Walk a few minutes from Akihabara station, Tokyo’s nerd mecca, turn a few corners and in an otherwise nondescript alley, you’ll find Game Bar A-Button, a cozy home-away-from-home for fans of retro games. A Button is a veritable retro game museum, stuffed to the brim nostalgia-inducing memorabilia from the days when pixels reigned supreme.
This place exists thanks to proprietor Shinichiro Nagamine, who started combining video games and beers here five years ago. We sat down to discuss exactly what A-Button is all about.
OUSA: Why did you decide to open a video game bar?
Nagamine: I’ve always liked arcades. When I was in junior high school or high school, arcades weren’t very big—they were mostly small and only one floor. Since these arcades were small, all the gamers who went to these places got to know each other. For example, in most Japanese arcades there was something called a “Communication Notebook,” and anyone could write in it as they pleased. It was kind of similar to BBSs or Twitter. Anyway, people used that to say things like, “Hey I played this game today!” or, “I’m looking forward to this new game coming out!” Also, there were people who would draw pictures. That being the case, my idea of arcades from when I was a kid was a place where people could talk to each other. You could meet friends there, or famous players.
After a time the laws around arcades changed. They had to close at certain times, or after 6pm kids couldn't enter. You know the movie Tron? Well, places like Flynn’s Arcade started to disappear, and in their place very bright arcades started to show up, and couples would go to them to play things like crane games.
As these arcades started to take over, they started dividing floors by genres, so it became difficult to talk to fans of other genres. While there was a community within that genre, people who liked different genres, for example someone who liked fighting games and someone who liked shooting games, couldn’t talk to teach other.
I’ve worked a lot of jobs, but since I like arcades, the job I had right before this one was managing operations at a Sega arcade. I’d do floor layouts, figure out where to place new games, figure out how to get people to play unpopular games, manage part-timers, etc. Anyway, I started this bar five years ago, in 2008. Around this time there were already game bars, like in Shinjuku.
After quitting Sega, I wanted to create a place where people could communicate with each other, so I started this bar—like the old arcades I used to go to. I wanted to start a bar where, after work, even if you come alone, there will definitely be someone around for you to drink and talk about games with.
OUSA: How did you come up with the name?
Nagamine: When I was thinking of my bar’s name, I tried to think of the first button you press after you turn on the console. I wanted to call the bar “Start Button.” But when I was looking up patents on the name “Start Button,” Microsoft’s name kept popping up—you know, the Windows start button, so I thought to myself, “This isn’t good.” People would get angry at me. So, I thought about the button you press after start—the a button—so I went with A-Button.
OUSA: The bar is filled with this kind of amazing collectors’ stuff. Could you describe two or three of the things you’re very proud of having? I notice there’s an amazing Dreamcast Dev.Box over there.
Nagamine: Well, I can’t tell you how I got my hands on this Dreamcast (laughs). But what I can tell you is that I’ve seen this at a normal junk shop—not a game shop—for about 50,000 yen, so if you want to buy it, you can. But yeah, as far as where I got this one from, that’s… top secret.
OUSA: Are there any other items you’re particularly happy with or proud of owning?
Nagamine: Let’s see… Well, as far as things I really love, it’s this Vectrex. In Japan Bandai released it as the Kousoku-sen (Light Speed Ship), and it was very expensive—like over 50,000 yen—so I couldn’t afford it. At around the time when it came out, if you went to a toy store, for thirty yen you could play it for three minutes. Of course, since it was only three minutes, you’d always end at the same place. Anyway, I really wanted it, so when I finally got it I was really happy.
Among the other things in my collection, I don’t open it much, but I really like this dead stock original American Gameboy with Tetris that I got from a friend. I really like this. For some reason I’m really happy about owning this thing.
OUSA: This was the first thing I bought with my own money when I was a kid.
Nagamine: Yeah, lots of people say that, right? Lots of people come into the store and get really excited when they see this, because it’s the first game they bought. Yeah, it was really popular. So when people from overseas come, they get really nostalgic.
