January 16, 2021, Street Fighter III: 3rd strike The Tominaga tournament legend made a rare and critical mistake.
Deep in the final round of bloodshed between the top ten and ten against Kuni, Ryu’s great who is similarly known for his precise play, Tominaga’s killer Makoto unsurely supported Ryu in his corner. Taking the opportunity to close the book on the hour of showing back and forth, Tominaga embarked on a procedure that would ensure victory. But it blurred the wide range of the little karate prodigy giving Ryu a chance to escape. This was Kuni’s moment: the golden flicker of time when jumping from an opponent at such a distance would mean crashing on Makoto like a meteor – and yet, others error. Kuni pressed the wrong hitting button during the descent and threw out his own combined set. Tominiga chased Kuni and took a 10-9 victory. The commentators of this now legendary set are both equally famous 3. strike the players themselves, thrown out.
It is usually played by Newton, a small Tokyo arcade in the Itabashi City department that has become sacred ground for 3. strike faithful, it would be a cacophony of applause and cheering for the American one Street Fighter legend Justin Wong called the best set of the year. But not so after 2020. Not at the time of the coronavirus. Not even when Japan is in a second state of emergency in the last 12 months, one that limits external gatherings and opening hours for facilities like Game Newton. Unless you streamed it on Twitch or watched the recap YouTube, would be one of five people to see it.
This has become a cold reality for small, esteemed gaming centers like Game Newton and Takadanobaba Mikado in Shinkjuku. Known not only for classic arcade games, but also as a core for scenes like 3. strike still enjoyed after more than 20 years, these are the arcades where fans of the classic arcade rivalry meet, share knowledge and compete. These are destinations to which fanatical players from all over the world make a pilgrimage to learn competitive games of all kinds at the highest level. While many of the games that work can now be played online and comfortably from our homes, Game Newtons and Mikados of the World are the glue to hold decades of live competition.
And COVID will kill them.
There are fewer and fewer competition scenes for arcade games day by day. As arcade arcades in America have successfully shifted from socializing to malls to bars with nostalgic travel, so have top-notch competitions for music, rhythm, and fighting games evolved into online platforms like Fightcade or local meetings with consoles and monitors. In Japan, special arcades have designed their own dedicated corners to hold local scenes for these games and to act as destinations for players around the world to learn from the best of the best. But as the pandemic eats away at the population struggling to contain it, the sun will finally set on a significant part of video game culture.
“The saddest thing about turning off arcades is that once they’re gone, they’re gone.” This is according to Andrew Fidelis, an American immigrant who moved to Japan after college. An event organizer and streamer, Fidelis is one of the western faces of Japan’s sparsely competing arcade scene, helping to run the course of major classic tournament games for gaming centers like Game Newton and for famous professional players like Street Fighter icon Daigo Umehara. “New arcades and new communities aren’t opening up,” he tells me via email. “There could be a day in the near future when arcade fighting games just don’t exist anymore.”
While the U.S. arcade market still has destinations like Galloping Ghost near Chicago and New Hampshire’s Funspot, most have evolved into bars with an uncompetitive atmosphere or into restaurant chains like Dave & Buster’s with a sea of card games. Such places also exist in Japan, but many gaming centers in the country have a different reputation. Some are known as a local hangout for Capcom’s A vampire (Darkstalkers in the west) players. Another for Cave’s DoDanPachi crowd. In the heyday of the 1990s, a certain tribalism that still exists flourished among arcade visitors and their operators. Think of them as we romantically recall old biker bars: Gangs hang out in different locations. Occasionally they find time to rumble. “Certain places are considered the homes of certain games,” says Fidelis. “You have to know where to go.”