One of my favourite things about travelling is exploring gaming culture in other countries. This mind-set has led me to discover all kinds of interesting things, like the fact that France has its own dedicated RPG magazine or that there’s a veritable pinball utopia hidden halfway down an otherwise unremarkable Hungarian street.
Up until earlier this year, however, I’d never been outside of Europe, and so a trip to Taiwan marked my first foray into Asia. Hundreds of thousands of column inches have been written about Japan’s love affair with video games over the past several decades, so I figured this represented a uniquely exciting opportunity for me – after all, Taiwan plays a pivotal role in producing the semi-conductors for many of the consoles you own.
But just what are the people playing there?
Once I’d brushed aside the haze of a 13-hour flight, the first thing I observed when out and about in Taipei – the country’s capital city, which houses a population of around 2.5 million people – is that while video games are everywhere, consoles like PlayStation are not. There are large promotional posters in practically every subway station, designed to capture the attention of commuters with colourful anime-style characters, but they’re all advertising the latest smartphone fancies – often from developers in Japan or South Korea.
I quickly learned that, like so many other countries, Taiwan is obsessed with Japan in a way I hadn’t quite anticipated. Family Mart, the Japanese convenience store chain, occupies at least one retail unit on every single street, and many house toy capsule machines outside, with plenty promising obscure plunder, like miniature washing machines or camp fire scenes. At up to NT$200 (~US$6.63) a twizzle, these are not the kind of tasteless throwaways you find in Western supermarkets – and they’re not for children either.
But while I spotted the pervasive presence of Pikachu in plenty of places – there’s actually an entire subway train livery dedicated to Pokémon that’s running on Taipei’s red line – I really struggled to find any mention of PlayStation anywhere. I couldn’t find a GameStop analogue in any of the larger malls, and the marketing was non-existent. I perused 7-Eleven magazine racks, eyeing the items carefully in anticipation of some kind of gaming mag, but had no luck. I even spent a little time watching one of the local television stations in my hotel’s gym, wondering if I might catch a PS5 commercial.
But it wasn’t until I went underground that I discovered Taiwan’s true gaming scene.
I’d done my research prior to travelling, of course, and I knew Taipei City Mall was considered the epicentre of the capital’s console market. You can access the plaza by heading down stairs from the city’s main train station, and it’s laid out like two long corridors which segue from general interest to video games and finally to food vendors. Upon exiting the elevator, I immediately spotted some promotional banners with SEGA Taiwan branding – I think there’d been some kind of contest or event earlier in the day – so I knew I was in the right place.
I believe the shops here are independent, but they use either PlayStation or Nintendo branding instead of their real names. God of War Ragnarok PS5 bundles were in plentiful supply – I travelled in mid-January, just as Sony was promising improved stock of its new-gen console, and that certainly proved to be true throughout my trip – and some of the stores were even taking pre-orders for the upcoming PSVR2.
In terms of inventory, I don’t know what I expected, but naturally many of the games were the same as overseas: Gran Turismo 7, God of War Ragnarok, and Forspoken – which was days away from releasing at the time – were all getting plenty of shelf space. I saw at least two or three local gamers purchase a PS5 during my trip, and one even went home with a Thrustmaster steering wheel as well; he was clearly a big fan of racing games.
Many of these shops all looked and felt the same; they were all bright lights and perfectly organised shelves. It’s perhaps little surprise, then, that a single unsuspecting grimy store with a Sony Trinitron CRT perched outside caught my eye. This place was a treasure trove, stacked to the roof with dozens of consoles in various states of disassembly, from the Virtual Boy through to Sanyo’s lesser-known model of the 3DO.
A lot of the games were imports from Japan, with rare Final Fantasy collector’s editions and dozens of boxed Super Nintendo cartridges stored safely behind glass. As readers will know, I enjoy train simulations, so I ended up grabbing a PS1 copy of Taito’s arcade title Densha de Go – it was cheap, boxed, and in relatively decent condition. And – whisper it – it’s a game I’ve been emulating for several months now.
My next stop took me to the distinctly trendy Ximen district, which some of you may be familiar with as the backdrop from the two Dusk Diver games. This place was filled with teenagers; I’m not old by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn’t feel cool enough to mince around these parts in my Primark t-shirt and Skechers shoes. (Although, actually my Skechers are limited edition, so maybe they fit right in!)
