Jump to content
Awoo.

How I Learned to Love maimai in a Declining Arcade Market


Polkadi~☆

538 views

Among people of my generation growing up in a western country, it’s an incredibly difficult thing for me to bring up a love of arcades.  Though I come from a very European background while born and raised in Australia, my exposure to the internet in my childhood (especially in relation to my budding love for SEGA) had led me to unexpectedly fall deep into Japanese culture, and my interest in arcades had henceforth been painted by those I’ve seen from Japan. Through childhood naïveté, I run into my local arcade expecting to find something similar, and instead run into a minor culture shock that the arcades of my country are not like those of Japan’s.

The golden age of arcades in the west had passed long before my generation was born, and what remains of arcades now are a far cry from what I heard them to have once been; Nostalgic discussions of arcades by my older peers do not often bring up the ticket redemption games so common to arcades today, where even classic pinball machines are being phased out. While arcades still exist as a social gathering for gaming experiences you couldn’t get at home, that idea had been slowly eroding in both the west and east by the evolving technologies that so many feel to make home experiences better than arcades, and by the erasure of communal public spaces.

Such an introduction is an odd way to say that I love SEGA’s arcade rhythm game maimai, a unique 2012 Japanese game that is available in my country, and could never be played at home.

♡ My Mai Mai Love ♡

cab.png.5f68f011a850f907c8eff4e787e5fe33.pngEven among contemporary rhythm and arcade games, maimai visually stands out. To that end, SEGA proudly advertises the game as a landmark; It kind of looks like a new age washing machine. With a circular touchscreen surrounded by eight buttons, notes fall from the middle of the screen to the buttons on the outside, using your two hands to tap them in time to the music. As an added twist, there are gimmick notes that must be tapped and then slid across the screen to another point.

After completing a song, you are graded at the end of a song by accuracy, wherein if you manage to hit all notes perfectly, you achieve the highest possible accuracy of the rather confusing 101%, with badges for Full Combo, All Perfect, and special Sync badges for playing with a partner. There is a score system in addition to accuracy, but you’d be hard pressed to find a player who cares for it exclusively, with the game itself tucking it into a little corner. Your results can be uploaded to an online server, where you can enter a global ranking against other players and save your progress to unlock rewards, using a SEGA Aime or other compatible IC cards.

There’s a large variety of music that has been added over the many years and versions of maimai, ranging from original songs, popular Japanese and anime songs, Vocaloid songs, video game songs (including those from Sonic the Hedgehog), an entire category to Japan’s indie darling series Touhou Project, and more original songs from maimai’s sister series CHUNITHM and O.N.G.E.K.I.

Many of maimai’s original songs have become staples of the rhythm game genre in their own right, such as the iconic Oshama Scramble! by t+pazolite: A speedy electric beat with playful synths and eclectic vocal samples, its video following a cat girl drinking excess amounts of milk to achieve her dream of becoming like an idol on TV, especially in the chest.

In Japan, maimai has become a cornerstone of modern arcades, some locations even dedicating entire floors to rows of it. Outside of Japan, the game also sees success in China, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, all across southeast Asia, even Oceania. Ever since 2019, the best players of the game globally (but mostly Japan) battle online to qualify for SEGA’s annual KING of Performai event, where maimai, CHUNITHM, and O.N.G.E.K.I players compete in person to become crowned king of their respective games.

 

My introduction to this game started with me not looking for it at all. I was in a conversation between classmates about a different arcade rhythm game, Bandai Namco’s Taiko no Tatsujin, where you beat a Japanese taiko drum to popular music. When I expressed interest in trying it, a classmate shared that they knew an arcade that had the game and was easily accessible by public transit.

Going to the arcade to take a look, my attention was instead grabbed by the maimai machines hiding in a corner, which was attracting lots of players. Because of the unique appearance and interesting gameplay, I was compelled to try as soon as I saw the game, any notion of Taiko dropping from my mind. After a long queue time and a few play sessions, I immediately wanted a player card like the other players had, to unlock more songs and customise my player profile.

