#1157 – Asian Dawn for Amusement

The continued momentum of changes in the international entertainment scene was reflected in two major trade gatherings during February. Along with the ICE London convention, the amusement industry held one of Japan’s leading trade events – revealing a changing landscape for an industry in transition. 

Japan’s Amusement Returns

All eyes turned to the Japan Amusement Expo (JAEPO) held in Tokyo in the first weeks of February. After a hiatus of some three years, the Shinky Zhang Messe International Exhibition Center Exhibition Hall 9/10 played host to the JAEPO event organized by the Japan Amusement Industry Association (JAIA). This was a pivotal point for the future of the trade and its supporting association. On the JAEPO’23 show floor there were 41 companies able to attend, and here is a rundown of the key players.

SEGA Corporation – The Japanese amusement scene seems to still be fixated on the music game genre, with most new videos on display at JAEPO’23 being in this category. SEGA had on their booth ‘Chunithm Sun’, the latest in their touch screen rhythm music game series. In the card collector category, SEGA presented ‘Great Battle of England’ – a tabletop battle game, with players using the unique card table that tracks the movement of collector cards on its surface and represents them on screen in the game. Used for soccer, and ancient Japanese battle games, this is the latest incarnation of the technology.

The company also showed the latest in their crane games with ‘UFO Catcher 10’, with new branding. This and other crane games were supported SEGA’s new ‘Prize ON’ platform – a smart app that allows patrons to pay, and collect points on their smartphone, when they play the catchers. This is the latest social app being deployed to support amusement playing and it is encouraging for players to join a network supported by their machines – addressing the issue of SEGA not having direct access to the player-base, having dropped their venue business. On the live stage portion of the booth, the company held “Sega Sound Game DJ Live” and, during the public day, wowed fans of their game series with live performances. 

Overall, this must have been one of the sparsest booths for new releases in SEGA’s history, with very few new releases of note and, as has become expected, no titles with international interest. SEGA has divested most of its facility operation business to GENDA Entertainment, which has doubled down on its consumer games business, working in partnership with Microsoft on what has been dubbed their “Super Game Project” – based around the ‘Azure’ could platform. No word on the continuing efforts of this project following the massive Microsoft layoffs, or if rumors of a possible suitor for the troubled Japanese game corporation are true.

BANDAI NAMCO Amusement (BNA) – The company had one of the biggest booths at JAEPO’23, reflecting the energy the corporation still has in amusement business. Video amusement was represented by the new release in the Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme Versus series, with ‘Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme Versus 2 Overboost’. The two-on-two robot combat game is the latest in the series first launched in 2001 – featuring satellite terminals in multiplayer combat. Another satellite multiplayer shown was ‘JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Last Survivor’, with up-to-20 players in a networked combat game – another sequel to a popular franchise.

BNA showed their new update to ‘Mario Kart – Arcade Grand Prix DX’ – still a work-in-progress with two new selectable characters, and new marquee. The new version of the popular arcade series had four-player network racing and many of the familiar elements from the Nintendo licensed property. It is planned for a release in summer of this year and looks to be an update kit to systems in the market. The game series has seen great success in the West, and it is hoped that this latest version, when released, will get an international placement. The company also celebrated last year’s 10th anniversary of their ‘Fishing Spirits’ top-down fishing reel game – with a six-player example presented. 

One video that was announced but not present on the booth was ‘Idol Master Tour’ – the popular group music game, the latest in the series scheduled for a 2024 release and which will start testing in the summer. The rest of the booth included a strong selection of prize systems, including the new generation in crane games, a genre in amusement that is very popular with the Japanese audience post-lockdown. BNA presented ‘Crane 3’, based on the series of UFO catchers, but including new styling and game features. 

