In the 80's and 90's, every mall had a video arcade. Kids would line up to see the masters perform Mortal Kombat fatalities or dominate Killer Instinct for hours at a time. Or play skee-ball, or wack-a-mole, or basketball, until eventually home video game consoles and real life sketchy characters killed the arcades in many Western cities. Luckily they still exist all over Shanghai, and you can smoke and drink in almost all of them. We rank arcades up there with the park for cheap fun and a fine way to spend an afternoon or a date. Definitely cooler than 80rmb cocktails.
There's probably an arcade close to your house, though they can be hard to find, often appearing in anonymous buildings and on the sixth floor of ghost malls. Arcades in Shanghai range from fun to depressing, and can involve serious gambling. Some of the arcades we visited had actual slot machines and even croupiers, but gambling most often manifests itself in something I call "sketchy fish game."
Sketchy fish game is a long, rectangular video screen with space for about ten fishermen. Players hook digital fish from the virtual ocean then cash them in for real money. We're talking thousands of kuai in virtual fish, on the daily. Shit is bigger than Bitcoins, yo. Rumors abound of black market software that lets people cheat and win the biggest fish. Basically, sketchy fish game entails a lot of sleepless uncles and aunties chain smoking around a video screen. They're not really there, and it's kind of depressing. Out of consideration and fear, we didn't take any pictures.
Anyway, here's our guide to arcades in Shanghai. This is by no means comprehensive, so if you know of some other cool arcades, please tell us in the comments.
Lived on Jiangning Lu for a year and never knew about this place. From the outside it looks like any other big gray building, but this one has two fourth floors. That's creepy, because four sounds like death in Chinese, and locals avoid fours like Westerners avoid thirteens. Luckily, this fourth floor just houses a big arcade and a lot of King of The Fighters, Street Fighter, Tekken and racing games.
Atmosphere: Back-alley but not sketch. Feels like a serious place for gaming and not much else. Just a lot of mid 20s–30s local dudes bro-ing out on fighting games. Saw more than one person pick the giant panda on Tekken.
Standout Games: Pretty much every version of Street Fighter and many editions of Tekken, plus like 30 different Neo Geo machines with King of The Fighters. They have Virtua Tennis but sadly no Virtua Fighter.
Pros: Cheap, lots of fighters and racing games. Close to Jing'an if you're unfortunate enough to live there.
Cons: Kinda boring. Not much character aside from the cute stuffed animals in the claw-grab games.
Smoking: Yeah for sure. You can even win cigarettes in the coin push game. You could smoke a whole pack of cigs while waiting to win another pack, and repeat this until infinity. That's art.
Sketchy Underground Gambling: Unless there's gambling on fighting games, there's not too much going on here. Did see one strung out auntie claiming a lot of tokens, though.
Newer isn't always better, and this especially applies to the new Chinese-made arcade games that fill this place. No fun, no fun... Did anyone test these games before release? They're killing it in the frustrating and expensive categories. Some games cost five tokens per person. That's crazy when most games at the best arcades are just one or two tokens.
Atmosphere: Bootleg. Games where you ride a tractor, or a pogo, or nothing, because that shit is broken. I feel bad for the kids. Also, the front is totally geared towards children but the back is sketchy gambling — Zhongnanhais and fish galore.
Standout Games: None. Literally all the games in here suck. Not only that, they're expensive — like four or five coins each. Here's a racial stereotypes game that may or may not involve gambling...
Pros: None. Seriously avoid this place
Cons: Ummm…all the games. Perhaps in a decade, Chinese games will get there, but not yet. Stick with Sega, Namco, Nintendo and the names you know, not Huaran Technology.
Smoking: Yep. Smoke, smoke, smoke.
Sketchy Underground Gambling: Whole lot of folks playing sketchy fish and a few other gambling games.
The following arcade is now closed. R.I.P.
Take the elevator up to the 8th floor and step directly into the 90's. Huge, cheap arcade with lots of games. Two people can get down for just ten kuai. Plus, there's a red-eyed, mouse-hunting cat lurking around the place. I named him Sassafras. Some serious gambling goes down here as well. Also, just one floor below you can shoot actual guns at the shooting range.
Atmosphere: 1990's all day. From the game selections to the paint and the building itself, this place is throwback. Lots of smoking and gambling, and quite possibly some mice, but that's the charm.
Standout Games: Huge variety in here, but the four-player competitive Mario Kart really shines. All the classics, in a good mix of fighting, shooting, and racing games, plus a really fun Gundam fighting game. Lots of basketball machines too.
Pros: A cat lives here. He's not afraid of people. He's on the clock 24/7, tracking down mice that live in the dinosaur game. Great game selection and cheap fun. Good people watching too.
Cons: None really except the smoke and the harsh realities of gambling addiction.
Smoking: Oh god yes.
Sketchy Underground Gambling: Yes, full on, and lots of it. Multiple semi-hidden back rooms that house slot machines. There are even croupiers.
Finding this arcade involves getting lost in a 1930's-themed underground mall filled with anachronisms. Pretty sure they didn't sell Taobao knockoffs of Korean clothing in the 1930's but whatever, there are some cool aquariums and sassy magicians too. This arcade is hard to find, so you may want to ask an uncle, but trust us it's worth it. This place has everything, even a pool hall.
Atmosphere: Full on. Games on games on games. This is what you always dreamed an arcade in Asia would look like.
Standout Games: Next level dancing games. I got destroyed in a battle with a cos-play queen. Pwned, son. Plus fighting games, sports games, racing, shooting, and family friendly selections. As mentioned they have a pool hall. Lots of claw-grab games too.
Pros: Huge game selection, decent air, not many sketchballs, and the 1930's mall is a pretty surreal place to walk around. Lots of street food choices nearby. Also the Urban Planning museum is upstairs. Always worth a visit, that one.
Cons: Hard to find. The underground mall is massive. Weird staff who didn't want to tell us the address and asked us not to take pictures.
Smoking: Yeah it's fine, though we didn't see too many people lighting up.
Sketchy Underground Gambling: Didn't see any here.
The most modern, family-friendly arcade we visited but also the most expensive and second-least fun. They sell Haagen-Dazs down there - this ain't no poor man's fishing arcade.
Atmosphere: Tom is a friendly anthropomorphic mouse, so naturally the vibe in his arcade is lighthearted and worry-free. Young couples with kids enjoying the virtual world, guys and girls on dates and trying hopelessly to claw-crab a fat stuffed animal (not gonna happen) and a few expats.
Standout Games: House Of The Dead and lots of other shooters, with elaborate cabinets for a complete immersion experience. Some music games and a skateboard game too. Panic Park is mad fun and has no buttons. Also, this game where you throw plastic balls at the screen to ward off train flashers and mosquitoes.
Pros: This place is totally family safe, at least the ones in New World Plaza and Super Brand Mall. No smoke, and no weird uncles standing around looking like they've been up on the fish for days.
Cons: Expensive and sterile. The token to kuai ratio is 1:1, and most games cost three – four tokens. Also, not a single fighting game in the whole place and none of the "China factor".
Smoking: Nope, Tom won't hear of it.
Sketchy Underground Gambling: No no, not in Tom's town. The closest thing to gambling is the coin pusher game, that took 30 of my kuai before I had to leave the venue. Straight down the rabbit hole. The machine dispenses tickets instead of coins, so for 30 kuai and lot of stress I got this:
We will update this list in the future as we find more arcades. As mentioned, if you know of others, please leave the details in the comments. Game on.