Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Sega Newsletter

Back when I was about 7 or so, I took the finest double spaced paper from my penmanship class, stole a stamp from my parents, and wrote a letter, in pencil, to Sega of America, telling them they should have a newsletter like the Nintendo Fun Club. (I didn't own an NES back then, but my dad was a mail carrier, and he used to bring home any issues which were undeliverable.) A few weeks later, I got a typed letter thanking me for my enthusiasm, along with stack of about 20 pages of paper detailing hints and cheats for every game on the system, as well as an issue of Sega Challenge.

Sega Challenge was pretty much what I had asked for. It was just like the Nintendo Fun Club, in that it was very short and more of a promotional brochure than a magazine, but it was exciting nonetheless. After all, this was around 1988 or so - I'm not sure of Electronic Gaming Monthly or Video Games & Computer Entertainment had started yet, so getting any kind of information about video gaming was fairly precious.

Well, my old copies got thrown in the trash years and years ago, but the awesome folks at Zap! Online have been scanning them for your enjoyment. It's pretty amazing looking back on these. I actually had my parents order me a Sega Challenge t-shirt way back when, and I MAY have had a Sega beach towel (or I desperately wanted one, I can't remember.) I also got my copy of Power Strike through them, which wasn't officially released in retail stores at the time. (I think some copies bled through from Canada or something a few years later - I'm bit a sketchy on the details.)

They also sold these promotional tapes that were about half an hour long each, and had recordings of about a dozen Sega products. Which, again, were amazing, considering I only had one friend with a Master System, and there was no place to rent games, so it was a fine way to check out a game without dumping $50+ (three months of allowance!) on one. I still have these in my closet - I've thought about recording them, although the HG101 Digital Archive Project has come to a standstill due to Fileplanet deleting some of my files, and my computer's inability to transfer stuff to Megaupload.

Anyway, Sega Challenge soon became the Team Sega Newsletter after a few issues, then eventually became Sega Visions, which was a bit more of proper magazines like Nintendo Power, complete with reviews and such, although it was obviously still biased. It was still free for awhile, then they started charging for subscriptions, at which point I had dropped it. Still, this is a great look at Master System history!

This all came up regarding a not-yet-posted article on Sword of Vermilion. I edited in a part about Sega's slogan at the time being "Sega does what Nintendon't", but someone brought that this didn't start until the Genesis era, where it was actually "Genesis does what Nintendon't". I swear that, since I was on the Sega mailing list, I got some brochures (specifically advertising Double Dragon and Vigilante, these were separate from the newsletters) with this slogan. But since Sega didn't actually advertise these in magazines, I can't find any solid proof. Did I dream this up or misremember it, or can anyone corroborate it?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Heavy Rain – don’t buy the British version, buy the European

Living in France I bought the domestic version of Heavy Rain, but in a strange twist, it would seem the mainland European version is the definitive one. Whereas the UK version contains only English, the European version contains English and all the other languages of Europe. The Japanese version meanwhile is censored, or so I hear, and the US boxart is so hideous that if I lived in the states I would import it anyway (I’m lying, I’d actually just download the European boxart and print it off). I don’t know what languages the US version has, perhaps a reader could post stating so?

CLICK for a phone interview with Quantic Dream.

I phoned Quantic Dream in Paris and the woman on the phone explained this was done because the UK version sells for £40 and the European for 70 Euro. Due to the collapse of the British pound, the difference is almost 1 for 1 – meaning to save money, Europeans have been importing multi-language games from the UK. SO to stop this from happening, Quantic Dream removed the option to select other audio languages. I find this particularly annoyingly for my UK counterparts, since myself and others have stated we intend to play through it in a language other than English, but with English subtitles, since the voice acting sucks (and, the personalities of characters is reportedly different). I haven’t installed the game, but intend to do so shortly. I bought the special edition, which comes with a PSN code to download extra content. Whether this will work on my UK PSN account I don’t know, I may have to open a French one. Furthermore, I don’t know if future chapters will be in English or not when using this code – rest assured, if they’re only in French, I’ll be on here ranting about the injustices of the world.

The above photo was taken from a poster on NTSC-uk forum, and to me, he's made it look as if the two figures are mating...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

25 Years of Vampire Killer

Vampire Killer, the first stage theme from the original Castlevania, is one of the most enduring pieces of video game music in its entire history. I do always admired that Konami was well aware of how much the community loved its soundtracks, and each successive sequel has usually had some kind of remixed versions of older songs. It sorta started around Castlevania III, which reused Vampire Killer titled as "Deja Vu" in the castle halls, while Super Castlevania IV started the tradition of the Holy Trinity of Castlevania Music - Vampire Killer, Bloody Tears, and Beginning - from the first three games, respectively.