The small but friendly English-speaking community around the game is very helpful and encouraging, having assisted me with learning how to navigate the game, tips and tricks to improve my gameplay, and supporting the progress I make. Much of the more face-to-face interactions are non-verbal--the game and surrounding environment is often VERY loud--but you can still feel how the community wants to support each other best they can, while chasing their own personal goals and achievements. In turn, I too end up contributing to the community by helping new players and celebrating hard-earned scores, and encouraging others to play just as I’m doing now.

So many songs and play sessions later, and many MANY credits placed into the machine, I’ve already grown a respectable profile that will only keep rising. And one of my long term goals is to someday earn a rainbow border, a visual signifier for reaching a DX Rating of 15000.

My profile as seen in maimai, featuring ranks and titles

 

Okay so, why do I talk of all this?

maimai is entirely exclusive to arcades, there is no official way to play it at home. This is the case for many games of its type, but their dedicated fans have found ways to adapt their games into PC programs with custom controllers. maimai has a fanmade version that can be played on a touchscreen tablet, though it’s mostly viewed as a stopgap in no way indicative of the real experience, instead akin to watching gameplay videos online to practice a song chart.

I want to share maimai with more people. But with the arcades taking on a very different meaning in gaming culture’s changing landscapes, this game is left in a difficult position to catch on worldwide.

WiPE OUT MEMORIES

I was surprised to read that arcades have had a turbulent history, starting instead with amusement centres. In western countries like America, a popular social space for people to gather and entertain themselves were with carnivals and fairs, featuring rides, zoos, games and more. An equivalent in Japan stood in amusement parks built on the rooftops of department stores, and many old fashioned places of this nature still exist--SEGA’s very own Tokyo Joyopolis is one of these, albeit on a ground level.

Introduced in these places were coin-operated machines, offering games like skee-ball, shooting galleries and the ever-classic pinball, and gimmick machines such as love testers, fortune tellers, and mutoscopes. Capitalising on their success, many of these machines would be piled into one venue, the “penny arcade”. Funny to think that the idea of an arcade between a century ago to now are not much different; even SEGA was around to make amusement machines, having gotten their start as a company in 1946 through this industry. History doesn’t repeat itself, but you’re right that it often rhymes, Mr. Twain.

 

Megaplay2.png.87d0f8bf6927982c6f5a26e2627aefb2.pngContemporary improvements to technology would slowly shift the culture of arcades toward electronic computer games. Pong drew people by the dozen into venues to play, creating an unprecedented success for amusement machines by that point. Then Space Invaders followed years later with a newer, bigger buzz for arcades, that entire venues in Japan became solely dedicated to the game--aptly named “Invader Houses”. Pac-Man came next, then Donkey Kong, and many more. In the 80s, arcades had solidified themselves as a fixture of youth culture, and pop culture around the world by extention.

As it became possible to bring arcade experiences to home gaming systems, they would promise ports comparable to the real thing, but still lacked the number of buttons required, the communal aspect of the games, and technical power that only the machines had. Instead, a new market was emerging:  Gaming experiences that could only be had in the home. Though Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog had seen arcade ports in their days, they were eclipsed by their home console success. The strengths of home gaming had its seeds planted in the 1980s, but by the mid-90s, arcades were losing their lustre as places for incredible technology and thrilling games, if all that could be had in front of your TV.

To only talk about video games looks over other machines that made their home in arcades, and further influenced their position as a social hub.
Mechanical games such as skee-ball and pinball are still popular, and many arcades have bowling alleys (and vice versa).
Card games became popular among Japanese children in the 2000s, as games would print cards to be used in their respective machines and be traded among friends.
Crane games are ubiquitous machines for prize redemption, dominating the front doors of arcades. To that end, ticket redemption games take a great majority of arcade floor space, even if medal games are akin to legally safe gambling machines.
Particularly in Japan, a line of machines called Photo Club were extremely popular, particularly for young girls who would socialise using the machines, taking photos of themselves and applying stickers and filters, to print and share.

