File this one under “only in Japan.”
From this blog, you may know me as a lover of cooking, food, and travel, but you may not know about my other great and true love: video games.
It all started in the 1980s with my dad’s Radio Shack computer, which played a few basic games, and his Intellivision, which was a lesser-known Atari competitor with fairly basic games and terrible graphics. I barely remember those days, but I know I enjoyed playing with those primitive machines, watching the blocks of color moving around and, eventually, learning to control them. I played a lot in the arcades, too… back when arcades actually existed. I’ll never forget the first time I played Super Mario Bros – it was at the local pizza shop (remember when pizza shops always had arcade games?) standing on a milk crate, my father helping me reach the controls.
Then, one fateful year, a company called Nintendo came out of nowhere and announced a superior video game console called the Nintendo Entertainment System. A chance to actually own these amazing arcade-style games and play them at home. Even at such a young age (I must have been 5 or 6) I knew I badly needed this system.
Everyone has a favorite holiday gift which they fondly remember. For me, it was, without a doubt, the NES. My parents didn’t want to buy it for Christmas… another expensive toy that will just be forgotten, they thought. They told me flat out – I would not get it. For months, I agonized. I read every scrap of material I could find (and there wasn’t much, before the existence of the Internet). I obsessed. I swooned. I could think of nothing else. I visualized it every day under that Christmas tree. I had no other ambition or goal in life except to get my hands on a Nintendo. Still, my parents would not relent. Thanksgiving came – then December. Each time I asked, they told me to just give it up.
Finally, Christmas morning came. I had given up all hope. I moped out to the living room at about 3 AM (my customary Christmas morning wake-up time at that age) and saw a blanket sitting over a large-ish rectangular box under the tree. The box was about the right shape and size, and, for a brief moment, I thought it might actually be something. I knew my parents were not awake yet (presents were not to be opened before everyone was in attendance), but I couldn’t resist. I lifted the blanket.
It was there.
To this date I do not believe I have ever experienced such excitement in a moment. I woke up my father immediately (he had just gone to sleep) to have him help me hook it up.
Over the next few years, I didn’t regard this system as a toy, but a necessity. There was no turning back. Mario. Zelda. Kid Icarus. Blaster Master. Crystalis. Final Fantasy. I wanted to play every game, as much as possible, all the time. I immersed myself in manuals, issues of Nintendo Power, and spent hours and hours in front of the curved glass screen of a glowing TV. My friends and I hardly talked of anything else for years. I would rather have had the next gold-cartridge Zelda game than a two-week trip to Disneyworld. Nothing else mattered.
Back then, you see, game consoles were basically magical. No one knew how they worked, where they were made, what they were capable of, or what was in the pipeline for release. Most kids had no idea that the consoles were made outside the United States. There were no blogs, no company web sites, nothing… you waited a month and checked the mailbox for the next issue of Nintendo Power, desperately hoping for some good information. It’s hard to imagine, but that was basically it. It was an exciting time.
These days, of course, every speck of information is posted all over the internet as soon as it’s discovered. It’s good and bad… we know what’s coming and when, but some might argue that the magic is gone.
Anyway, back to the topic of this post. I didn’t realize it back then, but most of the games I enjoyed so much were programmed and made in Japan. One of those games was Dragon Warrior. It was a role-playing game (RPG) – a game where you play the role of a hero on a great quest to save the world, collecting gold, armor, and weapons along the way. Unlike the other “shooting and jumping” games at the time, this one had some surprising depth. Dragon Warrior offered a large world to explore, and allowed you to save your progress and your character, allowing you to become more powerful each time you played.
No one knew it then, but this game’s design would pave the way for thousands of RPGs (Final Fantasy followed shortly after) and start a franchise, Dragon Quest, that would continue on for many years. As a matter of fact, I’m still playing the newest games in the series at 31 years old.
Whatever love I have for Dragon Quest positively pales in comparison to Japan’s feeling about it. Japan loves Dragon Quest. It’s the most popular game franchise in a country that lives and breathes video games. In fact, Dragon Quest is still so popular in Japan – with both kids and adults – that the government has asked the publisher to refrain from releasing new titles during the week, because nobody shows up for work the following day.