A unique appearance at JAEPO’23 on the BNA booth was an attraction from their “Active Entertainment” venue ‘VS Park’. The company’s chain of active entertainment spaces has been another example of the diversification of the amusement trade in Japan and, at the show, they presented ‘Jump X Jump’ – representing a standalone physical attraction, with a rotating obstacle, like the ‘Wipeout Meltdown’ Inflatable Renta systems employed across Western trampoline parks. The rest of the central booth had their own live performance stage that was used for announcements, and live performances. 

Representing international (overseas) amusement, on the BANDAI NAMCO Technica booth separate from the central section, the company showed ‘DEAD HEAT Unleashed’ – the street racing title, a game that incorporates a course based on the popular Tokyo Street circuit of the evergreen ‘Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune’. The two units at the show placed the game in new Japanese cabinets (compared to the Western alternative). Other overseas releases were from Raw Thrills, with the first Japanese appearance for ‘Fast & Furious: Arcade’ – the big DX motion seat racer system taking a prominent spot on the booth. Also from the US company, the previously-launched ‘King Kong: Skull Island’ VR amusement piece (the only VR seen at the show) was shown. Along with these videos there were several prize machines from overseas. This caused a little confusion regarding their compliance with Japanese legislation on prize functionality, which saw a hastily printed notice confirming these machines were not permitted in Japan. 

BNA, like many other amusement operations in Japan, has been broadening its amusement venue business, growing its Capsule Gaming line, with the ‘Gashapon BANDAI Official Shop’ retail stores. But the operation has also reinvested in its amusement venue interests, with the corporation developing innovation in its venue business. In December, it was announced that their ‘namco Tokyo’ concept will open in April, offering a new entertainment venue approach from the traditional amusement hall styling, in what BNA call a “Amusement Complex”. This will be joined by the previous SEGA site, recently taken over with the planned spring opening of ‘namco Akihabara’.

Regarding JAEPO’23, BNA was also represented in part on the BANPRESTO booth, with BANDAI Spirit, SEGA Prize, and other ranges playing a major part in the prize and merchandising sales into this sector. The Japanese trade show was dominated by a large presentation of the latest prize properties, as part of the “Prize Fair Zone” of the show, with licensed merchandise items to populate the hoard of prize and catcher machines in this market. 

KONAMI Amusement – The veteran developer took a booth at the show and focused on key product lines for the Asian-centric amusement presence – but it did have one of the second biggest booths at JAEPO’23. The medal game scene was represented with new release ‘Momotara Electric Iron’ – a screen and medal game that was very eye-catching and includes the “metal pusher” feature. The game is based on a popular consumer game series. 

There was still some video amusement revealed by KONAMI, with the launch of their new dungeons RPG title ‘Eldora Crown Eternal Labyrinth’, with a sit-down networked play cabinet, with players steering their team through the dungeons, avoiding traps and attackers. The game is supported by a collectable card element for magic and weapon enhancement. 

Reflecting their big investment in the music game scene, the company also had two ‘Dance Dance Revolution 20th’ supporting the ‘BEMANI Pro League Season 2’. The golden dance stage systems are used as part of the play of the competition tournaments held, labelled “eSports x Music”. Of the other videos on display in the DJ music series, KONAMI showed ‘Resident: Beatmania IIDX 30’ – another continuation of the evergreen music property. 

Reflecting KONAMI’s continued investment in the competition element of the business, the JAEPO booth supported by a live stage, which during the public day was playing the popular music from the BEMANI series. It was interesting to note that no examples of the corporations eSports product line and development were reflected on the booth. But in an announcement made on the business day of the show, it was revealed that “KONAMI Arcade Championship” will have the Final take place at the new JAEPO in November 2023 – and will represent a major amusement-based eSports gathering.

TAITO – As previously reported in our EAG’23 coverage, the corporation was working hard to mark its 70th anniversary during this year, and the JAEPO’23 show appearance continued this push. These celebrations also saw a new focus for the amusement operation (owned by Square ENIX), looking towards the future of its amusement and operations business in a changed landscape.

