Akihabara still shows off Japan’s love for physical media

If you’re a video game collector, you’ve either dreamed of visiting Akihabara or have already made your way there. Truth be told, Tokyo’s electric mecca isn’t quite what it once was; it used to be the best place in the world to seek out rare releases, but that was before the internet trivialized buying used games. Akiba (as it’s commonly known) has shifted with trends over time, and it doesn’t usually offer the same value or exclusivity that it once did. You’re far less likely to successfully dig in the crates for your personal holy grail, much less find it for a reasonable price.

But if you take a step back, Akiba’s place in the world feels more valuable than ever. As brick-and-mortar game stores in the West are now mostly associated with meme stocks and Funko Pops, Akiba holds firm as a sizable district in the planet’s largest megalopolis where you can reliably go shopping for video games both old and new.

In 2012, I wrote on The Verge about how Japan was out of step with the rest of the world when it came to media consumption. Back then, I was describing a country that still had few options for digital media, other than the widespread use of DVRs to record broadcast TV. Music and video streaming had yet to make a serious mark; CD and DVD rental chain Tsutaya remained ubiquitous. All of that has changed. Spotify and Netflix are as prevalent as anywhere else, while Tsutaya has closed more than 500 stores in the past five years, according to business magazine Toyo Keizai.

Video games, though, are a different story.

“When compared with other markets, it seems Japan still absolutely loves physical games,” says Kantan Games’ Serkan Toto, a veteran watcher of the Japanese industry, who points to the most recent survey from Japan’s Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association (CESA). CESA found that physical games accounted for about 70 percent of total sales in Japan in 2022, including 65 percent of PlayStation 5 games and 77 percent of Switch releases. By comparison, Sony says that 70 percent of full PS4 and PS5 game sales in 2022 were digital across the world.

It’s not just Akihabara, of course. Physical video game stores are all over the place in Japan, from big chains like Book Off to small family-run shops. People in Osaka will talk your ear off over how much better their own local Den-Den Town district is than Akiba for retro games these days. (As a former Osaka resident, I’m inclined to agree.)

“People still are used to going to stores here in Japan and buying physical items,” says John Ricciardi, who runs Tokyo game localization company 8-4 and now SuperDeluxe, a new physical game publisher for the Japanese market. SuperDeluxe is a joint venture between 8-4 and Limited Run Games, which is known for selling special-edition physical games in the West. 

One reason to start SuperDeluxe as a separate publisher was the viability of the retail market in Japan. “We knew right off the bat that we were going to have to involve retail in order to be able to make that stick,” Ricciardi says. “Every game we do is available at retail as well as from our site from day one.”

So far, SuperDeluxe has put out physical versions of classics like Radiant Silvergun, deep cuts like Gimmick!, and recent indie hits like Unpacking. The catalog ranges from elaborate special editions to more standard releases, though those also benefit from greater attention to detail; there’ll always be a full printed manual, for example. “We want people to have the opposite experience [of regular physical releases], like you open it and [go], ‘Oh my God there’s a manual in there, people don’t do that anymore,’” says Ricciardi.

“It’s just easier to get to these things in Japan.”

Retail sales data from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu shows that the disc drive-equipped PlayStation 5 has outsold the cheaper digital-only model by more than 6-to-1 in Japan. Both PS5 models were supply constrained for a while after launch, but Famitsu’s most recent weekly data shows a nearly 3-to-1 ratio in favor of the disc drive version. That’s even after Sony refreshed the PS5 design so that a disc drive could be added after purchase.

The Nintendo Switch, of course, is the dominant platform in Japan, and every version of the console comes with a physical card slot. Nintendo doesn’t provide regional breakdowns for digital and physical sales data, but in its most recent earnings report, it said that digital accounted for about 51 percent of sales overall, well behind CESA’s figure of 77 percent for Japan in 2022. 

The digital-only Xbox Series S has slightly outsold the Series X, meanwhile, but the Xbox platform is so niche in Japan that the physical gaming market is almost nonexistent.