 

beatmania.jpg.9cde08b8c9ae755fa494435ffd723703.jpgNone of this to say there wasn’t a place for unique arcade video games. Music games began a whole new genre of machines, tapping notes to popular songs as codified by beatmania in 1997, and quickly followed by many games fighting to copy its success, such as the globally renowned Dance Dance Revolution, unique instrumental games like Taiko no Tatsujin, and even SEGA would jump into the craze with Sonic Team’s Samba de Amigo. While these games would have versions made for the home, avid players felt they could never match up to the arcade experience that kept them coming back. For an added twist of irony, iconic music game Guitar Hero started in the home, but ended living on in arcades. But maimai, in stark contrast, has remained exclusive to arcades, as did many later music games such as Dance Rush Stardom, Sound Voltex, and the late WACCA, alongside maimai’s sister series in CHUNITHM and O.N.G.E.K.I.

 

For most of Asia, these other points of an arcade would help keep them alive, even in the face of venues closing year by year, from being unable to offset operating costs due to lowering profits. For the western world, arcades were closing regardless. These machines were being ignored in favour of home gaming, leaving arcades in a much more dire state with very few venues being left open, and those remaining either dwindling in size or getting attached to a separate business.
maimai attempted a location test in America around 2017 under these market conditions, but the lack of success alongside naïve decisions made by SEGA meant the game would be locked to Japan, China and Indonesia for a long time.

By the time I was born in the early 2000s, arcades in my country were, relative to home gaming, dead. As I said, my idea of arcades were painted by those in Japan that I was exposed to via the internet in my childhood, so although I loved the idea of arcades, I too was only playing games in the home.

World’s end loneliness

The now defunct SEGA Akihabara Building 2, with its signature escalatorsIt would be pointless to recognise the current position of arcades without first accounting for the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic that forced much of the world into isolation. Since arcades are public spaces to socialise and play video games, many arcades could not operate due to the pandemic, and were forced to shut down for being unable to offset operating costs. SEGA themselves had to pull out of operating game centres in 2022 following losses of ¥20 billion in the business in 2020 alone, shutting down game centres such as the iconic SEGA Akihabara Building 2, itself a tourist destination in the centre of the Electric Town, and selling off the rest.

Conversely to the pandemic causing a fall of arcades was a meteoric rise in home gaming systems and software, the industry breaking profit records unlikely to ever happen again, a statistic that SEGA can also testify as profiting from, and I as to having bought and played more video games than I did previously. Any of us can agree, there was very little else to do at home.

 

Public spaces found themselves in a difficult spot, when people had already grown comfortable with the idea of doing everything from home through means of online connectivity, from shopping to watching movies. Even socialising is something easily serviced through social media. So what could arcades offer now that home gaming had seemingly replaced it?

Many unique machines exclusive to arcades already found their way into the home. Photo Club’s features were adapted into phones years before the iPhone was a thing, and a modern rendition is ultimately SnapChat filters. There are now online services to play crane games from the comfort of your home and get prizes shipped to your doorstep, if you didn’t just buy the prize outright. And where arcades were once a place to play games against strangers and form a community, online gaming rendered it completely irrelevant.
Having grown up with the internet, I already partake in many of the things I’ve described, and I can’t bring myself to criticise these services for existing nor choose to live without them. I must stress now that I do not think arcades are better than home gaming, or that it is wrong how home gaming took the place of arcades, else I’d be a massive hypocrite.

