A few years ago I wrote about what I thought was one of the coolest things in Japan: Famicom bars. Basically these are bars or cafes which cater to retro gamers. For an hourly fee they allow customers to sit at a table and play a Famicom (or other retro console) while having a drink. Its a very similar business model to internet cafes which are everywhere in Japan. I'm not sure when the first opened, but some have evidently been around for decades. Some of them are really great places with really knowledgeable owners.
Or, at least that is how they were until today. Police in Kyoto and Kobe have just arrested four individuals who ran retro game bars (Game Bar Clantz in Kyoto, Equlit in Kobe, and two others which aren't named in the news reports). Their crime? Allowing customers to play games produced by Nintendo and Capcom without permission from Nintendo and Capcom.
If you want to see something really surreal, check out this news clip about the arrest. The police seized more than a thousand game cartridges (mostly Super Famicom) and several consoles, including a red and white Famicom. They laid it all out for the press to see, the same way they do with piles of drugs and cash seized from drug kingpins. Its weird.
The legal problem is that charging the public to play on games licensed for home consoles is a violation of copyright law, since the owners of the copyright (Nintendo, Capcom and other game makers) only license those for non commercial, domestic use. In other words, the entire business model of Famicom bars is basically illegal. According to this report, the police action was launched in response to complaints from Nintendo itself (along with other game makers).
While it was only four retro game bars that were targeted in this raid, this basically means that all of them are illegal and I doubt any will stay in business after today at the risk of the owner being arrested. I just discovered that the link to Famicom City in Shibuya, a major retro game bar that opened in 2015 which I wrote about in my earlier post on these stores (from which the photo at the top of this post comes), is now dead. The only way for these bars to go legit is either:
A) get permission from the makers of each game they offer to the public to do so (highly unlikely, given that the makers obviously can and will refuse such permission), or:
B) Remove all home consoles and replace them with arcade cabinets (which are licensed for use by the public and thus not illegal to use in a bar). This is do-able, but of course arcade cabinets aren't ideally suited for cafes (except the table top ones) so doing so would really change the nature of places that do this.
This is really sad, since retro game bars were one of the coolest elements of the Japanese retro gaming scene. It also feels quite petty on the part of Nintendo. While I appreciate that legally they are in the right, I don't see what purpose is served in shutting these places down. The games involved look like they were mostly over 20 years old, so its hardly like they were eating into Nintendo's profits and turning a blind eye to technical violations of copyright undoubtedly had the benefit of throwing a lot of good will from the gaming community to Nintendo (and Capcom who were also behind this). I think they deserve to take a hit to their reputation for this, how about you?