New technology like VR games and 5G phones can never replace the magic and colors of an old school arcade – the kind with glowing CRT screens, 16-bit soundtracks, and humans competing against each other in physical spaces (sometimes while chain smoking). You can’t stream those raw and unpredictable vibes; you’ve got to experience it in IRL.
Old-school arcades are like street food: they still exist in a few corners of Shanghai if you look hard enough. Go visit these rare gems while you still can!
Lie Huo Game Center
For gamers, this is the top arcade in Shanghai and maybe even the country. This place feels mystic, like a 3D simulation, or a dream sequence in an anime. It's not just the hundreds of arcade machines, many from the 90's and early 2000's. When you step off the fourth floor elevator, you'll hear birds chirping and machines beeping, and see portraits of bosses like Jack Ma and Steve Jobs among bonsai trees, aquariums, and LED-lit fog. If you're lucky, you'll meet a pair of orange cats, one grumpy, the other sweet. Sometimes they sleep on top of the game machines.
The curation here rivals any museum in Shanghai.
Lie Huo attracts the true gamers: the hardcore King of Fighters (KoF) champions; the shoot ‘em up masters who play with two joysticks at the same time; and the rhythm game bosses who move at 300 beats per minute. This place is fighting against the trend of zhua wawa (the claw games) and VR gaming. Lie Huo is known internationally for their collection of niche shoot ‘em ups like Donpachi, Gunbird, and Strikers 1945. Other deep cuts include Captain Commando, Virtua Striker, Metal Slug 3, Virtua Tennis, Tetris, Three Kingdoms, L.A. Machineguns / Gunbird, and so many more.
For fighters, they have at least six versions of Street Fighter, including Third Strike, about 50 machines dedicated to KoF, and lots of Tekken. You can always find a match. They even have a four-player version of the original Daytona USA. Ten people can race on Midnight Maximum Tune 3 DX while getting massaged by hard trance blasting from the in-chair speakers. Plus, they recently renovated and added a bunch of rhythm games including Chunithm (new favorite!) and versions of the drum game Taiko no Tatsujin you won't see anywhere else in town.
Lie Huo has been open for twenty years on Jiangning Lu, and ten more years before that on Jinling Lu. It's cheap, open until 2am, and there's some alright street BBQ and a FamilyMart on the ground floor. The feeling of childhood and community among gamers is strong here, and the uncles tending the machines, are friendly and patient – never judge-y. If you're into arcades or just love the 90's and early 2000's, do not hesitate – just go here. Spend money and keep them open. That said, with cigarettes as prizes in some of the machines, the place is more suited to adults – unless you want to show your kids what arcades used to be like.
Feng Yun Zai Qi Game Center
Known lovingly as "The People's Square Arcade", Feng Yun Zai Qi is actually a chain with shops all over China. They have six in Shanghai including Jinqiao and People’s Square. If this were a restaurant, it's Dongbei Four Seasons Dumpling King: dependable and decent with something for everyone. It's casual and family friendly.
You'll probably get lost in the underground mall trying to find this one, and the arcade is so big you'll probably get lost there too. Their main focus is zhua wawa machines (wawa quality is much higher than average here), redemption games (win tickets, redeem them for prizes), rhythm games, and KTV booths, but they still keep some fighting games like SFIV and Tekken, a few light-gun shooters, and racing games like Initial D. Occasionally you'll see a master hit 800 on the basketball game. The new four-puck air-hockey game is madness.
The place stays packed with young folks during the daytime, and there's a park full of pigeons upstairs if you need fresh air. That said, the crowd is, well, everyone, so Feng Yun Zai Qi lacks the community feel of Lie Huo. Overall, this arcade is well-maintained, friendly, fun, and photogenic.
They stay open until midnight and there's lots of restaurants and snack machines in the area (look for the robot making frozen yogurt). One complaint: one of the elevators smells horrible. Has for years.
Joypolis is not exactly an arcade in the old-school sense but I love it. You can ride bucking horses on virtual tracks, step over alarm-system lazers like you're breaking-and-entering, race against friends on a treadmill as Sonic characters, and spin around in a Transformers orb until you throw up.
There's so much to do here, and it's all soaked in expensive-looking colors, giving the place a look and feel unlike any other arcade.
Joypolis is definitely in its own lane. The garbage cans talk! Even the men's urinal has a game. The details are everywhere.
Spread over two floors in the palatial Global Harbor mall at the Jinshajiang Lu station, Joypolis has two sides – an arcade and a digital amusement park. Visit the amusement park side first. That will cost you 180rmb for a full-day ticket or 108rmb for a ticket valid from 6pm-8.30pm. But arriving at 6pm and rushing through doesn’t give you enough time to do everything. And some of the games are worth repeating, like the Sonic bumper cars where you drive around a track trying to "collect" stars by running over them. So cute. There's also a "4D" theater, VR games, escape rooms, a haunted hospital, next-level beauty cams, a spiritual fortune-telling forest where you insert crystals into machines, and lots more. Really, this place is detailed.
The other side – which is free to enter – is an actual arcade with mostly redemption games, wawa machines, rhythm games, kids games, racing games, and a couple light-gun shooters. This is a Sega arcade, so everything looks incredible and futuristic, though it's expensive and not as fun as the other side. Avoid the air hockey! It's almost as frustrating as trying to set up WeChat Wallet when your name is spelled wrong. The wawa scene is pretty high-end here. Seems like legit, licensed product.
They also have lots of niudan, those little egg capsules with toys.
Joypolis is something rare – a new-school arcade that builds on the old-school feel with new technology and remembers the most important quality of an arcade: fun. And it's a young vibe and equally friendly for kids or adults.
Note: Some games / rides have height restrictions. Tickets are slightly cheaper on Dianping if you buy the day before.
Random Arcade By My House
This isn't even a recommendation but it's also not an anti-recommendation. It's more about proof that places like this still exist in 2020 Shanghai, and that is great. Random Arcade has personality. The games are not always well-maintained, the place is kind of dingy, and last time I went I found tokens scattered all over the floor. But the staff are nice, the basketball game works, and there's enough to stay busy: a Rambo light gun game, Initial D, Taiko no Tatsujin (the drumming game), some other rhythm games, KTV booths, and a Street Fighter II machine that barely functions.
Very photogenic place though! And if you're into claw-grabs, the collection here is totally random, like the boss also owns some trading company and just throws surplus toys in the machines. The arcade is just outside the Madang Lu metro station, and if you're already at LuOne or Zhonghai Huanyuhui, it's worth walking across the street.
Otherwise, stick to one of the other three spots.