Japan


Top 10 Akihabara stores for new games

By Alex Kierkegaard / July 17, 2006


Since I recently decided to go into the rather complex process of scoring cheap games in Japan (see here), I thought I'd follow it up with a guide to my favorite stores in Akihabara, which is where I buy most of my games these days. Before going further, however, it's important to make a few things clear.


First off, this guide is about places which sell sealed copies of relatively recent releases. I am trying to make this abundantly clear in order to avoid angry emails by people who may have written off Media Land (my all-time favorite store) just because they find their used games department expensive. True enough, it can be, but when it comes to discounting new games they are without equal. I do plan to come up with an equivalent guide for stores that specialize in secondhand games, but it will most probably take a while. Shopping for used games is a much more complicated process, and I'll need some time to recharge my batteries before delving into that pit of poisonous snakes and wasted man-hours.


It's worth keeping in mind that Akihabara is not your only option for game purchases if you live in or happen to be visiting Tokyo. Many excellent stores can be found around Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and in most other areas of Japan's capital, and countless one-off joints lie scattered throughout the city, waiting to be discovered. What makes Akihabara special, however, is that it has a much higher density of stores than any other single area, making for more time-efficient browsing. Also, I live here.


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View of Chuo-dori, Akihabara's main street, on an overcast spring afternoon

Even within Akihabara there are several more places I frequent which didn't make it into the list. I reckon that if I'd made it a top twenty I wouldn't have had to leave anything out, but where would be the fun in that? In any case, beyond the top three stores, which more or less consistently undercut everyone else, the order is largely irrelevant. For example, there are times when Lammtarra (No. 6) has a lot more discounting going on than Sofmap (No. 5). In general, however, averaged over a long period of time, this is more or less how it pans out.


The pictures in this article were taken by me on a weekday during early March (that's why the people in most of them are wearing heavy clothes). I chose a weekday because I find the crowds in Akihabara during the weekend unbearable. Shouldering your way through throngs of people may be fun if you're playing tourist and aimlessly walking around, but it can be tiresome if you are trying to get a job done (taking decent pictures of an asphyxiatingly crowded store can get tricky, to say the least). If you want to see what all these places look like on a weekend just stare very hard at the pictures and imagine them filled with people; jostling around, endlessly pushing and shoving their way past each other, choking all available space with their backpacks, shopping bags and random boxes, and, in general, behaving annoyingly, as crowds do.


So here they are: the top ten places to score new games in and around Chuo-dori. Click on a store's name to visit the corresponding website, where you'll find extensive information including addresses, phone numbers and maps. Everything's in Japanese, of course, but the basic info is easy enough to locate even if you don't understand the language.



1. Media Land (メディアランド)


Media Land is always the first stop on my rounds in Akihabara, and sometimes also the last. It's not much to look at, and easy to miss among the ten-floor monstrosities that bump against each other up and down Chuo-dori, but take note: this might very well be the best video game store on Earth at the moment.


Media Land earns its place at the top by consistently undercutting everyone else on the day of release, by at least a couple of hundred yen, and oftentimes by much more. That game that goes for over 7,000 at Tsutaya or Yamagiwa Soft will almost certainly cost less than 6,000 here. If you absolutely have to have a game the day it comes out, you might as well head straight here and save yourself all the trouble of shopping around.


The real reason to visit, however, is not fresh new games but six-month- to two-year-old titles. That's the sweet spot for discounted games in Japan in general, and no one does it better than Media Land. Almost everything can and will eventually be found half-price here, even relatively popular titles like most JRPGs. I could fill several pages with examples of cheap games I've bought here over the past eighteen months, but I'd only succeed in boring you or making you jealous. Just take my word for it: this place rocks.


The store actually extends over several floors, but only the first one is dedicated to new games (and is the one I am concerned with here). Unfortunately, although they bring in all new titles as they get released, their back selection is not that great, mostly because of lack of shelf space (this is the second-smallest shop on the list). However, they move stock pretty fast, so in the long run all games pass through Media Land; the only question is whether you'll be here when they do to pick them up.