So, I went through all of the versions of Vampire Killer and spliced segments from each into a full length song. It loops around three times before fading and I think has about 25 different pieces of music. I didn't include every single remix, but most of them are accounted for. I think it sounds pretty good, except the version from Circle of the Moon REALLY sounds out of place. I probably should've used another segment, but I didn't feel like going back and re-editing it. If nothing else, it shows how odd that version sounds compared to the rest. It's (very) loosely in chronological order, which gets wonkier as it goes on and on.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Old Korean Gaming Mags (part 1)

I figured I might as well introduce some of the Korean gaming mags I'm using for my research on the history of the gaming industry from here. My main source so far is Computer Hakseup (Computer Study), which wasn't a dedicated game mag but rather a general computer magazine focussing on education and technology news. Published from 1983 to 1997 (with a title change in between, see below), it is the mag Korean oldschool gamers have fond memories of. The quality of anything written on Korean retro games nowadays can easily be measured by whether or not Computer Hakseup is quoted.

Early on, they began to print simple homebrew game sourcecodes, along with other kinds of software. They also introduced new games for various home computers, which were later turned into a full blown reviews section. The "reviews" were actually more akin to game guides, though, explaining strategies and did the important task to translate key sections of the practically always untranslated foreign games. Sometimes the reviews were decorated with (rather simplistic) original art, or art taken from sources unrelated to the game in discussion.

Contra Guide

source code for an amateur game

Other features included comic strips and (later) "Computer Novels", pieces of fiction on computer-related themes.

In 1990, it was renamed to MyCom, and the former mostly black&white mag gradually won more colored pages. Initially the mag reported equally about the home computers with any importance on the market, but some time in late 1990 or early 1991, it turned into a straight IBM-PC magazine, dropping all the 8-bit home computers (Other 16-bit computers like X68000 or Amiga never became relevant). Consoles were only mentioned in short news blurbs to begin with.

And of course the advertisements, which at least in the early years are almost more informative (for my purposes) than the mag itself.

Ads for the Zemmix and Mirinae's "The Day", the latter one never got released (and nonetheless spawned a series with 4 sequels)

New Year's ad with the Zemina-Crew, 1988

From 1992 on, the game section was turned into a mag-inside-the-mag called GameCom, which could be taken out of the actual zine, which actually makes for a big gap in my research so far, as the national library didn't start to store those until late 1993.

Later I'll show some stuff with which I try to fill that gap...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Case of Wikipedia v. Kinuyo Yamashita

Among video game composers, Kinuyo Yamashita isn't exactly a well known name, although she probably should be. Back in the mid-80s, she worked at Konami and was the composer for the original Castlevania. She also worked on a handful of other Konami games, mostly Japanese-only, including Esper Dream, Almana no Kiseki, King Kong 2, Stinger, Hi no Tori (Famicom version), Knightmare II: Maze of Galious (MSX version), Usas, and a handful of others. She quite after a few years to go freelance - according to a recent interview with Square Enix Music, Konami's refusal to properly credit their developers played a big part. (She shows up under the pseudonym "James Banana" in the ending to the NES Castlevania, although she's credit properly in the MSX2 Vampire Killer, which has the same music.) After going freelance, she did the outstanding Power Blade soundtrack, and worked on a number of Natsume titles, including the SNES version of Pocky & Rocky and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, along with Megaman X3 for Capcom. Her official website documents several other Japan-only games, including many entries in the Medarot/Medabot series, but also notes that she had a brain hemorrhage which left her unable to compose for a number of years. She's recently become for visible on the web, thanks to her MySpace account and here appearance as a guest speaker in Video Games Live!. She has quite an interesting background!

Well, apparently Wikipedia doesn't think so.

I mean, what? The music for the original Castlevania is some of the most iconic in video game history, and is still being rearranged by Konami over twenty years later. Why not delete Koji Kondo, too? (On this note: this Original Sound Version post on the same subject mentions that they've deleted Shinji Hosoe, a veteran composer for Namco and others for over twenty years, for similar reasons. His works aren't quite as famous as Castlevania, but he's still a fairly well known, well documented composer.)