 

None of that is to say any of these public spaces do not exist anymore, nor that they lack a place in our modern world. In fact, against the face of a loneliness crisis and increasing social alienation across the world, public spaces become more important than ever before. But what follows is a one-two punch of ballooning inflation, it’s too expensive to go outside and meet others, even if it’s to catch up in a cafe or watch a movie together. And if going outside gets more expensive than staying at home, then the pick of what’s financially viable for most people becomes a no-brainer.

Even travel becomes difficult in the face of car dependency making urban living into something miserable, with the need to pay for fuel to go anywhere, the need for parking to put your car when you’re done, the inevitability of traffic to transport what is usually a singular person, and extremely poorly planned urban road designs due to the space and priority of cars being taken over us human beings... This too adds to the cost of living, and the difficulty of going out casually for something like leisure and entertainment. Before I so much as had a license to drive, I was completely confined to my house, and I hated it.

 

As I write this, I feel a sense of futility, as it seems like there’s no good reason to go outside at all. These societal issues pile up and make me feel more isolated than even the actual isolation of the pandemic.

But maimai is connecting me back to the world again.

Connected

It’s funny what a good outside activity will do. You’ll find any way to make it happen, no matter how difficult it might be.

Just so I can play maimai, I exercise my body at home to increase my stamina and play for longer, and I learn to budget my money to have more chances to play. I’ve become more passionate about the topic of urban design and public transport, wanting to improve the infrastructure of my town, all to make it easier for myself and others to reach the arcade and play. I’ve become vocal to arcades nearer to me to get maimai into their venues, to let them know they’ll see more business if they do. I’ve become exposed to a new community of people that I would have never met, if not for maimai. Something about this game changed me, and I’m forever grateful.

 

Readers, if you live in east Asia, southeast Asia, Australia or New Zealand, then I HIGHLY recommend seeking out maimai by checking locations on the game’s website. I was not much of a rhythm game player before, but this game grabbed me like nothing else, and I’m confident that anyone else can find something to love in it too.

However, I know a vast majority of readers will hail from America, where the only way to play maimai is via older offline versions of the game that are no longer supported by SEGA. But I have something extremely important to share:

SEGA is location testing maimai again.

As of May 24th, a month-long location test is occuring in a Round1 inside the Puente Hills Mall in California. Featuring the latest and up-to-date version of the game, with full online capability, it shows that SEGA is interested in expanding maimai to more people around the world again. Should the test prove successful, SEGA may roll the game out across the country, and try testing their other rhythm games like CHUNITHM. I really cannot hold back my excitement, so if you do happen to live anywhere nearby, then I absolutely implore you to try the game and show your interest in it!

 

I do not think that arcades will ever reach their glory days again, but I think they can still have a place in our society as a fun place to hang out, for anyone. If these businesses are clever and know how to put themselves in an accessible spot, where the only things you need to worry about to go outside is where to carry your own two feet, then arcades can continue to live on as a place for those unique gaming experiences. With time, your local arcade may become like the Japanese arcades I saw on the internet in my childhood, and in my dreams.

Just remember to assume polite etiquette when playing the game: Don’t hog the machine, don’t cut in the queue, and please don’t make it awkward for everyone else. But as SEGA warns is most important of all:

Do NOT hit hard. Do NOT trace hard. LIGHT TOUCH is enough!

Current international version is maimai DX BUDDiES at the time of writing.

Edited by Polkadi~☆
Improved mobile formatting, minor corrections

  • Thumbs Up 3

4 Comments


Recommended Comments

niaco

Posted

We've got one lowkey maimai cabinet in our area, but I'm super hopeful for the location testing. Delighted to see others that dig it too. You've got good taste, friend - lovely read :tea:

Link to comment
Dreadknux

Posted

Hey, this was a really great and thoughtful read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I only experienced maimai (at least I think it was maimai, it definitely looks like it) in a trip to SEGA Joypolis on my last trip to Japan (back in 2019). I had a few goes, it was pretty fun! I remember there being a version of Live & Learn on there, as performed by Hatsune Miku. That was... an experience? But the game itself, pretty fun! Definitely the most exciting washing machine I've ever encountered.