Check for the latest deals on the large stand out front, then go in and spend time browsing the shelves. Don't forget to look for a box with free posters they sometimes have to the left of the entrance. I've found great stuff in there, including posters for popular shooters (Homura, Mushihime-sama) and RPGs (Magna Carta, Stella Deus). I am told that giving away free posters was much more common in Akihabara in the past, but only Media Land seems to regularly extend this courtesy to their customers now. Make sure you buy at least one game before raiding the box. They won't say anything if you don't, but it's the polite thing to do, and it's a good idea not to make foreigners' reputation even worse than it already is.


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2. Book Off (ブックオフ)


A nationwide chain specializing in secondhand books, DVDs, manga and video games, the store with the amusing name (amusing for English-speaking foreigners, anyway) has earned its reputation by offering their customers premium used items at very attractive prices. Happily for us, this policy of good value for money is carried over to their new games section, which takes up almost half of the fifth floor of their swank, if not so prominent, Akihabara location. (Book Off doesn't have an actual store front on Chuo-dori, like all the rest of the mega-chains. They can be found several floors above a Starbucks-inspired coffee shop.)


As far as just-released titles go, Book Off is a bit more expensive than Media Land, though still much cheaper than anywhere else. Its advantage is that it has loads of shelf space, and hence can carry an impressive amount of titles for all current systems, and even for some older ones (I still find new N64 games here from time to time). Good deals abound, and you'd be wise to check back often, as publishers use this chain to quickly get rid of unsold stock by flogging it at ridiculous prices. I've seen countless current-gen titles go for 1,000 to 2,000 yen, and even nice deals on a lot of hardware like arcade sticks, memory cards and special controllers (half-price Wavebirds, DK Bongos for 1,500 yen, etc.)


This is also the best place to go to when in the market for new consoles. I got my PS2, GameCube, Xbox and DS from here; all for at least 500 to 1,000 yen cheaper than anywhere else. I also got my 360 from them, with a free Play & Charge kit for buying it together with a game. None of the other stores in Akihabara had comparable offers at launch back in November.


Apart from the many good deals, Book Off also offers a very pleasant shopping enviroment. Most other places are busy and often extremely noisy, but the atmosphere here is laid back, with music from the latest titles playing in the background and staff generally minding their own obscure tasks. You will usually find yourself completely alone in the long aisles, and that's a good thing because you are going to have to do a lot of browsing; although they have large bargain bins and a shelf specifically for PS2 titles on discount, some of the best stuff can be found sandwiched between stacks of regular-priced games. Book Off can take a while to go through, but you'll be well rewarded for your efforts.


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3. Gamers (ゲーマーズ)


With a name like that you'd be excused for assuming this chain of bright yellow stores is all about video games. The always-prominent subtitle, "Character Entertainment Shop," is a little more revealing. The emphasis here is more on manga, anime and related goods, though games still comprise about a third of their product line. The thing about the Akihabara branch however is that, because of its location at the heart of Japan's gaming capital, it features a disproportionately large games section.


Their prices for new releases are almost always higher than those of the two previous stores on the list, but there is something really unique about Gamers that keeps me coming back. Occasionally, they bring in limited quantities of much older titles, and go on to sell them off at rock-bottom prices. You wouldn't normally expect to find games that old in a major chain in Japan (we are talking titles sometimes more than three or four years old); you'd have to turn to the secondhand market for them, and pay through the nose for sealed copies. But Gamers has often surprised me. To give you some examples, in late 2005 I came across new copies of such old PS2 games as Silent Hill 2, Everblue, Shin Contra, Sangokushi Senki and Shinobi, going for less than 2,000 yen each.


Another reason to check back here often is that they try to stock most of the limited editions that are released, and eventually discount the ones that don't sell very well. If you are into buying LEs (and especially those for JRPGs and Tactics games) Gamers is where you want to be.


I also buy most of my game magazines from here. They have a very large and always well-stocked section, where you are sure to find even the special editions and little pocket guides the big magazines sometimes put out (when a new console launches, for example). They also make a point of shrink-wrapping everything, so that you won't end up with a dog-eared copy of Famitsu, like the ones often peddled at convenience stores across the land.