The argument by the nimrod Wikipedia editors keep shooting down source after source as "unnotable" As noted above, Japanese developers are notorious for keeping secrets - we know that Keiji Inafune didn't really design Mega Man but still aren't 100% sure who did - and trying to source these things in the games themselves is nearly impossible. That's why it's incredibly valuable (and amazing) when places like the Game Developers Research Institute dig up some of these guys to set the record straight. But oh, hey, according to the Wikipedia deletion argument, first person sources are irrelevant, as her apparently her own web page, along with various interviews, don't count, and the popularity of her original songs don't either.

Every once in awhile, there's a tiny part of my brain that thinks that Wikipedia, along with the general wiki format, will overcome the general usefulness of websites like HG101. Then I see instances of stupidity like this, with the Wikipedia editors clearly being small minded know-nothings, and think, yeah, sites like mine have nothing to be worried about.


One of the more recent Wiki folk reupped her original entry here, along with a longer list of her works and more sources.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lesbian character in Suikoden 2

After much painstaking work, I reveal to the world Suikoden 2’s openly lesbian female NPC.

I recently wrote an article for a UK print magazine on localisation, which I’d hoped would feature these 3 screenshots. Someone sent me scans of the article today, and it turns out they weren’t used. Which is fair enough, I guess. But having spent close to 4 hours trying to grab them, I feel they’re too good to go to waste.

The NPC is located in, if I recall, the university town of Greenhill, which isn’t easy to get into. Using a PS1 emulator on my PC, and an original PAL copy of the game, I tried using save states to reach the town. Problem is, the majority are states for the US version, which meant I had to fiddle with conversion programs to change the data in the save file so they were PAL compatible. This required trawling the net for the PAL version’s product code, which didn’t always work on all save states for some reason. Several hours later I had working states. Except that states towards the end of the game don’t allow you to enter the town. So I had to load an earlier state and play for an hour to reach this section.

Oh, the things I do for journalism. It’s a mug’s game, honestly.

The NPC is located on the path up to the Greenhill Academy. She’s clearly female, with a green sash and red hair – Suikoden 2’s standard housewife NPC. Her first dialogue square asks you to say “Hello” in speech marks, to the academy’s receptionist Emilia, after which the NPC sighs.

Box 2 is the big reveal, where the NPC comments on Emilia’s beauty and intelligence, before admitting she’s smitten.

When speaking to Emilia I have to admit the hand-drawn portrait for her conveys a rather attractive image – it reminds me of a girl from my math’s class years ago. She’s also likely to ignite any fantasies the player might have about young, sexy, strict school-teachers, as she quite clearly tells you to behave yourself.

Actually, for those unable to project the hand-drawn visage into something lifelike, I’m surprised to find I actually have a photo (above) resembling Emilia on my harddrive, from my Curious Photography folder. The glasses are a different colour, but they’re certainly the right shape. I can’t recall where I got it.

Speaking with Blaustein he’d commented on the overall difficulty of working with Suikoden 2’s text assets, which weren’t provided in an easy to follow manner. There were also several translators. It was my opinion at the time, that this NPC’s dialogue box had been mixed up with another’s – possibly a male student walking the grounds.

On reflection though, it might not be a mix-up. Instead it’s possibly a cultural difference to the west – especially since the Japanese don’t/didn’t have a strong Christian/Judaic religious foundation, which for a long time governed sexual behavioural norms in western society. Views on sexuality in Japan has shifted over the centuries, and today in anime and manga there’s the genre of ‘yuri’ which covers womenly love, but it’s a catch-all term and manga fans in the west have also created the term shōjo-ai – to describe specifically non-sexual relationships between women (though in Japan itself, the term means something drastically different). I recall reading a source long ago, possibly in defunct magazine Manga Mania or some other publication, which said that female love commonly does happen in Japan between young friends, but it’s something they usually grow out of as they reach marrying age. It could be that the NPC has nothing more than an innocent crush.

Could this NPC be an example of shōjo-ai? Or am I exaggerating a simple mix-up in text files for the sake of a hyperbolic blog post and the excuse to post provocative photos of women with their eyes closed? We’ll probably never know unless we interview Suikoden’s creators.

I had a very vague recollection that one of the key designers on Suikoden 2 was a woman, but searching Mobygame I appear to be mistaken. Does anyone know if this was the case?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Street Fighter II newspaper advertisement (and more Super Power System card pics inside)

I stumbled upon this old news while weeding through early 90s Korean game magazines today. Apparently, Street Fighter has been advertised on a full page in the Yomiuri Shimbun of March 24th 1992, which must have been quite a novum. Has to be when a Japanese newspaper ad gets reported in a Korean computer mag.

