There’s no place in the world like Tokyo for themed bars and restaurants, but sometimes they are too expensive, sometimes too gimmicky, sometimes lacking in atmosphere and sometimes just plain wrong. Muteki Mario however, like the eponymous plumber, makes it work.
This small bar in East Shinjuku attracts a varied crowd: on our first weekend visit, we seemed to be interrupting a few dates. Couples sat at the bar and chatted to the bartender, who was wearing heart-shaped red glasses for no apparent reason. Our second visit is different, though. It’s a quiet midweek night, and the crowd consists of just two salarymen behaving as if the bar is their local.
Guinness (¥700) acquired, we watch as they play spirited game after game of Pac-Man. A large screen is set up in the corner, with smaller monitors above the bar, so everyone can see the action. While their power pellet chomping skills might have rusted over the years, the salarymen’s enthusiasm has not.
“Abunai, abunai!” one yells as his friend maneuvers too close to the ghosts. Every time the character dies, his onlooking friend screams “Pac-Man, Pac-Man!” as if it is the natural thing to do. Since we are the only four people in the 12-seat place, we are offered the Wii controllers. I clear a stage without losing any lives, eliciting praise all round.
With controllers in our grasp we decide to mix things up with a new game. This turns out to be tougher than expected—there are over 250 available, including many made for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System released in the early ’80s. When my companion starts playing F-Zero, the now more numerous crowd gets nostalgic. One of the newbies gets the controller and displays some serious skill—though he’s probably the only customer in the bar I’d call a gamer.
Choosing drinks from the lengthy menu is also tough. There is a good range of spirits (from ¥700)—fitting for a self-professed shot bar—and three Mario-themed cocktails. I decide on the Cute Peach (¥700), which is very sweet but not very alcoholic.
To say Muteki Mario is dedicated to everything Mario is an understatement. There are Boos, the Super Mario Bros ghosts, hanging from the ceiling, figurines everywhere, star-shaped candles, a stuffed Mario welcoming passersby outside—even the light fixtures are modeled on the green pipes Mario disappears down. A Nintendo Family Computer (aka Famicom) converted into a tissue box sits on the bar.
Our next choice is a mid-’80s Nintendo game called Baseball, which is a hit with the others. I start up a Japan vs. Australia competition. The graphics are basic and I can’t work out who’s batting or pitching, but we’re having fun anyway. Unsurprisingly, Japan is victorious.
It’s getting late, so we finish our drinks. On the way out, it’s high fives all around for a job well done.
The appeal of Muteki Mario, and the reason behind its success as a date location, is that you can have fun even if you aren’t a serious gamer, or don’t play any of the games. It’s that unthreatening family appeal that has made Mario a success, and Muteki Mario, too.