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4. Messe Sanoh (メッセサンオー)


Messe Sanoh is a real geek's and collector's shop. It has a grand storefront at the money end of Chuo-dori, and makes a point of carrying an eclectic selection of titles, even though they certainly have the space to stock much more stuff if they wanted to. It's the classiest place on the strip, and as close to a boutique game store as you can find at the moment.


Their best feature: sections dedicated to fighting and shooting games, and related soundtracks and superplay DVDs. But they have gone one step further than simply stocking niche releases. They actively promote such titles by regularly setting up demo pods on the street outside. Sofmap may have done that much for the Mushihime-sama port, but *no one* does it for such overlooked games as the recent Ibara and Rajirugi ports. Although it may come fourth as far as discounting goes, Messe Sanoh is number one on the hard-rocking scale. (It's worth adding that until quite recently they sold brand-new Dreamcasts.)


Sanoh also caters to collectors; if a telecard, soundtrack, or poster edition of a new game comes out they do their damnedest to bring it in and keep it in stock (most smaller stores can't or won't get into this racket, and the larger chains, even if they do decide to secure a shipment of telecards, for example, spread them over many branches, making them hard for collectors to locate). Trinket-collecting is not my thing, but if you are into it you would do well to keep Sanoh in mind (Media Land is also a good store for this kind of thing, though Sanoh is usually better).


Finally, and just as importantly, there are always good deals to be found here. Though their bargain bin is tiny, and rarely has anything worth buying, at least half the titles on show at any given moment are discounted.


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5. Sofmap (ソフマップ)


There are two Sofmap branches in Akihabara which carry new games. The main one (pictured) projects an imposing image in the middle of Chuo-dori, with numerous demo pods, displays and posters lining the street, and an absolutely massive banner advertising the latest blockbuster (or blockbuster wannabe, such as Tomonobu Itagaki's games). The second branch, much smaller, is in a back street half a block away. They carry the same stuff at the same prices, so there's usually no need to check both.


Sofmap prices new games aggressively, but not quite as aggressively as the previous joints on this list. One reason to prefer it however is that shopping here is easier. Media Land can be a claustrophobic hell when it's busy, and Book Off is not exactly conveniently located; Sofmap is much more prominent and easily accessible. If you are a busy person and convenience is more important to you than saving a few hundred yen, you can easily forget about other stores and buy your new games from here.


For everyone else, the main reason to visit Sofmap is for their massive bargain bins (PS2 stuff on the first floor and everything else on the third). There's always something interesting on sale here; tons of recent games and even hardware such as new Hori arcade sticks or Logicool steering wheels (Logicool is what Logitech's called in Japan, because of trademark issues).


A good chunk of my purchases during my first year in Japan were from Sofmap; too many games to even begin listing here. However, as I slowly discovered the other places on this list I started visiting less frequently, and buying fewer and fewer titles from here. It turns out that by the time Sofmap gets around to discounting a game I want, I'll have already picked it up cheaply from one of the stores higher on this list (and more often than not from Media Land). In any case, Sofmap is always worth visiting: they have a strong discounting policy, their hardware prices are very competitive, and they occasionally put out free posters of games. For such a huge chain of stores, they certainly do their best to give customers a good deal.


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6. Lammtarra (ラムタラ)


Colorful, brash, and extremely loud, Lammtarra is an otaku's store and make no mistake. There's a lot of questionable anime here, and probably at least some outright porn, which I figure accounts for the innumerable sad characters who frequent this place. I can't tell you more about the porn because I've never been tempted to browse through that crap; it's probably mostly gravure idol stuff anyway.


In fact, for the longest time I ignored Lammtarra in general. I quickly ascertained that this place is a time sink; you have to really waste your youth looking for bargains here, because the games are stacked in such a way, with only their spines showing and tiny price tags, that you are often forced to pull every single one out to determing whether it's a good deal or not. Despite this, I eventually realized that browsing here once a week can be worthwhile.