In other news, here are a whole lot more of the Korean Street Fighter II cards Hardcore Gaming 101 has reported about in the past several times.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Final Fantasy VI

Today, a guest article written by Sergei Servianov, on what Final Fantasy VI meant for the youth of the time, and the fantastic musical scores that accompanied it.

There’s a lot of argument regarding the nature of games writing, with some readers craving something deeper than arbitrary scores and pseudo-objectiveness, and others decrying any attempts at floral prose. Some like hard-hitting investigative features such as those by EDGE and GamesTM, and others want something deeply personal.

Well, whatever. I’m not about to argue with where writing should go.

This article was recently posted by my good friend Sergei Servianov on The Gamer’s Quarter forums, and I felt it needed greater exposure. I’m sure different people will appreciate it for different reasons, or possibly not all, but several points made it really resonate with me.

Sergei talks about how videogames of this calibre occupied a unique time, before the internet and improved means of distribution enabled greater choice with regards to various entertainment and artistic mediums. Speaking with generations prior to mine, it was only in adulthood when they came to appreciate more artistic things – their youth was occupied by sports, cheap comics, simplified children’s books and lousy TV. For the generation who grew up with games such as Final Fantasy VI though, it granted access to artistic worlds of thought and melancholy storylines which, for the time being, had no equivalent for teenagers. (though I fully expect a whole wave of rebuttals to this statement)

I also relish any piece of writing which is brave enough to criticise Final Fantasy VII, which for me was a bloated and overrated mistake which influenced far too many developers, ruining a lot of potentially good future games in the process.

While the fabled last issue of The Gamer’s Quarter exists only in the minds of its writers, even if you never followed the publication this eulogy is well worth reading for anyone who appreciates the 16-bit era.


Preaching the Truth from the Edge of Kefka's Tower: A Hymn to Final Fantasy VI

By Sergei Servianov

Whenever I think back to my wasted youth, I can't help feeling a tang of bitterness at not having had my fair share of sex and adventure. There wasn't much of that going on in my teenage years; nothing at all, actually, if we're talking about sex. There was a lot of shame in those days and that makes me want to curse the RPGs.

I want to curse them, but I can't quite bring myself to do so. I'm listening to the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack right now and realize that you can't quite argue with something this good. Sex is one of the few things that makes life worth living, I love fucking... Even so, you can't refute Final Fantasy VI , because the argument that it presents is unimpeachable. Yes, of course, the cool guy faction in my crania sniggers at this, they're mocking me as I write. But they are wrong. They know all too well about what can satisfy the body and the steps that need to be taken to make it so. But they are the enemy and will always be the enemy. Cool is the enemy of all that is good in this world. Cool will never understand the beautiful and runs from the truths of this cold, dark universe like a cockroach running from light. I'll ally with the cool to get laid, but that's as far as my allegiance will ever go.
Final Fantasy VI is pure refutation, an argument in 32-meg form against the vileness of this world. There are few artifacts of our generation that have withstood the test of time as well as Square's Super Famicom masterpiece. I can't imagine a single twelve-year-old of my generation with any soul at all smirking at it. It's way too serious a work for that to happen. It was something that millions of people would play and declare allegiance to. And it deserved all of it. One of the few videogames that did or does.

Where else could we have found such art? Movies? Well, the Americans of my day didn't have Miyazaki's stuff on file, so that was out. The Disney films seemed pretty profound in those years, but they haven't aged well. I have a hard time justifying my obsession for the Lion King back then. Music? There was no proper music for those who hungered for more. Classical music, you say? Well, classical music was boring and didn't talk about anything that we wanted. There was something cheesy about it, too. It didn't seem serious at all. Comics? We didn't have manga back then and the stuff that we did have was beneath contempt.

No, it was in videogames and in videogames alone that we could've found our arguments.

You just couldn't help but love those characters. They were better than most of the people you went to school with. They probably still are. They had honor and meant what they said. And their wonderful personal themes, composed by Nobuo Uemastsu at the height of his power, were something that you hoped you would have for yourself one day. I know now that that's impossible, but how great it is to imagine walking into a bar and hearing Shadow's reedy music playing in your head, drowning out the shitty rap that's trying it's best to make the bar seem like the “decadent club scene” from a bad American action movie.

