Arcade IC cards

By Alex Kierkegaard / September 22, 2006

A smart card, chip card, or integrated circuit(s) card (ICC) is defined as any pocket-sized card with embedded integrated circuits. Although they are used for a diverse range of applications, there are two broad categories of ICCs: memory cards containing only non-volatile memory storage components, and perhaps some specific security logic, and microprocessor cards containing memory and microprocessor components.

Since my return to Japan a couple of weeks ago I've been spending a lot of time in the arcades, and so I've decided to start covering the scene here in Tokyo a bit more thoroughly. And though, as regular readers will have noticed, much of my arcade diet consists of old classics (recently: Rohga Armor Force and Street Fighter Zero 3), I will be cutting back on those in order to concentrate more on the newer releases.

And there really are quite a few arcade games which are worth covering, and which the Western media insist on ignoring. And I don't even have to bring up any obscure Gundam games to prove this -- just consider that Virtua Fighter 5 has been out for over two months, and there are still no English-language reviews of it to be found anywhere (and trust me I've looked pretty hard, though feel free to prove me wrong).

Now covering arcade gaming in Japan means IC cards, and lots of 'em. Since Sega demonstrated how useful (and lucrative) they can be with Virtua Fighter 4, the cards have been steadily increasing in popularity among developers, to the point where now roughly half the new games support them.

Take a look at my rapidly growing collection:


Clockwise from top left they are: Ghost Squad, Virtua Fighter 5, Wangan Midnight: Maximum Tune 2, Half-Life 2: Survivor, Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection, Mario Kart Arcade GP and Power Smash 3.

The blurb I quoted at the top basically says that IC cards are memory cards, similar in function (though not in design) to those we've been using with our game consoles since the early 90s. All Sega did was take that idea and introduce it to the arcades, opening up the way for many exciting possibilities.

But what exactly are those possibilities?

Nothing revolutionary, really. Though the exact function of the cards varies depending on the title, in the end all they do is save stuff. In Mario Kart Arcade GP, for example, the game saves a list of the courses you have unlocked, so you don't have to replay them every time you go back. In Virtua Fighter 5 you can customize your character with fashion accessories and, more importantly, keep track of how you are faring compared to other players across the country. In Maximum Tune 2 you save your car settings and story mode progress. Etc. etc.

So the cards may not be revolutionary, but they have now become essential to the arcade industry, because the new games are built from the ground up to take advantage of them. How exactly they go about doing that in large part determines the extent of each game's success or failure. If the preceding statement sounds too far-fetched to you then wait for the reviews, where I'll explain in detail how the different games work to take advantage of this technology.

However the main point is that the cards are always useful, even when the advantages they can provide are not exploited to the full. In fact, after you've been using them for a while you start wishing every game had one. In Cave's PinkSweets, for example, a game which I play almost every night (Club Sega Akihabara, second floor, between midnight and 1 a.m.), an IC card could save my high scores, national ranking, and perhaps... one or two replays? It would also be delightfully pink, plastered all over with T&A, and would look great next to all my other IC cards...

You see it doesn't really hurt to be able to take something away with you after you've finished playing an arcade game. Something which you can carry around in your wallet all day; which reminds you of the game, and which you can gaze at lovingly during long subway rides, whenever your PSP's battery has run out. And when you are done with, beaten, 1CC'd the game or whatever, you can stick the card on your wall to remind yourself of the good times you had playing it, and move on to the next one.

That's not a bad idea, don't you think?

Well the problem with PinkSweets, and all the other Jamma-compatible arcade boards, is that the Jamma standard is ancient and doesn't provide IC card support, except with expensive modifications. This is a big problem, and it's what keeps small companies like Cave, G.rev, MileStone and others from coming up with their own IC cards.

Apart from that, the only thing I don't like about this business is that the cards can cost quite a bit of money, beyond what you pay to play the games. Now I understand that giving them away for free to anyone who asks for them might not work, but why the large price disparity? Why do the VF5 and Tekken 5 cards cost 500 yen, for example, while the Namco racers (Maximum Tune 2 and Mario Kart) cost only 200? Granted, the two Namco games use old magnetic card technology whereas most other games use memory chips, but then why does the Power Smash 3 card cost 300, though it is essentially the same as the VF5 one?

But that's only a minor complaint. All those guys playing Virtua Fighter 5 while chain-smoking to death at a Club Sega basement are spending thousands of yen a month on the game, so the cost of the card to them is negligible.

But lately a new trend is emerging. Instead of each game having a single IC card, some of them offer different designs, in an effort no doubt to start some sort of collecting trend. Tekken 5 has at least four or five cards, and to get all of them you have to go around different arcades, because each card dispenser only offers a single design. I find it amusing that this trend seems to have started from one of the worst fighting games to come out in recent years, though to be fair to Namco, I am vaguely aware that there are also at least two different card designs for Virtua Fighter 5.

So who really started it first -- Sega or Namco? Whoever it was, and regardless of whether other companies start jumping on the bandwagon, I know at least one person who won't be running around Tokyo's arcades collecting all these cards. And that person sure as hell isn't me.