The main draw of Lammtarra is that you can often find titles on discount, that no one else ever discounts. Gradius V, Shining Tears, and Silent Hill 3 are some examples that come to mind. I don't remember seeing them on sale anywhere else, but I eventually snagged half-price copies from here. Unfortunately, not only do you have to waste your youth to spot them, quantities are almost always limited, so if you ever find a good deal here you'd be wise to grab it right away.


Lammtarra can be fun to visit at first, but it quickly wears you out. Annoyingly irreverent anime music is always on, with a disgustingly cute female voice proclaiming how great the store is over and over and over and over again. The steady stream of porn-seeking sad characters contrasts with the bright, colorful atmosphere and can sometimes give me a depressing feeling. Well, this place certainly has a unique character, if nothing else.


Note: There are two Lammtarra branches on Chuo-dori. Head straight for the main one (next to the large AsoBitCity, in the middle of the strip), and ignore the smaller one.


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7. AsoBitCity


AsoBitCity is the kind of giant, sparkling specialist game store I had in mind before coming here. It's what Electronics Boutique and GAME would be like if the bulk of Western gamers actually had some taste in the games they buy. You'll find all the new, shiny titles here, displayed along neat rows in floor-to-ceiling shelves, divided by system and genre, spread over two large, brightly-lit floors.


One thing I really like about this place is that they treat all consoles equally. When a new system comes out, be it the promising DS or PSP, or the not-so-promising Xbox 360, they each get about the same shelf space. After an initial grace period that shelf space expands or contracts according to gamers' reception. So now the DS section has almost consumed the whole of the second floor, while the 360 section has been continuously shrinking. This is in contrast to most other retailers, which doomed Microsoft's newer console to failure before it was even released. AsoBitCity is an equal opportunity retailer, and we should love them for it.


On the subject of prices, AsoBitCity is an expensive place. You will always pay a premium for buying a just-released game here, so don't even bother checking if you are too concerned over price. However, good deals on older titles can often be had. Small bargain bins go up from time to time, and you can always find discounted games if you carefully scan the shelves. The most striking example of a good deal I got here was the Tekki Taisen boxed set: I bought it for around 8,000 yen, though it's MSRP is 18,000. I also got the limited edition of SMT III: Nocturne for less than 3,000 -- an amazing deal. AsoBitCity is often cited by ignorant expatriates as an example of a ridiculously expensive game store, but what do they know? Listen to my advice instead: be patient, check back often, and you'll get many sweet deals.


Note: There are two AsoBitCity locations in Akihabara. The main one is in the centre of Chuo-dori, while the smaller one can be found on a side street near Kanda river. Again, head straight for the main one. Only bother with the smaller one if you have way too much time on your hands.


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8. Tokiwamusen (トキワムセン)


This absolutely microscopic store can be found facing the west exit of Akihabara JR station. I dazedly stumbled in here the first time I stepped off the train and, unbelieving, picked up new copies of Genma Onimusha and Jet Set Radio Future for 300 yen each (I then promptly listed on eBay the PAL versions which I already owned). I've been a regular customer ever since.


Many people can go for months walking around Akihabara and never becoming aware of this place. It's easy to miss I guess, probably because it lies in such plain view. In any case I suggest you look for it the first chance you get, because the sooner you discover it the sooner you'll start grabbing odd titles at rock-bottom prices. They make no pretense of trying to keep up with new releases here; this is basically a discount outlet store: the owner goes out and buys quantities of unsold stock languishing in warehouses across Japan, and then offers it up for a fraction of the MSRP. AsoBitCity has something similar a few blocks away (called AsoBitCity Outlet), but this is by far the better place.


The selection of titles on offer at any one time is tiny, but then again it has to be since the place is so small (there's barely enough room inside for four people standing shoulder-to-shoulder). The upshot is that browsing only takes a minute; you can tell at a glance if they've brought anything new. Though they mostly carry titles for current systems, they occasionally bring in games for older ones; I even see new copies of original Game Boy games on occasion. Tokiwamusen is certainly worth checking out every time you are in the area.