OUSA: What kind of people come to A-Button?
Nagamine: Hmm... well, normal gamers come, as well as people in the game industry—people who make games and people with jobs related to games—and even people who don’t play games very much come. Basically, lots of people come. It’s not just limited to game maniacs; there are some light gamers and younger gamers. Of course you can’t enter if you’re underage, but for example, young gamers will come in and ask what this Master System is. They don’t know.
But, more than anything, people who love alcohol are the majority (laughs).
OUSA: It’s your fifth anniversary. Could you talk about how the bar has changed in the past five years?
Nagamine: Well, now it’s actually difficult to play games here. Since Japan is really strict about copyright, Sony and Nintendo got mad at us. Especially considering Nintendo is basically the Japanese Disney.
But aside from that, I wasn’t expecting this, but lots of famous people and people from various business circles have come. When I first opened this bar, as a joke I said this bar would be like the baseball field in the movie Field of Dreams, a place where legendary players gather. I just said it as a joke. Like that famous line, “If you build it, he will come.” But in reality, lots of famous people really have come—people normal gamers can’t usually talk to or meet, so it’s nice to be able to talk to them. And on a simpler level, by starting this bar, I’ve made a lot of friends. That's made me really happy.
OUSA: In another five years, how do you imagine the bar?
Nagamine: Well, it’ll probably get destroyed in a giant earthquake... right? But jokes aside, I don’t really know. If we’re going to talk seriously, in Tokyo eighty percent of bars like this go under within two years. Bars that last five years are quite rare. But yeah, I just want to continue with the store as normal.
Also, a long time ago I joked about this, but I wanted to try opening A-Button up in Las Vegas for half a year. But in Las Vegas a bar called Insert Coin has popped up, so instead I want to start a bar in a nice part of Brooklyn.
OUSA: Do you have any message for readers of Otaku USA or foreign visitors to the bar in general?
Nagamine: For some reason my bar is really popular overseas — probably more than it is in Japan — so more or less everyday there is at least one foreign customer. There’s lots of game bars — even in America — but A-Button’s less about playing games, and more about talking to people.
But yeah, just come at your leisure. I can’t speak English very well, but I have beer and food ready for you, and by this summer I’ll have an English menu. If you have questions about where to buy games and stuff, I’ll be glad to tell you what I know.
I understand the bar is a little difficult to find, but think of looking for it as a kind of game.
OUSA: Lightning round! Genesis or Super Famicom?
OUSA: Saturn or Playstation?
OUSA: Mario or Luigi?
Nagamine: Hmm… well, probably Mario.
OUSA: Orion beer or Asahi beer?
Nagamine: It’s gotta be Orion.
OUSA: Polygons or pixels?
Nagamine: This is a tough one… Do I have to choose one?
Nagamine: Well, probably pixels.
OUSA: Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy?
Nagamine: Dragon Quest.
OUSA: Rei or Asuka?
Nagamine: Now that’s really tough. I mean, they’re completely different. But yeah, it’s gotta be Asuka.
OUSA: This is kind of a hard one. What’s your favorite game?
Nagamine: Well, I say this to everyone—and you probably don’t know it—I like this game called Star Luster. It wasn’t sold in America. It’s by Namco, and it’s like the 3D Star Wars shooting game that was on the Atari. I really like it. It’s a very simple game. While there is a story, I fully immerse myself in my own story while playing. I’m the pilot—it’s like I’m some delusional middle school student.
Nagamine’s wife: Isn’t that game famously bad? Like, it’s too difficult to beat, so everyone calls it a horrible game.
Nagamine: In Japan it didn’t sell well. It’s very simple—there’s not even any music.
OUSA: What’s your favorite console?
Nagamine: That’s gotta be the Gameboy. It changed the world of games, completely. It’s kind of amazing, even today, sometimes in Japanese trains you’ll see people playing it. Like, playing Pokemon or something. Chiptune people also use it to make music, so I really like it.
This story originally ran in the 7/9/13 issue of the Otaku USA e-News
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