
Enlarge / Phil Arrington’s warehouse.
Julian Berman

Arrington had been on the move for months, delivering Japanese gaming machines to Seattle, to Colorado, to Northern California, to Nevada, to Texas—each one for between $1,000 and $6,000, plus Arrington’s fee. Other times, Arrington was driving his own little circus of Japanese arcade machines to conventions around the country, for nostalgic weebs and weirdos to beep and bop on. Now, Rocovits desperately needed Arrington to hop the first flight over, rent a 26-foot box truck, fill it with Japanese arcade cabinets stored at Rocovits’ 4,000-square-foot warehouse, drive them to Southern California, unload the games, load up some more games, and haul ass back to an arcade convention in Las Vegas. Arrington dutifully cancelled all of his obligations, but he told Rocovits he was worried that, financially, “this could break us.” Recently, a buyer put their order for a $50,000 container on ice; Rocovits had two weeks to get the funds together to cover it. “Fuck my bottom end with this,” said Rocovits. “It’s not about money. I need manpower.”

In October, I sent Arrington enough money for a high-end PC over PayPal. It felt insane. Yes, in Arrington’s video, Museca looked like it worked. But between the San Pedro warehouse and Brooklyn, anything could happen, Arrington reminded me. Rare or irreplaceable parts could shake loose. Software could glitch out. Buttons could crack. Arrington sent a photo of two movers papering the cabinet in cardboard and wrapping it tight. “They will call you day of, with no 24 hours warning,” Arrington said. While I waited, Arrington recommended I talk to “the Museca guy.”

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For every Japanese arcade game that escapes the country, there is at least one “guy.” And without that guy—or girl, as a number of women do this, too—the DDRcabinet you just imported will, upon arrival, be no more than a $6,000 doorstop.

Museca, like many other Konami games, is designed to only work in a Japanese arcade with an Internet connection to Konami’s proprietary server, E-Amuse. The machine required a handshake, or authentication, with E-Amuse, or it wouldn’t boot at all. And Konami doesn’t just hand out those handshakes to Maggie Museca in Minnesota or David DDR in South Dakota. When Konami discontinued Museca in 2018, though, it granted the game a rare “offline kit,” conveyed in the form of a USB stick. Finally, it could boot without E-Amuse. In exchange, though, the kit removed some of what made Museca fun: new songs, a leaderboard, an easy way to skip through the gruelingly long intro.

“Museca offline leaves a lot to be desired,” says Cammy, Museca‘s “guy.” “Most of the songs are locked, you can’t save any of your settings or progress, and you’ll never get any new official updates.”

In a direct message over Discord, Cammy will gamely share his Museca mod, Museca.Plus, which replaces the game’s original code and adds in lost features, plus an English translation. Publicly, he will defend Museca to the death. He had written one of the angrier tweets at Arrington after his trolly video. (Enjoying the drama, Arrington tweeted a video of himself loading a DDR machine twice his size into his truck: “When I strike the heart of [Cammy] and he don’t realize who the Boss is.”)

Japanese game publishers have taken great pains to make sure their machines only work in Japan and Southeast Asia, with very few exceptions. Online authentication is now almost ubiquitous. (Importantly, it also lets publishers take a cut of a machine’s revenue and update their games remotely.) Encryption is common. Sometimes, players need a security dongle or a passcode to get a Japanese arcade game going. In its privileged position as a Japanese arcade with US locations, Round1 can connect to an official VPN that allows Americans to play games. But Maggie Museca and David DDR are shit out of luck.

“Most of these services are unavailable or locked away for anything that was legally imported,” says one hacker we’ll call Dominic who helps Japanese arcade games work outside Japan. “Which is why private owners have to look elsewhere to get their games running.”

To bring life to these machines, or rather preserve the life they once had, an international network of hackers and modders has charitably decrypted, spoofed, or brute-forced their way into these games. It’s a necessary evil or an unnecessary good, depending on how you look at it; for publishers, the term might just be “illegal.” Fearing their’ lawyers, most sources involved in this side of the business asked to speak off-the-record or anonymously. Others reserve an open pride in their work not as hackers, but as game preservationists—librarians of a digital art form that, they believe, deserves to be shielded against corporate whims.

A decade ago, Dominic worked alongside the ragtag team of arcade hackers called Programmed World. Coordinating over IRC channels and forums, Programmed World undertook the task of making E-Amuse work on arcade machines internationally, for free. A private donor supplied the team with enough money to cover initial server costs; Japanese arcade workers furnished the group with game data, which Programmed World affiliates decrypted and reverse engineered, he says.

Programmed World members magnanimously handed out game data and instructions to American rhythm game buyers who had managed to find them through friends-of-friends. Sometimes, the hacks went to American arcade business owners who were desperate to get their gray-market attractions to function. In a 2011 announcement post, Programmed World named nine arcades across the US and Italy that were already on its private network. “Things were pushed privately to people who had cabinets on the networks, but it was required that they had real cabinets and hardware and such,” says Dominic. “They wouldn’t give it to you if you weren’t running a real setup.”