The release of a new game means electronics stores, convenience shops, book shops, pretty much every establishment with a pulse in Japan is covered in Dragon Quest merchandise and advertising. To call it a nationwide Dragon Quest mania would not be inaccurate.
As an extension of this national obsession with Dragon Quest (as well as a recent interest in themed novelty and “maid” cafes in Tokyo), some folks have opened up a place that you can hardly believe exists, a cafe which is completely dedicated to the Dragon Quest series called “Luida’s Bar” (named after a character from the games).
We met up with our friend George, and, after a few train rides and a short walk, found ourselves standing outside the small establishment. Unlike a typical western bar, sessions here are reserved and limited to a certain length. We almost missed our session, but they didn’t seem to mind when we arrived.
The bar is completely and totally themed for Dragon Quest fans. The decor, branding, even the staff costumes are all Dragon Quest. I don’t know if they have an official license from Square/Enix, but it sure seems spot-on.
The first thing you notice is the music. Dragon Quest features a very distinctive classically-arranged soundtrack, and Luida’s proudly keeps it pumping through the speaker system. A very small bar/reception area is located just inside the front door which features lots of glassware, vials and strange looking potions. We made our way up to the “main” area which features swords, emblems and a kitchen/bar, as well as small tables.
The waitresses get into the act as well. They are dressed the part (to look like tavern keeps) and we were told (in Japanese) to take our “equipment” (coats) off and rest from our adventures.
Standing room only in this small space. We noted that the other patrons were indeed adults, some still wearing neckties and dress clothes from work, standing around and drinking potions in a video game themed cafe. What can I say? In Japan this is not weird. These people grew up playing Dragon Quest and they still love it. Hey, I’m in the same boat (and in the same cafe) – so, who am I to judge?
George had some other chatter with the waitress in Japanese which I did not understand, but it all seemed to revolve around the RPG atmosphere and theming of the cafe. At the time we visited, no new Dragon Quest game had recently been released… but I can imagine people coming here to play and exchange tips and items when the season is right. Apparently, there are also “point cards” which you can collect, which is part of a marketing program for the bar called “The road to the King of Medal.” We didn’t understand much of this – but it seems to have to do with the whole bar gaining experience and “leveling up.”
Every corner of this tiny establishment has been outfitted with Dragon Quest memorabilia and merchandise.
The kitchen is located right in the middle of the room, and a couple of staff are busy preparing the food and drinks.
Even the toilet has a dragon quest emblem (and some sort of monster trophy/antlers hung inside)
Here’s a look at the menu:
As you can see, the food is heavily themed to appear like Dragon quest items and monsters. Some of the likenesses are perfect! Prices are listed in gold pieces (G) instead of yen.
A drink menu consisting of various potions, elixirs and phials is also available. Hyad Cool and Sexy Beam were tempting choices, but we went with a couple of alternatives.
We tried the “elfin elixir” (in the games, this restores magic points) and the “beer for kids” (no idea where this came from) Each drink comes in a themed vessel which is very cute.
Next, the food:
Slime buns, which are made to look just like the famous monsters found in every Dragon Quest game. The taste was fine, fairly standard for steamed buns.
A “king” slime, another popular enemy. This time made with egg, rice and demi-glace. This was fairly hearty and tasted good.
We also tried the mini medal pizzas, a popular collectable item in the game. These were a bit on the bland side, but not bad.
Here’s George posing with one of the waitresses:
And one of us:
Leaving the bar, we told in Japanese that we were “departing on a journey” and wished safe travels.
Visiting Luida’s Bar was definitely among the geekiest things I have ever done… I still can hardly imagine that a place like this can survive. If it can happen anywhere, it can happen in Tokyo. The food and drinks were not cheap, and the taste was just “ok.” However, as a Dragon Quest fan, I have to say that the experience was priceless.
I’ve heard about Capcom (another huge Japanese game publisher) opening a cafe which has Street Fighter, Phoenix Wright, and other game-themed food, so I may have to try that one next time I am in Tokyo!
5-16-3, Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032