The big booth at the industry trade show included the marking of more anniversaries, such as the 45th anniversary of ‘Space Invaders’, with the booth running the large screen multi-player experience ‘Space Invaders Gigamax’ on the live stage booth. The game was originally released for the 40th anniversary, as part of the Tokyo exhibition called ‘Play! Space Invaders’. The ten-player version of the game was presented, and it was thought that TAITO would now be making this available for other venues as a released product. 

A look for new opportunities underpinned many amusement developments seen at the show, and this was best illustrated by the creation of the new entertainment center offering. Called ‘X-Station’, the facility comprises not just the latest amusement and UFO, but also immersive XR entertainment systems – what the company has dubbed “eXtended Reality”. TAITO brought one of these to the JAEPO show floor. The ‘CUBE’ system is a multi-projection 5D Immersive Attraction, that tracks the players’ actions and relays them on the 450-degree projected screens. Two of the latest games for the system were on display, first with the four-player standing shooter ‘Space Cube’; and second with the latest experience ‘Treasure Explorer’ – four-players sitting on stools to allow them to spin and blast targets, as the experience races through caves, with players using their controllers to shoot at enemies, in a cooperative virtual ride attraction. The ‘CUBE’ system is the latest in the trend of “Immersive Enclosure” concepts we have reported on.

More conventional amusement business was represented at the game show, with TAITO revealing the new video ‘Music Dive’ – a music rhythm game using the familiar circular touch screen configuration. The music game is supported by a slew of licensed music and an extensive social media component, all connected to the TAITO ‘NESiCA’ network.

Presented in a corner space on the TAITO booth was CAPCOM’s latest release – marking the surprise return to the arcades of their popular brawler with ‘Street Fighter 6 Type Arcade’ (this is the latest in the franchise in arcades since 2019). The game was sitting on eight TAITO Type X4 cabinets at the show, supporting the ‘NESiCA’ network, and tournament play component. The game will be represented by TAITO in the amusement trade, heavily promoting the title, which will see the release of the consumer console version of the game in June. The game will support, in the arcades, an extensive tournament competition element. Obviously, there are no plans revealed of a Western amusement release, no matter how interested some operators would be.

Breaking – Just as we went to the wire with this report, massive news broke from CAPCOM that they were to launch ‘Street Fighter VR Shadaloo Enhancement Project’. This is a first-person brawler set in VR. This is the latest reimagining of a popular CAPCOM property placed in VR, as seen with the 2020 ‘Rockman VR’ release. The new Street Fighter VR attraction will be installed at selected Plaza Capcom venues in Japan, including the new MIRAINO store, for a limited run.

Regarding CAPCOM, we see an example of the duality of the Japanese amusement scene where, on one side, the amusement sector looks to redefine their facility business, and on the other there is the explosion in Gashapon (Capsule Gaming), and the latest in UFO (Crane Game) venues. CAPCOM recently announced their new ‘CAPCOM BOX’ crane game facility chain, with sites dedicated to complete “Frictionless” operation, seeing a completely cashless payment system. Patrons just walk into the stores and use either smartphone QR code, or contactless payment cards (IC), and can play the latest crane machines. This is the latest in the frictionless approach to payment that has been championed by Japanese operators, weaning their audience off cash. This new chain store is in support of ‘Capsule Labs’ CAPCOM’s capsule gaming vending store. These are expected to be part of an active rollout by the corporation. CAPCOM has some 40 conventional amusement facility businesses under the ‘Plaza CAPCOM’ brand, but has also been experimenting with new venue concepts, most recently with their ‘MIRAINO’ – an active entertainment site, including VR, eSports, and amusement. 