Yes, THAT music, it's hard to write about it now because so many horrible people have expressed their appreciation of it. Yet, that's its strength and the strength of Final Fantasy VI as a whole. It is impervious to either praise or criticism. It merely sets up its argument, presents you with the greatest graphics, music, and story that you'd seen, heard, or read up to that time and asks you if you still want to continue on in the real world; a reverse Matrix.

Many a twelve-year-old heard that call, but few followed it wholeheartedly, boarded that Phantom Forrest train. Many more than was to be expected, though. I'm pretty sure that if you were to gather all the true believers in a single place then you could easily get a Tienanmen Square crowd scene going. I can imagine it now. Hordes of plump and skinny losers of all races, howling like mad, whacking the chained unbelievers on their way to the Gulag of the Cool with their FF VI cartridges, while a grinning “ice teeth” Hironobu Sakaguchi – Mao Suit, liberation cap – waves to them from the castle walls.

Though daydreams don't get you far in this world, so let's recall the characters, for our sake and theirs.

Make no mistake about it. They are still beyond you and will always be. If one can imagine a life as blissful and attractive as Setzer's, I'd like to hear it, lounging around a floating casino, taking his share of sex and drugs without a hint of nagging puritanism. As lame as it may look right now, that man was our libertine, our Byron. Then there's Shadow, a ninja loner, the idealized self-image of every boy that went through high school uncool, whose touching story of woe was presented with a minimalism that was ignored by RPG creators then and now. And like all good things, he was doomed to perish. You could never quite save Shadow, no matter how you may have wanted to. Or what about Edgar, who dresses like like a mix of a decadent 19th prince and a modern CEO, part chainsaw murderer, part ladies man. Kefka, while somewhat overrated as a villain, has many moments of delight as well, having the most fun of any JPRG character in history. Gleefully committing mass murder; an angel/ clown / punk rocker hybrid firing lasers from his trash tower. Yes, Square really sent in the clowns there and the clowns were scary. In fact, Kefka, despite being the villain, steals so many scenes, gets so many great lines – recall him laughing at your party during the final battle, calling them a bunch of walking self-help cliches – that you can tell that the creators' hearts were in the right place. It's no coincidence that Kefka's Tower is greatest piece of music on a soundtrack famed for great work. I don't know if it's scary or not that the appeal of Kefka is much more real to me now than as a child.
And then there were the set pieces. There are so many to recall that you can open up any random save from a copy of the game bought from a Japanese “recycle shop” and be assured of stumbling upon something wonderful. The big Moogle battle, the type of thing you kept in your head while playing Magic: the Gathering as a teenager, stuffed animals whacking werewolves on the head with maces. The struggle on the Floating Continent, with that great scene of Kefka kicking the Old Man of the Empire offstage like a bag of rancid garbage, followed by Shadow playing a lethal game of WMD goddess statue chess with our favorite clown.

Sadly, the same things cannot be said for many of the RPGs that came after it. Genius though it may be, Final Fantasy VI has given rise to many a false prophet ( though the critics rightly place the blame on the massive success of the game's Playstation sequel). The most offensive example of this is Xenogears: the pitiful banner of the most pathetic nerds of this Earth. It's so puerile that talking about it feels dirty and unsporting, like making fun of a cripple. It's just depressing to think about and that's that. It's not so much a game as the sad story of Hitler's Germany branded onto a CD: so much talent, so much great music and art wasted in the service of a laughable ideology, an insipid narrative.

Many other works have faired better. Persona 4 comes to mind, even though it's FF VI's direct opposite. It celebrates the cool, sneers at the nerds, and goes out of its way to glorify those loathsome high school days. As a counter-argument it works much better than I could have expected. Its music is poppy tunefulness compared to Final Fantasy's neo-romantic nobility, its story a big Yay !! for this world and its people. It's the closest that we've come in the Japanese RPG genre to “maturity.”

Make no mistake, I'm not mocking it. I love the game dearly, it's the only modern game that I can stomach playing these days. Though its worldview will most probably never inch out the one that Final Fantasy has instilled in me. I also have the utmost contempt for the perfunctoriness of its villain. It's a sad state of affairs that the game makers of today don't even bother making a halfway decent counter-argument against our world, won't even make the villain fun. The heroes' argument in Persona 4 boils down to the same thing that the popular kids prove wordlessly every day at school, “We're cooler and totally have more friends than you, loser.” A very bad way to cap off a game that had a lot of good in it.

