Numlock Sunday: Cecilia D'Anastasio on the underground networks importing Japanese arcade games
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Cecilia D'Anastasio, who wrote “The Gritty, Underground Network Bringing Japan’s Arcades to the US” for Wired. Here's what I wrote about it:
When a Japanese arcade closes, one of three things happen: their video games are sent to a landfill, they’re gutted and sold for parts and then sent to a landfill, or a distributor will buy up all of an arcade’s machines. From there, they’ll either sell them to smaller arcades around Japan, or they’ll discreetly load up a shipping container and send them to the U.S., where an avid collector base is ravenous for off-the-books arcade cabinets, even if the manufacturers hate it. It’s a brisk business thanks to home gaming consoles and a tax that raised the cost of playing arcade games: from 2006 to 2016, the number of arcades declined from 24,000 to 14,000. With a connection to the right grey-market distributor, a cabinet can be had for $1,000 to $6,000.
I was somewhat obsessed with this story; it’s an incredible exploration of globalization, of cultural shifts in Japan, about underground digital networks, of fandom, it’s just got everything. I was so excited to talk to Cecilia about her quest to get MUSECA, an arcade game, into her home.
Cecilia D'Anastasio can be found on Twitter, and earlier this week started her new job at Bloomberg; you can find her there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You wrote a fascinating story that seemed like it had been years in the making. Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you got into Japanese arcade games and kind of where this story began to bloom?
Yeah, of course. This has been kind of a white whale for me; several years ago I met a friend who had a Street Fighter cabinet in his apartment in Brooklyn. And I was like, "Man, that is so cool. How did you get that?" And he was like, "Look, I can tell you a little bit about it, but I can't tell you the whole story." Which for a journalist it's like, oh man, what is that story? I thought about doing this story for a lot of years, but what really actually triggered it was my own journey, getting my own arcade cabinet.
Essentially I went to this arcade on Long Island called Round1. It's a Japanese arcade, and in that arcade, I fell in love with this game called MUSECA. It's a rhythm game. It's like DDR [Dance Dance Revolution] except you play it with your hands. It's playing Japanese pop music and trance, and it's got all of these anime characters' art. It's just an exquisite game. It's so fun. I just — maybe in lockdown-induced mania — I just had to find one. And that's the framing for this story.
You reveal something so cool about how this market works. Because you go into in the piece that this was not the original plan for these video games, many of them are actually explicitly designed to not function outside of Japan, but nevertheless, there's a group of fans, and a West Coast concern and an East Coast concern. I just kind of love to hear about how these actually get stateside.
A little history, so years ago, about a decade to 15 years ago, Americans still wanted to bring over Japanese arcade games because they're really awesome, and they're only in Japan and they only exist on this really idiosyncratic clunky hardware. Think bringing over a whole DDR machine — DDR is actually a bad example because there was an American DDR machine release — but the situation is that a lot of Japanese publishers didn't want the games to leave Japan. There are a variety of reasons for that. Licensing is one, also they want to make sure that the games can be adequately maintained, sources told me. But lately, they have this proprietary authentication software; they have to connect to a server run by the game publisher in order for them to even boot.
So 15 years ago, what happened was Americans would get together over IRCs and forums and coordinate what were called group buys. They would order like 40 cabinets off of a Japanese distributor, just somehow bring it over in a container over a ship that costs like $3,000, and then it would all go to some guy's house in New Jersey. They would just rent a U-Haul and bring the machines back to their house and then try and desperately find someone online who could hack into those machines.
Over the last five to seven years, as demand for these machines has increased, a semi-professional industry has formed around bringing these machines over from Japan. People who have stable distributor connections, people who understand the shipping industry a little bit better. And as you said, there's one person on the East Coast, one person on the West. It's pretty small, but they're bringing over like over a million dollars of cabinets a year.
That's incredible. It's incredibly grassroots, it seems. You were mentioning, it's just a bunch of people pooling for a shipping container.
Yeah, absolutely. And of course, one big part of this is that arcades in Japan are closing at a rapid-fire rate. And that was a trend that preceded COVID, but has really been exacerbated by COVID. Ten thousand arcades closed over 2006 to 2016 in Japan, and over the last couple of years there has been news story after news story of these famous Japanese arcades just shuttering because people don't want to go to them and get COVID. When those arcades shutter, the machines, they go to a landfill maybe. A lot of the time they just kind of get junked or junked and sold for parts. A lot of the distributors who talk to me really view themselves as saving these games.