The Rest

Moving across a wide selection of scattered exhibitors on the JAEPO’23 show floor, and on the Eiko booth was represented exA-Arcadia, who had an extensive presentation, with some 30 exclusive game titles on display, in what was called ‘Club Exa: Gamers Lounge’ – the booth was packed with 30-cabs, mostly the TAITO Type X4 system, but the company also had the new cabinets able to be configured from one-, two- and four-player control panels present, first seen and reported on at IAAPA’22. Games on display included the new release from SNK for the exA-Arcadia platform (a happy return to amusement trade show for the developer). As part of the presentation at JAEPO’23, the company was offering a brand-new low-cost leasing plan for operators. 

Another exhibitor at the Japanese show, Safari Games, presented on their booth ‘Top Gun’ – a skill shooting game that seemed to be based on the same design as we had seen launched by Electrocoin with ‘Skill Shooter’. Meanwhile, one of the surprise appearances on the show floor was, for the first time, one of the only overseas company’s exhibiting – with Dreamfuns taking a booth to present their Chinese line of amusement and prize machines. This is an important milestone for the show, a show that had previously excluded such representation. The event is bowing to the realities of the new market. 

Charting another trend seen at the show, was the number of systems that offered a power-saving feature. The spiralling cost of energy prices for Japanese operators has reached concerning levels, and now many machine manufacturers are offering “energy saving” features towards addressing these concerns. These range from energy efficient electrical motors and lighting, as well as features to shut down the cabinet when not in use. 

In conclusion, this was an important show that marked a trade in transition, still deeply wounded from the privations of the Global Health Crisis, and the show represented Japanese amusement’s future. With that in mind, the JAEPO’23 show was focused on “new initiatives of game arcades”, as the show’s tagline marketing expressed. Another aspect was “the evolution of game arcades that reflect the times”. And, as we have reflected, many of the exhibitors had new style entertainment business as part of their makeup. 

The show organizers revealed the attendance numbers, and they reflected the current situation of the Japanese market. The show saw a total of 14,300 attendees over the two days – this down from the 15,200 seen in 2020 (the last time the show had been held physically). Of this was some 6,200 business visitors (down from 7,300 in 2020). But, regarding the public day, the audience of 8,000 was up from the previous 7,600. The importance of the public day was not lost on the exhibitors – supporting them with competition, live performances and merch. And would see the trade try and broaden its consumer contacts.

Regarding the rundown of trends and developments from the show, we list some of the important highlights.

JAEPO Adds a New Date

The Japanese trade has had to embrace the new conditions for the market. In a surprise announcement, the Japan Amusement Industry Association (JAIA) show organizers revealed their intention to include a new format and hold a new one-day show, held on the 25th of November this year, at Tokyo Big Site convention center. This means the Japanese amusement scene will have three amusement events in a single year. The other trade event is in June, with the new combined ‘Amusement & Leisure Expo Tokyo’ (AMLEX) offering an amusement and attraction business event that has attracted interest from the trade. 

For JAEPO, the decision to include a new format comes as a surprise from JAIA –with a membership still reeling from the COVID restrictions that have impacted the country, while other territories have been able to pick up the pieces. The Japanese amusement trade is in limbo and, even before the Global Health Crisis, was needing to find a new direction to address the changes in the market. As reported, many manufacturers have moved to a new style of center model. Meanwhile the capsule toy vending scene has exploded, generating much of the new operation’s business.

The Japanese amusement scene is a shadow of its former grandeur, and it is difficult for the trade to still carry off the mega-tradeshow of the past, with many booths at JAEPO’23 reflecting the downturn – even though strong public interest was still recorded. It would be impossible for the trade association to continue as normal and, while traditional, the need for a new format and approach was impossible to ignore. The new event was reported as being focused on general consumers (arcade fans) and will be aimed to expand developments and the fanbase. This has led some to consider this to try and win-back the audience. One aspect of this event is the surprise date selection that would clash with IAAPA’23 in the States, though if aimed wholly at Japanese consumers this may not be an issue. 

