Every die-hard Sonic the Hedgehog fan should have a list of things to see and do in their lifetime. Visiting SEGA’s offices in the US, meeting Yuji Naka, attending Sonic Boom or Summer of Sonic, ‘experiencing’ Sonic 2006… But, undoubtedly, the ultimate pilgrimage for the dedicated fan is traveling to the blue blur’s birthplace – Japan. For many reasons.
One of those reasons is SEGA Joypolis, a three-floor indoor theme park that’s packed with arcades, sit-in rides and exclusive merchandise. When I visited Japan for a holiday with SEGADriven’s Lewis Clark last year, this was on the top of my hit-list. As the venue is built with couples in mind though, we both decided to pair up – so we enlisted the help of our good friend Jess and another friend who would be able to give us a special tour: sound director for the Sonic series, Jun Senoue.
Located in Tokyo’s beautiful Odaiba Bay area (if you’re primarily using the city’s JR East rail lines, the easiest way to get there is by getting off at Shimbashi station and hopping on the Yurikamome Monorail to Odaiba Kaihin Koen station), Joypolis feels like some kind of indoor seaside resort from the entrance. To get there, you’ll need to walk along a shopping centre boardwalk, past surf fashion stores, burger parlours and… erm, a Condomania (NSFW?). You feel like you should be wearing sandals and saying things like ‘gnarly’ and ‘tubular.’
Once inside, it’s a totally different story. The interior design is like quantum leaping back into the mid-1990s, with hyperactive techno ‘muzak’ blaring in the background as you hear crowds of people scream on rollercoasters and race on arcade machines. All the while, a polite female Japanese voice welcomes you to SEGA Joypolis and encourages you to have a good time. Thank you, anonymous SEGA lady, I will!
Adult entry costs ¥500, and for that you get a little electronic card that you can digitally feed with ‘tokens’ in order to access the physical rides. If you want, you can splash out on a ¥3,500 Day Passport which gives you unlimited rides for your entire stay. The lobby area on the ground floor is a massive open-plan space that contains several rides and arcades.
The first thing you see is a massive stage, which is used for seasonal events and special occasions. Jun performed a holiday set live for attendees over the Christmas period, but when we visited in mid-November, Joypolis was still in Hallowe’en mode. Japan loves to celebrate international festivities like these, and it was fun to see Sonic and Tails plush toys dressed up as witches. Later, we all had a photo opportunity with Sonic himself, who had also fashioned himself for the occasion.
There’s a rather cool SEGA merchandise shop positioned, rather strategically enough, at the exit of Joypolis. Funnily enough though, this was actually the first place we went to in the park! In past years, this store hasn’t offered much in the way of Sonic the Hedgehog merch – this irony seems to have been rectified as you can now walk out with a number of COSPA T-shirts, iPhone covers and plush toys. Not to mention a hoard of fattening Sonic sweeties. Oddly enough, you can also buy Mario and Luigi plushies here too. Perhaps the 1990s mascot rivalry really is dead.
On the ground floor, an indoor rollercoaster called Spin Bullet offers a brief thrill for around two minutes, as couples are placed onto carriages and sent blasting up and down and all around – whilst being spun like a bottle. It’s quite a small track, but it manages to be really exciting regardless. There was also a half-pipe game which has groups of two sharing a massive skateboard that swings from side to side – by pressing a panel by your foot, you could spin the skateboard whilst going up the half-pipe, and grab yourself some points. As the ride goes on, the speed and height of which you travel increases. It’s a bit hairy!
Up the stairs, there are a number of sit-in rides that provide a real jolt of excitement. From a runaway train to a hang glider experience that ‘goes haywire’ (in the ride, not in real life), these hydraulics-based amusements are worth the price of admission in themselves. There are more relaxed events to take part in too, such as an Ace Attorney Investigations mystery tour that sees attendees explore Joypolis to follow clues. If I could read Japanese, I would have been all over that.
A movie theatre, situated at the bottom floor, plays various SEGA-related films to small audiences. The last time I visited Joypolis, the video was one of Mushiking: King of the Beetles – an insanely popular SEGA Pokémon-style game that appeals to young kids. This time around we were incredibly lucky, as we were treated to a special 3D screening of Night of the Werehog. This was a short animation created by SEGA to coincide with the release of Sonic Unleashed back in 2008. We’d all seen it before, but the 3D added some really nice eye-popping effects.
Alongside a Medal Zone on the second floor, and a cafe at the very top, the rest of Joypolis is littered with arcade games and physical amusements. One, a high-speed bobsled game, involved sitting in a huge bobsled capsule and using your body weight to control your in-game movement. An Initial-D game features life-size Mazdas and other sports cars to ride in, and a cartoony sports game puts you in a Track & Field situation with three other players – only you’re using your whole body to participate!
Joypolis is also the only place I’ve seen Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing arcade machines in the wild. There’s a string of eight machines, all paired up for group multiplayer. The game plays almost exactly the same as the home console version, but with the obvious wheel and pedal peripherals. Classic SEGA games such as Typing of the Dead and Puyo Puyo Fever also feature, as well as an arcade version of Rhythm Heaven – which SEGA collaborated with Nintendo to create.
And, as you’d expect, there’s a large area dedicated to UFO Catchers. Grabbing machines of all shapes and sizes can be found in Joypolis – from sweetie-scoopers to figure-pushers and classic plushie-pluckers. Jun, an avid Sonic merchandise collector himself, was eager to get his hands on an official blue blur towel – imagine our surprise when he managed to win two! Lewis, on the other hand, was trying to win an exclusive 20th Anniversary Sonic statue… which got pretty close to falling off its perch before I got involved and accidentally screwed it up. Whoops.
We all had a brilliant time at Joypolis – and the icing on the cake was that we indadvertedly ran into some Japanese Sonic the Hedgehog fans too! It was a lovely surprise too, as previously I was under the assumption that organising a meetup of some kind would have proved too difficult. Jun attracted a lot of attention from couples who happened to be die-hard SEGA fans, and even though there was a language barrier we all had a lot of fun hanging out and talking about Sonic.
From what I understand, SEGA Joypolis is currently undergoing something of a refurbishment. Jun tells me that the place is due for a makeover, and I’m excited to see what it will look like when the work is completed. It’s definitely worth a return visit when it re-opens, and for any Sonic fans looking to travel to Japan I highly recommend going to Joypolis. Who knows, you might bump into Jun as well!
Bonus: Check out Adam’s awesome virtual tour of Joypolis from back in 2010 as well!