In the past decade, retro game bars have popped up across Japan. Part of the appeal is that these water holes have game consoles you can play while getting shitfaced. There are other places where you can game with maids or talk with game voice actors who serve you alcohol. But what about a place you can bring your own games, your own gaming machines? There's that, too.
Akihabara Shukaijo ("shukaijo" means "assembly hall") is not much to look at. The walls are white, and covered with the odd poster. The sofas are those cheap kind that single people with small apartments buy. There are wooden chairs that clash with the black office style furniture. And there are tatami mats in the corner. Don't be fooled. This is an arcade.
The point isn't looks (though, this cafe should really try harder). The point is here is a place you can enter and game. There are no game machines on hand for you to play—bring your own. And while it's conceivable that you might be able to get a home and TV or a PC and monitor in your enormous bag, this place is geared more towards PSPs and Nintendo handhelds. No wonder it's also dubbed The Portable Game Cafe.
That doesn't mean other types of gaming are persona non grata. Table top gaming and card games are more than welcomed—pretty much anything that doesn't disturb others. The cafe's website does wryly note that "play fighting" and "musical performances" are prohibited.
The PSP never quite caught on in the West like it did in the Japan. Besides the endless miles of train tracks that provide time during commutes to game, Japanese people dig meeting with friends and playing, let's be honest here, Monster Hunter or God Eater.
So why go to a place like this that charges ¥300 (US$3.90) for thirty minutes? Because sometimes a group of people playing PSPs together at Starbucks might raise eyebrows. Players can snarf up the cafe's free WiFi and use its array of game charger cables and electricity. Shukaijo also doesn't mind if you bring in alcohol in from outside and knock a few back (once again, just as long as you don't disturb others).
When people miss the last train home, they can swing by this cafe, game a little bit. And if they're tired, crashing on the sofa or the tatami is totally fine (just as long as...yeah, yeah). And with two locations, one in Akihabara and one in Ikebukuro, it's convenient.
The cafe also has manga and magazines for when you get sick of video games.
There are also special events in which famous voice actresses like Satomi Hanamura show up an play video games with everyone.
The selling point here is that Shukaijo offers a space, a dedicated space to gamers. Unlike manga cafes, which offer gaming services in closed booths, this dive is open. Even the shyest of the shy can enjoy playing against an other play. It is a modern take on the arcade. Here, gamers gather and game. The only difference between Shukaijo and a traditional arcade is that there are no gaming cabinets waiting patiently for players. You must bring your own. It's the same philosophy as a LAN party, but this isn't an ephemeral fête. It's a designated space for gaming, just like the traditional arcade.
Arcades have always been places where you can go to play video games. The game centers of the late 1970s and the early 1980s were born in Japanese coffee shops. The tradition continues. You can go to Shukaijo and play. Just remember to bring your own games.