Show Reflects Trades VR Decision

One of the other big surprises from JAEPO’23 and those exhibiting was the almost absence of VR on the show floor. Manufacturers such as BANDAI NAMCO Amusement had represented the technology considerably in their previous showings, and it was conspicuous to see its absence. Although BNA did have the only example of VR at the show, representing on their Technica (overseas) booth, with third party Raw Thrills’ ‘King Kong: Skull Island’.

It does not mean that Japanese amusement trade has abandoned deploying VR. The CAPCOM new ‘MIRAINO’ store incorporates dedicated VR attractions, while the new TAITO ‘X-Station’ venues also include both MR and VR offerings. It just seemed that this year’s JAEPO show was deemed not the place to show the technology. But also, that many of the Japanese amusement factories were not actively carrying any R&D projects using the technology. 

As we saw on the TAITO booth, the company had pivoted to MR technology, showing their new ‘CUBE’ multi-projection XR “Immersive Enclosure” system. The move to this technology offers certain benefits in number of users, frictionless immersion, and a novelty factor of placing the guest into the experience. Interest in the West has continued for VR in location-based entertainment. While the Japanese amusement trade may be standoffish about new VR investment, other Japanese entertainment developers continue to support the tech, as well as its MR counterpart.

Universal Studios Japan VR Investment

While the Japanese amusement scene may not be showing it, the Japanese theme park sector had innovation on display off-site. Along with their AR and MR laden ‘Super Nintendo World’ gate at the park resort, it was announced that Universal’s Japan park would be adding a new VR attraction to their roster. A new attraction that has just opened is ‘Doraemon XR Ride ~ Nobita and the Utopia of the Sky’. Based on the popular anime series and movie franchise, this is a VR coaster experience that will open for a limited time in the park during 2023. The promotional-based attraction coincides with the launch of the latest Doraemon animated motion picture in March. This is the most recent Doraemon XR coaster attraction at the park, with the 2020 ‘Doraemon Stand By Me 2 XR Ride’. The new 2023 attraction is expected to use much of the flat-ride VR headset technology.

It is interesting to see the move towards the greater usage of XR in the branding of immersive attractions, as the VR moniker loses some of its fashionability. And speaking of Universal Studios resort, and their partnership with video game giant Nintendo, the opening of Super Nintendo World at the Hollywood park took place this month. At the ceremony, the “world’s worst secret” in the theme park industry was also revealed with the announcement that a ‘Super Nintendo World’ gate will also be opening at Universal Orlando resort. Although there was no confirmation of the rumored 2025 opening schedule. 

Frictionless Japanese Amusement

The impact of COVID across the Japanese nation has been hard felt, from the impact on the Tokyo Olympics, to the massive upheaval in public life. But with these upheavals, innovation has been accelerated. The Japanese amusement scene has seen a massive engagement with the latest frictionless technology.

We have already charted the extensive use of smart phone apps in payment and player engagement across the Japanese amusement industry. JAEPO’23 saw the launch of the latest system now targeting UFO Catchers (Crane Games) with the new SEGA ‘Prize-ON’ app for scores and prize selection. Regarding catchers, the popularity of “online crane games” has continued to snowball – these remote live crane game streamed channels have fostered a popular aspect of the industry. And after the Japanese show, a new entrant was announced with ‘Aracre’ from Wild Leisure. The latest entrant into the crowded scene allows players from online or smartphone to play live connected crane machines.

The “Live Play” online machine services, along with the explosion in Capsule Toy game venues, are all reflections on the new normal that the Japanese amusement trade finds itself contending with, and the need towards establishing a control over a fragmenting market.   

With the end of JAEPO’23, the rest of the international amusement and attraction sectors’ attention will turn to the coming Dubai Entertainment Attractions & Leisure (DEAL) Exhibition in the country. The impact of the UAE amusement and attraction business is multiplying with new developments announced in the territory. While for many, the Western market’s next major event will be that of Amusement Expo International (AEI) – all shows that will have a very important story to tell in the reality of business for the rest of the year. Full reports coming soon.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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