Thursday, June 14, 2018

Oh No! Japanese Retro Video Game Bars and Cafes are Getting Shut Down by the Fuzz!

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?


  1. This is another low for Nintendo in their supposed copyright war. I hope this doesn't go unnoticed. They've taken some heat over their policies with streaming/videos of their games and they should take heat for this, too.

    Couldn't the bars just not charge for time on their consoles? Technically people would just be using them like they would at their home and paying for the drinks and food.

    That's the business model in North America with some pubs and bars that offer retro gaming. You come to play the games for free, but that just gets you into the door. Seems like it would be a legal option, but I don't know the ins-and-outs of all this.

    Sad to hear this!

  2. Yeah, it is a shame and I think Nintendo deserves some bad press among fans for this.

    Unfortunately even if the bars stopped charging for the consoles (technically they don't even now, you just pay a flat fee to sit in the place), even if they offer it for free to the public its a violation of the copyright.

    Do they have some places like that in North America too? If they are, they are probably just flying under the radar, as soon as they get caught by the game publisher's association they'll probably be getting letters from lawyers demanding they cease and desist. These organizations are pretty vicious (same with the music publishers).

    1. Yeah, "Barcades" are gaining some popularity around here. Now most would have arcade cabinets, which would be a different story, but I've heard of some that just have retro consoles setup, as well.

  3. Oh man, that is really crappy! I feel like Nintendo took it to the extreme here. Sucks as that sounded like a really cool business. It is not like these are the newer games too. But I do see Nintendo's side of it as well, but it seems like there could have been some great middle ground.

    1. Yeah, legally Nintendo and the copyright association are within their rights. But I feel they should be a lot less aggressive in enforcing them, especially when the potential harm to them is trivial at most and the harm of enforcement on both the individuals involved and the gaming community is significant.

      There are some precedents for leniency. George Lucas adopted a policy of allowing fans to make liberal use of copyrighted elements of Star Wars for things like fan films, fiction ,etc even though he could have shut them down like this. He recognized the value of fans (and I think is basically a nice guy who didn't want to hurt them).

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  5. I don't get the point of this. Nintendo has everything to win with those bars : It can attract new consumers to the brand and people who already know (and I'm assuming it's a big majority of the persons who came to that type of place) can find some games good enough to buy their Switch/3DS copy on the store of each system.

    And in term of image...

    Since it's been one month or so since this post, is there anything new about that? Did Japan talked about that or not? Are the bartenders free again ^^?

    Thank you Sean! Nice article by the way!

  6. Thanks, I agree it makes no sense for Nintendo to be doing this since these places are part of the fan culture on which their business depends. its not unusual for big corporations though, the studio that holds the copyright to Harry Potter was in the news recently for shutting down fan festivals that attract thousands of their best fans. Its so counter productive.

    I haven't seen any follow ups in the news about this, I'm not sure if those guys are behind bars or not!

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