It’s here that I really felt the Japanese influence: I’ve never been to Akihabara, but I imagine it’s a little bit like this. There were entire commercial outlets filled with eye-catching pink LEDs and claw catcher machines, as well as toy capsules stacked as high as the eye could see. I ended up discovering one toy capsule machine dedicated to historical SEGA machines, and despite the high asking price, I simply couldn’t resist a punt; I pulled the Mega CD 2, a pointless piece of plastic without the actual Mega Drive 2 to accompany it, but I don’t regret a thing.
Gacha games are actually big in Taiwan, and not just the mobile titles like Eversoul and Heaven Burns Red which were being promoted everywhere. Many shops would sell tickets for raffles, where you have a slim chance of winning the grand prize.
I actually spotted one of these for PlayStation, because I noticed one shop was advertising some PSP and PS Vita key rings I really wanted to buy. As it turns out, you could pay NT$500 (US$16.56) for a chance to win any of the PlayStation items listed, with a PS5 money box being the top prize. The key rings were apparently the highest probability items, and so I took a punt, only to pull the towel from the tier above. It’s cool, but I doubt I’ll ever use it.
The last stop on my Taipei magical video game tour took me to an area literally named Digital Plaza, which is host to a couple of malls all dedicated to PC components and other items of geek interest. It’s here, on a fourth floor, in a minuscule unit, that I discovered a ton of imported Japanese games. It was the Nintendo Switch titles that caught my attention, and I’d end up going back to the shop a couple of days later to pick up two FMV-based train games from developer Sonic Powered. This was pertinent because…
Earlier in the week I’d taken a train to Tainan, a city at the bottom of Taiwan, for more cultural reasons. I like trains, you know that by now, and I was genuinely quite excited to ride the THSR 700T – which, if you’re not a nerd, is basically an orange bullet train which services the Taiwan High Speed Rail. It achieves speeds of up to 300km/h, which isn’t as fast as some of the locos you find in Japan, but is still pretty damn quick.
I ended up reading the train’s Wikipedia page on my return leg, and one small detail lifted off the page like I was destined to see it all along: “Railfan: Taiwan High Speed Rail, a 2007 train simulator video game developed jointly by Taiwanese company Actainment and Japanese company Ongakukan on the basis of the latter’s Train Simulator series, featured real video and was the first Taiwanese game for Sony’s PS3 system.”
I had to buy it!
I instantly started searching eBay for copies of it, but it was fetching upwards of ~US$150 from Western sellers. Fortunately, I was travelling with a Taiwanese native who was familiar with the local reseller apps, and they were able to source a boxed copy that was in great condition for a third of the asking price. It got shipped to a local 7-Eleven within days, and the game is now in my possession and on my shelf back at home.
I haven’t played it yet, but looking at footage on YouTube, it’s similar to Sonic Powered’s more modern titles which use FMV footage to create the visuals. Personally, I’m not a massive fan of these games as it feels more like you’re controlling the speed of a video than an actual train, but I’d like to dust off my PS3 at some point to give this a go; simulations are always that little bit more entertaining when you’re familiar with the content they contain, and I’ve ridden the Taiwan High Speed Rail in real-life now, so it’d be cool to play the game.
One last thing I want to mention is how I was navigating between many of the locations I’ve discussed above. Taipei’s subway system is really good: it’s clean and reliable, unlike in London – although it has the benefit of being built several decades later, of course. The main way people access the underground, or MRT as it’s known, is by using an Easy Card – a top-up card that you load with money which allows you to enter and exit each station.
These Easy Cards can be used to purchase various items outside of the MRT, like in convenience stores or even to get admission to the local zoo. But, as I understand it, occasionally the company will release special promotional versions of its cards – and one of these was an officially licensed DualShock 4 replica. As I mentioned above, I’m lucky enough to know someone in Taiwan, and they’d purchased one of these for me a couple of years ago, knowing I’d eventually want to use it.
The DualShock 4 is presented on a keyring, but is immaculately modelled: all of the details, from its USB charging point to its headphone socket are present, and the buttons even click in and out. The thing I like most about it is there’s an LED light inside, which flashes when the near-field connection is working, meaning the light bar on the top actually illuminates when entering and exiting the MRT.
To be honest, this wasn’t convenient to use at all; I had to make a big effort to take it in and out of my backpack each time I moved through a station, which wasn’t ideal. But I did feel like a few people noticed it. I'm sure they thought it was unusual that a white guy speaking English was navigating subway stations with a video game controller.
I prefer to think they thought I was cool.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading this article. I’ve wanted to write something like this for a while, so let me know in the comments section if you’re interested and I’ll try to do more like it.