Arcades really saw its last boom in the early 1990s, and I think we can fully place the credit for that to Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Those games brought kids to arcades in DROVES, as impromptu tournaments would break out.

I agree that arcades are at their best when promoting a social space, although I feel that is very much a Western approach to an arcades' success and not necessarily one that applies to Japan/Asia (where salarymen tend to play on their own, couples mostly visit to try the crane games on a date, and social engagements happen largely via network-connected machines).

I have heard of a few good arcades popping up in London in recent years, I should go and check it out when I get a free weekend. :)

Link to comment
Polkadi~☆

Posted

8 hours ago, niaco said:

We've got one lowkey maimai cabinet in our area, but I'm super hopeful for the location testing. Delighted to see others that dig it too. You've got good taste, friend - lovely read :tea:

Thank you for your comment!

I've heard about those lowkey cabinets around America, but I won't tell SEGA if you won't... I've wondered sometimes what happens if you recorded any player data on those machines. For example, what would happen if someone qualified online to play in King of Performai? Would it be allowed by SEGA...?

 

3 hours ago, Dreadknux said:

Hey, this was a really great and thoughtful read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I only experienced maimai (at least I think it was maimai, it definitely looks like it) in a trip to SEGA Joypolis on my last trip to Japan (back in 2019). I had a few goes, it was pretty fun! I remember there being a version of Live & Learn on there, as performed by Hatsune Miku. That was... an experience? But the game itself, pretty fun! Definitely the most exciting washing machine I've ever encountered.

Arcades really saw its last boom in the early 1990s, and I think we can fully place the credit for that to Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Those games brought kids to arcades in DROVES, as impromptu tournaments would break out.

I agree that arcades are at their best when promoting a social space, although I feel that is very much a Western approach to an arcades' success and not necessarily one that applies to Japan/Asia (where salarymen tend to play on their own, couples mostly visit to try the crane games on a date, and social engagements happen largely via network-connected machines).

I have heard of a few good arcades popping up in London in recent years, I should go and check it out when I get a free weekend. :)

Thank you for your comment, Sven!

It definitely would have been maimai if it was in Joyopolis (come on, it's SEGA...) but maybe an older version of it. Before July of 2019, there was maimai FiNALE, which was the final version for the original 2012 cabinet, before maimai DX replaced it with a brand new cabinet. Also, I was initially going to put a video in the end of me getting an All Perfect clear in a Sonic chart, but that would have taken a lot of time, and I wanted to share this article sooner. But not Live and Learn, though. Its MASTER chart is level 12+, but it borders on 13, which is above my current skill...

The section for going over the history of arcades was going to be a bit longer and mention the fighting game boom, but it was truncated for not adding much to my overall thoughts. As an amusing observation, Virtua Fighter enjoyed success in Japan in place of Mortal Kombat!

As for the idea of arcades as a social environment being exclusively western, I don't think that's true. One of your examples references a social engagement common to arcades, and engaging with an arcade at all is still choosing to socialise publicly, as there are accounts of elderly men in Japan who go to arcades to relive older games and be among other people. I feel like your definition is coming from the idea of strictly labelling only conversation as socialising, even though just that's one of its many forms.

I hope SEGA will bring maimai to the UK someday!

  • Thumbs Up 1
Link to comment
niaco

Posted

29 minutes ago, Polkadi~☆ said:

I've wondered sometimes what happens if you recorded any player data on those machines. For example, what would happen if someone qualified online to play in King of Performai? Would it be allowed by SEGA...?

To answer this - if you aren't at a Round 1, they use custom servers that are being run at that particular location. There's no online connectivity but it saves your scores and you can log in just fine - if another location is running the same kind of server, my data syncs between both of them. It's cool!

Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now



×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

You must read and accept our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy to continue using this website. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.