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9. Yamagiwa Soft (ヤマギワ ソフト)


This is the most expensive place in Akihabara to buy games at (the dubious honor would have gone to Tsutaya, the ubiquitous DVD/music chain who are doing their damnedest to sell games for as close to MSRP as possible, if they had a branch here). If I was putting together this top ten a year ago I would definitely not have included Yamagiwa. Since then, however, things have slightly changed.


The first time I came here was within days of arriving in Tokyo, back in September 2004. I was going round on the release day of Treasure's Advance Guardian Heroes trying to score a copy, but the game had instantly sold out everywhere. Everywhere but here, that is, and it didn't take me long to discover the reason. Because they are so expensive, they have almost no regular customers. So if you are ever trying to get hold of a slippery title on release day, just head straight for Yamagiwa. You'll probably pay a couple hundred yen more for it than the most expensive shop on the strip, but at least you'll get what you want.


Aside from this convenience, for close to a year I thought that Yamagiwa was a complete waste of time. Their absolutely huge 10-floor Akihabara location is a great place for spending time browsing new releases; glitzy, spacious, relaxed, and with a remarkably well-stocked games section, but everything is way too expensive. It feels as if they don't really want to sell you anything, and this is what ends up happening since I've never, ever seen anyone actually buy a game here. On the plus side, as I've already mentioned, they take longer than anyone else to sell out of any particular title. This fact, combined with the unusually large selection of titles (they even have a large Xbox section), makes Yamagiwa the preferred store of those for whom money is no concern (you know who you are). Also, there is a massive soundtrack section here, and a whole shelf dedicated to superplay DVDs (see bottom-right pic), both of which earn the store a few points on the coolness scale.


But quite recently -- I can't be sure exactly when, since I used to rarely visit, but it must have been sometime after January -- they decided to set up a sales corner. It's a large shelf in the middle of the games section, and it has some sweet deals indeed. Get this: I got the limited edition of Mushihime-sama for around 4,500 yen -- much cheaper than even the regular version. I got Front Mission Online, the pack with the extra manuals and everything, for 1,000. And note that this is a Squeenix game, and it was still going for full price everywhere else at the time. Yes, that shelf is definitely worth keeping an eye on, even if the rest of the store is as expensive as ever. Let's hope they see some sense and decide to adopt a more aggressive, store-wide pricing policy.


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10. Ishimaru Game One (ゲームワン)


Game One is an offshoot of the large consumer electronics chain Ishimaru. I am not sure whether it's a one-off store or if they have more branches elsewhere, though I haven't seen any. It's your typical sterilized Japanese game store in that they only carry recent releases, and always at unattractive prices. Finding a good deal on the shelves is almost impossible, though I've lucked out a couple of times. However, I can't really recommend that you follow my example and put the effort into combing its shelves; your time would be better spent elsewhere.


The only reason this place makes it into the top ten is because of the rather huge bargain bins located at the back end of the first floor. About half the games there can usually also be found elsewhere at similar prices (at Book Off or Sofmap, for exampe), but they also have unique deals sometimes. I've picked up such recent titles as Sengoku Basara, which to my knowledge was never deeply discounted anywhere else, two Klonoa GBA titles and a Megaman Zero, and several other GBA, PS2 and GC games. Basically, I just take a look at the bargain bins and ignore the rest of the store. I don't even come here that much; it's located a bit further away than the rest of my favorite stores so I only end up visiting about once or twice a month. I suggest you do the same.


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The end. Now go out and buy some games

This brief guide is the product of countless hours of wandering up and down the short stretch of Chuo-dori that makes up the glitzy part of Akihabara, and round its always-crowded, claustrophobic back streets. As you will have guessed by now, it wasn't all window-shopping either. I've spent the equivalent of several thousand euros of my own money on game purchases and discovered everything the hard (and fun!) way, so this knowledge is definitely not academic. I am almost certain I haven't missed anything important, but if I somehow managed to ignore your favorite joint drop me a line and point me in the right direction. I'll gladly look into it and update this page accordingly.