Yeah. The demand, rather the supply side of this equation, is really interesting in its own right. There was also some sort of tax that kind of went out that even made it slightly more inhospitable for the arcade owners. It just seems like, again, it's a declining scene in Japan that these are getting landfill junked, scrapped for parts, and that the gray market, if anything, is the best possible afterlife for some of these arcade games.
Definitely. I mean, people really love these machine and it's honestly — even a lot of the hackers I talked to were really sad that there weren't official releases for these games in the US, and would've loved to attend an American arcade that had Japanese games. The gray market exists out of necessity in a lot of ways. And a lot of these hackers and modders have a set of principles that they maintain so that they're not interfering too much with the Japanese arcade industry.
What are some of the ethical choices?
Yeah. A lot of them, in order to get a game to work, there's certain magic they have to do that I won't get into, so that it works without the official line authentication a lot of these games require. People estimated 90% of games will not work without some sort of extra hacker magic. But what they do is that they won't put the most recent version of the game onto Americans’ gray market machines. They will do their best to not allow their mods or their workarounds to work on hardware other than the original machine. For example, someone on PC might want to emulate some of these games and they won't actually distribute their software for that. There are groups that do that, but those aren't people that I talked to for this story.
So you've got your machine, and so what's your next step?
Play the living shit out of it, man.
I mean, I don't know. I can't come out there and recommend that people go and find the Japanese arcade machine of their dreams and bring it to their Brooklyn apartment and fill their space with that. Because it, frankly, there is no justification. It was lockdown-induced mania. But I have to say, it's the coolest thing I own. And it makes me so happy every day I see it.
You were taking a real risk. You wrote there's a chance that if this was a brick, it wasn't just a brick, it was 10 cinder blocks.
Yeah, because what if it didn't work? Anything could have happened. Literally I spent so long on these forums and on all these subreddits, just trying to find this one game that I found love with, MUSECA. And MUSECA was discontinued in 2018, and the machines were recalled by its publisher and it was repurposed into a different game, so MUSECA is super freaking rare. And — sorry, can I curse on your thing?
Go for it, it's fine, we're on the internet.
Super fucking rare. How I got this was a guy knew a guy knew a guy who happened to have one coming over on a container ship from like Osaka or something.
And then it showed up at this warehouse in California and the guy who had it, Phil Arrington, who is just the most fun dude, who helps distribute these Japanese machines, posted a video of himself wheeling it off his Ford pickup truck and it almost fell. And that was the first thing that could have gone wrong! Twenty other things could have gone wrong between then and it coming to my house. And thankfully, after a couple replaced fuses it works.
It's a great story. I couldn't stop reading it. It reads like a heist at times. It was just like, my God, I can't believe we pulled it off. But yeah, no, it's just such a wonderful read. I'm so happy that you were able to write it and that you finally caught the white whale.
Thank you. I really appreciate that. I was kind of shocked that other people shared my enthusiasm for this and that it was so well received by the community and people who were not part of it as well. So honestly, I'm just really grateful for the opportunity to have written it.
Yeah. It's great. You are departing Wired. You've been in the game for a while, you've been at Kotaku, you've spent a great deal of time at Wired that produced some really fascinating stuff, and now your next steps are at Bloomberg. What kind of stories are you kind of most excited to cover moving forward?
Oh, thank you for asking that. I do identify as an investigative journalist, so I'm really excited to be exploring issues around labor and gender in the world of video games and particularly at video game publishers.
If you're someone who has a story you want to tell me, please reach out. I'd love to hear it.
Yeah. It's been a very interesting time for stories of that nature.
Yeah, absolutely. I just have so much gratitude for the people who work at these game companies who are willing to take a stand and who are willing to share their experiences with journalists like us. So much is happening right now and it's just all inspiring to see.
That's exciting. Well, again, really looking forward to what you come up with next. This story's been fascinating. I guess, where can folks find you? Where can folks find your work?
You can find me at Bloomberg starting on January 24th, 2022. My Twitter is @cecianasta.