“I think that’s tracking in Japan, too, but at a much slower level,” Ricciardi says of the global trend toward digital. “Physical is still strong here, and there’s still value in having your game out in physical day one, even if you’re doing an indie game. Because people generally just do go buy stuff.”

Unless you’re shopping for Xbox titles, physical games are still easy to buy in Japanese cities. Even if you’re in a rural location, you can generally expect speedy release-day shipping thanks to Japan’s relatively small size and high population density. (Amazon and other retailers do make caveats for remote regions such as Okinawa and certain other isolated islands.)

“I’m not a prophet or anything, but I believe that physical media will have more longevity here for the same reason that I think magazines do, which is that anyone can step out of their house and walk five feet [to buy one],” says Ricciardi. “It’s just easier to get to these things in Japan.”

But even if you live in easy reach of a game store, there’s still nothing quite like Akihabara. Its sheer scale elevates it above any similar electronics district in the world, with everything from big-box retailers in multistory towers to tiny independent component sellers huddling under train tracks. 

It’s changed over the years, to be sure. Iconic stores like Super Potato have had their shelves stripped of sought-after stock, while beloved mainstays like Game Hollywood and Tokiwa Musen have gone altogether. The early 2000s appearance of maid cafes was shortly followed by the arrival of formerly dominant J-pop idol group AKB48, a handful of members of which would perform daily at a theatre on Akihabara’s main strip starting in 2005. The district’s identity became less focused on video games at a time when the Japanese industry was facing challenges. 

“You’d have a checklist of like 10 different places you wanted to go to in a day. You spent the whole day there.”

Akihabara existed as an electronics market before video games were even a thing, though, and the district is simply continuing to change with the times. A couple of years ago, the AKB48 theatre sign was replaced with adverts for the Chinese game Genshin Impact, which would have been unthinkable a few years prior. Genshin marketing is still all over Akihabara, as is promotion for Apex Legends, which has taken off in Japan like no other Western first-person shooter before it.

The recent rise of PC gaming in Japan is another trend that’s changed the makeup of the district. High-end hardware boutiques would entice customers with VR demos, although that’s died off a little of late. You can find custom mechanical keyboard studios, and on a recent visit, I saw a new store entirely dedicated to PC handhelds. These businesses couldn’t have existed before, but today, they reinforce Akihabara’s gaming culture despite not selling physical games.

“When we would come back then, we would bring an extra suitcase just to go shopping,” says Ricciardi, who first came to Japan in 1997 while working for Electronic Gaming Monthly. “And it wasn’t for the sake of reselling stuff, it was just because, oh my God, I could finally get my hands on all this stuff I read about in magazines as a kid. It was affordable and it was everywhere because there were shops all over Akihabara. You’d have a checklist of like 10 different places you wanted to go to in a day. You spent the whole day there.”

Those days are gone. There are still great stores for retro games in Akihabara — Beep is a perennial favorite — but it’s normally no longer the best place to buy games. Mercari, a massively popular Japanese startup that developed a sort of mobile-first eBay, is now the first port of call for buying or selling retro games for almost everyone I know.

As for more recent used games, Akihabara is still a solid place to get a deal. “It is very, very simple to sell off used games in Japan,” points out Toto. “Not only online like everywhere else in the world but also just by walking into one of the many, many secondhand stores that we have in this country.” It might not be as romantic as finding a long-out-of-print Sega Saturn game, but hey — you can still save a few thousand yen on a copy of Final Fantasy XVI.

Regardless of what you’re looking to buy, Akihabara stands as a testament to the endurance of physical media in Japan. You have giant, towering stores like Bic Camera and Sofmap, each dedicating floor space to physical software that any given GameStop could only dream of. And they stand surrounded by streets and alleyways devoted to various aspects of gaming culture.

“I believe the shift to digital will continue even in Japan over the next [few] years, albeit at a smaller pace when compared with other countries,” Toto says. I agree that it ultimately seems inevitable. But winds tend to blow at a slower speed in Japan even when you know which direction they’re going. Right now, if you value the preservation of physical games, there’s still perhaps no better place in the world than Akihabara.

Photography by Sam Byford for The Verge

By 111 Tech

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