Video game bars are an intriguing prospect for a significant percentage of tourists visiting Japan, particularly those in their 20s to 30s who grew up with gaming and now want to combine their youthful passions with the more adult love of alcohol. They can, however, be a slightly daunting prospect for those less confident in their Japanese ability; What will the cover charge be, if any? Is there a time limit? Are they specific rules I need to follow? These are all understandable concerns and may, sadly, put some people off of undertaking what can be a genuinely entertaining and, in some cases, uniquely Japanese experience. Fortunately, for those who can be a bit put off by the language barrier, and also, of course, for those who aren’t, there is Space Station; Osaka’s English-friendly entry into the world of video game bars.
Established in 2011 and located in Amemura, well within a comfortable walking distance of both Shinsaibashi and Namba subway stations (Y240 on the Midosuji line from Umeda Station), Space Station is owned by an American and is staffed by other native English speakers, ensuring a relaxed and welcoming environment for ex-pats and travellers alike. Given the western atmosphere, it’s not the ideal place for those wishing to get “stuck-in” with the locals, and those who visit more than once may well see familiar faces as the bar has a well-deserved reputation amongst Osaka’s sizeable ex-pat community, but the positive, friendly atmosphere will overcome any gripes amongst those after a purely Japanese experience.
Even before entering, the bars décor begins crafting a gaming atmosphere with the LED lined steps flashing bright, pixellated images beckoning you inside. Reaching the top of the stars, patrons are immediately greeted by an oval mirror encased in an orange outline to evoke Portal, the 2007 puzzle classic, and from there they will notice the classic NES game boxes lining the walls, a R.O.B. guarding a collection of X-Box 360 games on a shelf perched above stained-glassed windows baring a Tetris mosaic, various gaming inspired alternative-art paintings, and even a wall with various peripherals hanging from it. This attention to detail even extends to the bathroom, where toilet-based scenes from video games past and present adorn the walls. It’s these little touches that really contribute to the atmosphere, but perhaps the greatest is one that will go unnoticed to most – the bar itself is modelled after the Famicom pulse line that adorned early releases on the Japanese version of the NES.
The bar itself is open between 8:00pm and 2:00am every-night, with it frequently staying open later, though if you’re deadest on playing on one specific console it’s a good idea to get there at opening as it is relatively small and does fill up quickly. Unlike Osaka’s other gaming bars, which charge between Y300-500, Space Station has no seating fee, and this value is extended the drink prices. Basic Kirin Lager is just Y500 (£2.58), with a wide-variety of video game themed cocktails, such as the “Dr. Mario”, the “Floating Peach” and the “Zangief” costing slightly more. Most notable is the “Hadouken”; named for the Street Fighter series’ Ryu’s signature move, this shot involves drinking vertically through a straw as your shot is set on fire! The variety of, and thought put into the drinks on offer is a nice surprise and shows that Space Station takes itself as seriously as a bar as it does a video game establishment.
Of course, ultimately, Space Station can only be truly worthy of a visit if the gaming selection is up to scratch. With everything from the Atari up to the Playstation 4, Space Station offers a wider selection of consoles than one may expect, rather than pandering to the retro crowd or focusing on newer consoles; with every Nintendo console, an Atari, Mega Drive (Genesis in the U.S.), Dreamcast, PS3, PS4, Xbox360 and Xbox One on offer, there is a fairly definitive catalogue of the last 25 years of home console gaming on offer. Each system also has an extensive, eclectic collection of games available to play; a collection that is constantly being updated with the latest releases to ensure it’s always evolving. One of the bars more interesting gimmicks is the fact that, for the NES and SNES, the western and Japanese equivalents sit side-by-side, giving the more inquisitive gamer the chance to examine both consoles and see if they can spot any differences in the western and eastern versions of classic titles.
Of course, there are a few negatives that need to be addressed so as not to have any potential customers go in with too unrealistic expectations. Firstly, there is the problem that any bar in Japan faces; the lack of a smoking ban means the place can get very smoky which will be off-putting for people from places were smoking indoors is no longer common place. The main, issue, however is space as the bar is typically Japanese in that it’s very narrow; there are 16 seats and room enough for around another 15 people standing at the most. As a result, as few as 20 customers can make it uncomfortably crowded and it frequently becomes packed out. Additionally, this lack of space results in a lack of TVs and monitors. As I alluded to earlier, if you have a specific console in mind you really need to get to the bar on opening; with only six screens, many with more than one console linked up, it can be frustrating to see consoles remaining un-played because of a lack of monitors. The layout is also occasionally an issue; a projector screen, whilst a good idea, often has four people crowded around it playing Super Smash Brothers Brawl and tends to result in almost half of an already small space being blocked off.
Overall, whilst the size and layout sometimes count against it, provided you are realistic in your expectations and catch it at the right time, Space Station is one of the more memorable and pleasant experiences on a night out in Osaka and a great way to experience the way that, in Japan, video gaming has permeated popular consciousness in a way it hasn’t quite done so yet in the west.