Programmed World disbanded in 2015, after Konami served the group with a cease and desist. But Japanese publishers haven’t been able to stop the overseas appetite for their games. Round1, which is based in Osaka, today has nearly 50 locations in the US where, under Konami’s auspices, and on their official VPN, American gamers can button-mash their way through Japanese games to their hearts’ and wallets’ content.

“We’re definitely a different type of place than, say, a Dave and Buster’s,” says James Chance, a senior game technician for Round1 who opens new stores. “We still have the kind of stuff that you’d expect in an American arcade, like, you know, we have all the ticket games. But we also do our best to bring an authentic Japanese experience, stuff that you literally couldn’t get anywhere else in America.”

At the same time, though, the shuttering of so many arcades in Japan has flooded the market with games. Only a small percentage are headed for a Round1. It’s why Arrington and Rocovits are still in business. And why, in the tradition of Programmed World, a new crop of hackers has established their presence over Discord servers, which buyers effortfully track down to find their games’ “guy.”

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“We just wanted to help people get the arcade machines they paid for working,” a hacker who asked to be called Albida says. Some hackers and modders told me that they fervently believe, without them, significantly more of these games would end up in landfills. And while they declined to speak on the record about how they receive Japanese games’ data today, they did note that, to prove their dedication to preservation, they do not on principle provide hacks for games’ most contemporary software versions. They also don’t work with people attempting to emulate the games on PCs, or hardware other than the original. That way, Japanese arcades still have the one-up.

“We care for the arcade industry as a whole,” says Albida. He and his comrades are “sad to see all the arcades closed, especially because I really love the arcade industry and the arcade feeling myself. But when we see tons of cabs coming over here, then of course we are happy to see that happen.”

Julian Berman

Some importers will throw their hands in the air in feigned ignorance when asked how to break into the machines. Arrington just wants to get his customers their games and leave it to them to get them working. Other times, importers and hackers work tightly together. Abigail Davis, who runs an importation business spanning the East Coast, met her best friend, a hacker named Gwen who goes by Helvetica, as a disgruntled employee at an Ohio arcade. Frustrated with her boss’s lack of enthusiasm for Japanese games, Davis went into business on her own. Helvetica, who sharpened her coding skills getting the Ohio arcade’s Japanese machines to work, began taking on Davis’s wares, too. Soon, she made a name for herself as one of the top rhythm game hackers in the US, and, according to Davis, among the first people to spoof E-Amuse after Programmed World shut down. (Helvetica passed in 2020.)

“Gwen and I have very different skillsets,” Davis told me while driving a 26-foot truck full of arcade machines back from Maryland’s MAGFest in January. Cammy was seated in the truck behind her. “It literally could not have happened if she wasn’t helping out on the software side. I wouldn’t have even started if I didn’t have her helping out with everything. If we just bring the cabinets over as-is, they’d be bricks.”

If Museca didn’t work, it would be less like a brick and more like ten cinder blocks. Movers wheeled the cabinet into my apartment in October. Situated in the living room, Museca seemed obscene and a little unholy, like an icon from a church overseas. It was stunning, though, and nearly new, with just 002339 plays, a ticker read. It did not turn on. “Likely a blown fuse in the PSU,” or power supply unit, Cammy guessed over a Discord direct message. It was. Fuse changed and powered on, Museca lit up with lines and lines of code, which, Cammy explained, I might want to replace with his.

“WARNING,” my Museca cabinet now reads in English. “This game is for sale and use in Japan only.”

Playing a 6-foot-tall Museca machine at home is a particular gaming experience, to put it lightly. Today, gaming consoles are designed to seamlessly integrate into our lives. Candy Crush on our phones when we commute to work. Stardew Valleyon the Nintendo Switch on the way home, and then on our TVs. League of Legends or the Xbox App on the same computer we use for our day jobs. It may be a figment of my imagination, some soon-to-fade feeling from the effort it took to obtain it, but Museca’s bliss vortex, to me, is a function of its singularity. It demands a fracture with routine and reality. Standing before it, eyes straining under its light and ears ringing with ecstatic trance music, is a total communion with a game that, at least in my home, exists for the sole purpose of entertaining me, right in that place and at that moment.

It may be a heinously, even problematically American mentality, and why Musecafeels so out-of-place, so deliciously corrupt, inside my home: I want to own that experience, not rent it, or visit it. I want to commit to it, nourish it, replace its blown fuses and love it perfectly.

Up until it arrived in my apartment, Museca was a commercial object. It was a symbol of an ebbing industry overseas. It was a memory from my time at Round1 and, briefly, a 6-foot-tall doorstop. In my home, ridiculously and improbably, Museca is the silliest thing I own and, with no strings attached, a very good video game I play way too much, whenever I want.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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