Where Does A Game Called 'Mother' Outsell 'Halo'? Check Out Tokyo's Coolest Street

Gaming insider gives MTV News tour of Japan's Akihabara district.

TOKYO — Japan's Akihabara district is the Mecca of gaming geekdom. It's the place gamers can find the best and rarest video games and, if they're hard-core enough, the most unpopular games, such as (seriously) "Halo" and "Grand Theft Auto."

It's essentially a shop-able museum of video game culture, if you're interested in any of the greats that hailed from Japan. And if you're visiting, an ideal guide is Tim Rogers: a columnist, musician and an employee of what he asked to have referred to as a "Japanese game company."

On a Thursday afternoon back in April, Rogers gave MTV News a tour. With leather jacket, leopard-print backpack and two female friends — one of whom dressed as a maid — at his side, he took a stroll down Akihabara's main drag, Chuo-doori, which is lined with storekeepers on the sidewalk barking sales pitches for new games and little doorways leading to troves of obscure classic gaming goods.

Along the way, he helped explain why it's weird to be a "Halo" fan in Japan and why a game called "Mother" might be the most significant game release of the year. But first he had a street of games to explain.

(Click here to watch Rogers steer us through the coolest street on the planet for video games.)

"I have a friend, he's actually going to buy '99 Nights' for Xbox 360," said Rogers as he pointed out some of the shops. That game was launching that April day, alongside a number of other major Japanese games. The Xbox 360 isn't very popular in Japan, but the fact that his friend was buying it wasn't the only notable thing. "He actually lives in Yokohama. But he's going to come all the way up to Akihabara, which is like a 40-minute train ride, just to buy '99 Nights' in Akihabara when he could very well buy it in Yokohama. People just do stuff like that."

Why would people come all the way to this place? In fact, why do gamers from all around the world come here?

It's a place full of rarities, Rogers noted as he spotted the "secret back entrance" to a store called Liberty that houses shelves of old games and shrink-wrapped vintage consoles. "One of the ways you can judge a game store's wealth in Japan is by how many copies of 'Radiant Silvergun' they have," he said, referencing an obscure shoot-'em-up for the Sega Dreamcast. He found two copies in Liberty, selling for about $200 each.

Crashing Tokyo's Game Store Scene
In the town of Akihabara, Nintendo rules, Xbox is considered bunk, classic games are still classic — and people dig American games.

He ducked into another vintage store, Super Potato. The walls of Super Potato were lined with weird stuff like one-handed and two-button controllers and strategy guides of dubious utility for simple games like "Dr. Mario." Game soundtrack CDs sat in one case beside a kiosk housing a working version of Nintendo's ill-fated monochrome Virtual Boy goggle-based Game Boy. From the ceiling hung plush game characters and game systems.

This is the stuff for which some people make the Akihabara pilgrimage. But others, especially those not looking to spend on collectibles, might just be content to gawk at sights right on the street. The stores have no front walls. They just open onto the sidewalk, their displays of games expanding right into the light of day — or into a sporadic torrential downpour, as was the case during Rogers' tour.

Rogers brought his tour past Say Arcade, a relatively quiet spot in the middle of the day as opposed to the several-story Sega arcade. Outside, a gamer stood at one of two side-by-side setups for a Namco drumming game, banging his way to a beat shown on a TV screen. "This guy's kids' stuff," Rogers said. "There's actually a guy who comes here every Saturday night. He plays both drums with two sticks." That means he's playing a two-player game all by himself. "People crowd around and get his autograph and everything."

The most striking aspect of Rogers' tour for an American gamer would probably be what's on store shelves in the first-run game shops in Akihabara — and what's not. Rogers had no problem finding horse-racing games and games featuring cute mascots. He had no problem finding walls of games for DS, which Japanese consumers had already made the best-selling system every week in the country back in April. And the Xbox 360, struggling there, was reduced to low-profile nooks and crannies.

There also weren't too many games made in America or Europe, few first-person shooters, and not much of a presence for crime games in the style of "Grand Theft Auto." But then Rogers pointed to a sign that read "Game Hollywood."

Game Hollywood is on the fifth floor of an unassuming building in Akihabara. The sign that something was a bit different about it was a poster for Rockstar's "Warriors" game. The American flags hanging in the store and covering the windows, and the copies of "Halo" on the shelves, were also giveaways. This was material for the underground fans, Rogers explained. "I remember in America, maybe back in the 1990s, people were importing 'Final Fantasy,' " Rogers said. "Now in Japan, people are importing 'Halo' and 'The Warriors' and 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.' "

Rogers had the man at Game Hollywood's cash register, who identified himself as Mr. Takasaki, try to explain why American games didn't tend to matter too much. "Japanese people tend to like games that are character games, games about anime characters, role-playing games, that all have the same aesthetic," Rogers translated. "American games tend to be a little more risky. They try a little bit too many different things." Mr. Takasaki had some love for American gaming stuff, of course, but even he didn't own an Xbox 360.

So instead of the kinds of games one might expect to find at GameStop, a tour of Akihabara brought to the fore a phenomenon of a different sort: "Mother 3." America may have been all about Xbox 360 and next-gen hype, but the plain red boxes for "Mother 3" — an emotional role-playing game about a young boy and a cast of strange characters for the Game Boy Advance and a sequel to a title released in 1994 — was the big deal during Rogers' April tour. Commercials played for it on monitors in the major Akihabara game stores Rogers entered. The commercials featured a woman nearly in tears as she described playing the game. Rogers translated the game's slogan: "It was bizarre, it was interesting, and then it was devastating."

His friend Asuza Takamiya, the one dressed as a maid, happily clutched a copy of the game. "Today's her birthday," Rogers said. Why was she excited about this kind of birthday present? "It's like a normal game, but it makes her think there's something strange about it, and she will probably wind up crying after playing it."

It's obvious the Japanese gaming scene is different from America's. Still, Rogers' tour hinted at a bridge being built between the two worlds. Five months after the tour, the Xbox is still struggling there, and the DS is still steamrolling. "Mother 3" sold well and has now inspired a fan movement to translate it for English-speaking gamers. Nintendo has yet to announce the game for American release.

And Rogers? He's talking about his engagement to a swimsuit model, his work translating Japanese comics to English and maybe a renewed focus on his rock band, Large Prime Numbers. But he's still up for another prowl of Akihabara. There are plenty more gems to be found.