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Arcade Mania May 28, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews, Video Games.
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It’s inevitable: you frequent Kotaku long enough and you’re bound to be curious about Brian Ashcraft’s book Arcade Mania: The Turbo-charged World of Japan’s Video Game Centers. That’s exactly what happened to me; so much so that I up and got myself a copy. The verdict? It’s not what one might expect, gamer or no.

What Arcade Mania isn’t is a book about video games, video games, video games — at least, not principally. Rather, Bashcraft’s subtitle for book “the turbo-charged world of Japan’s video game centers” gets it exactly right: Arcade Mania is more about Japanese gaming culture as embodied by the odds and ends one finds inside a Japanese arcade. Sure, there are video games — fighting games, racing games, shoot ’em ups (shmups) and rhythm games, too — but there are a whole lot more besides. There are card games. Crane games. Pachinko machines. Sticker picture booths. And so on. So to peruse Arcade Mania is to take a peek into all these things and see them with fresh eyes, to learn about their histories (albeit briefly) and see their cultural impact both within and beyond the shores of the land of the rising sun.

The novelty of the book, however, is in its presentation. First, its unconventional layout — colors and all — are absolutely apropros for the book’s theme, even if it may be unsettling to more conventional readers. Second, rather than a straightforward take on its topics — a chapter is devoted to each gaming genre — Bashcraft presents each as stories woven around personalities whose personal histories are intertwined with the games in question. Thus, reading through Arcade Mania one not only gets a glimpse into the subculture surrounding Japanese crane games, fighting games or the trials and tribulations of game developers, but gets to meet the likes of Japan’s Crane Game Queen Yuka Nakajima, arguably the best Street Fighter player in the world Daigo Umehara, and renowned developer Suda51. Oh, and it may interest readers of Kotaku to know that Bashcraft’s son (Mini-Bash!) gets a cameo in the book as well (which makes one wonder whether it was written the way it was just to pull it off).

The book’s main failing, however, lies in its writing. No, it’s not written badly, and no, it’s obviously not meant to push the journalistic envelope, but overall Arcade Mania reads too much like a blog or magazine than an actual book. I suppose this has more to do with the pedigree of both Bashcraft and his fellow Wired contributor Jean Snow, but it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to expect a little more. The book is absent a singular point to get across to its readers — other than to entertain — and thus ends rather abruptly, as if it were merely a collection of feature articles compiled between covers. That and the manuscript could have benefitted from some more polish and careful copy-editing, if not restraint: There! Are! Too! Many! Exclamation! Points!

Which brings me to why it was, on balance, not what I expected: exactly what kind of readership would be interested in Arcade Mania? Gamers probably know most of what’s already in there, and it would probably be a hard sell for non-gamers. It’s a little too “thin” to be a serious read on the topic and at the same time arguably overly esoteric (and short) to elicit outright interest from most quarters. In this respect, maybe Arcade Mania has more in common with its chosen subject than even its author realizes: for some, a worthwhile diversion; for others, a passing fancy.

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