The saddest thing is that we still don't have the vocabulary – nay, the poetry – to celebrate Final Fantasy VI properly. Most of the praise that this profound little anti-Earth has gotten is as clumsy as its criticism. The words aren't here yet, but we're coming close... they're somewhere, to be sure, stashed away in the brain of some basement-inhabiting uber-dweeb romantic, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Final Fantasy VI is like Lovecraft's Old Ones, bidding its time, influencing the aesthetics of the world in ways we can't – perhaps, won't live to – ever see.
The War of the Magi has never really stopped and Final Fantasy VI will no doubt continue its unseen jihad, unnoticed and unheard until our blessed day of reckoning. When the silly works of today will be nothing more than a footnote in the Final Fantasy-era of art history.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mahjong, hanafuda, and other Japanese games

With the imminent release of Yakuza 3, I’ve been playing through Yakuza 2 – and I’ve discovered I quite like playing Mahjong in it.


While I like western card games and Chess (sort of), the intrinsically exotic nature of Asian card/board games has always fascinated me. Unfortunately, living in the west has allowed little opportunity to be exposed to them, outside of foreign films and the occasional videogame. One of the most prominent examples is the Ryu ga Gotoku series, or Yakuza games, by Sega. Another English example is 42-in-1 All Time Classics (aka Clubhouse Games in the USA), a fantastic compilation for the Nintendo DS with a selection of really awesome classic games, complete with comprehensive guides to make learning easy for newcomers.

Join me as I briefly examine some of Asia’s various games, and the easiest methods for learning to play them. Click the names for a Wikipedia link and further explanation of the rules.

One of the things that really irks me is how in the west you’ll find games claiming to be Mahjong, when if fact it’s just a crude version of “snap” using Mahjong tiles. This is weird, and to me makes westerners appear slightly stupid. They’re captivated enough by the imagery of the game, enough to make use of the tiles, but lack the motivation to learn it and just go off and do their own thing.
Having seen Mahjong being played in countless Hong Kong action films, not to mention the ludicrous number of Mahjong games available on every system available, even arcades, I’ve always wanted to try it. Unfortunately it’s extremely complicated and so seldom if ever reaches the west - I seem to recall that Shenmue 2 on the Dreamcast allowed you to play Mahjong, but Sega removed this from the British localisation, presumably because it would have been too much effort to teach it to gaijin players.
Remedying this is the fact that Yakuza 2, also by Sega, not only features Mahjong in English, but it also comes with a fairly decent guide, which is enough to teach you the basics. Rules for the game vary, and Yakuza 2’s are perhaps slightly different from those you’ll find elsewhere (according to a guide I’ve read, they’ve been simplified), but basically you’re given 13 tiles and then each of the 4 players takes turns to pick up and then discard a new tile. Your aim is similar to poker: you want your entire hand to be made up of complete sets before ending the game. A set constitutes either 3 or 4 of the same tile (for example 3 or 4 tiles each featuring 7 bamboo trees), or you need a run in the same suit, for example 1/2/3, and so on, based on the suits which each contain 1-9 numbered tiles. There’s also a few unique tile sets which don’t adhere to the numbering system, instead featuring a kanji which represents a coloured dragon or a wind direction.

So basically you need a full house of 4 complete sets, plus a pair. For example, 1/2/3 - 4/5/6 - 7/8/9 - Dragon/Dragon/Dragon/ - and a pair of 3s in a different suit. You’re then out and that game ends.

You can either keep waiting to pick up the correct tile and then discard a useless one, or you can pick up your opponent’s recently discarded tile - but only if it completes a set you have, and if you do, you’re forced to display this complete set. Different combinations yield different scores, and this is where things get complicated. Yakuza 2’s Mahjong guide is over 20 pages long, listing the various scoring combinations and multipliers you can get. You also need to achieve a qualifying score combination, but this is fairly easy to get.

The best multiplier is when you don’t pick up opponents’ tiles, and complete your hand simply by picking from the deck and discarding. This is called a concealed hand, because you don’t have to reveal anything. So most games boil down to you focussing on your deck and making clever choices with regards to what you keep from the main deck. There’s obviously a lot more to it, and there are some clever tricks, but that’s the basics. You need a mathematical brain to work out the odds of getting your required tile, and a keen player keeps his options open. (having a 3/4 is better than having a 5/7, since with the former a 2 or 5 will let you win, whereas with the latter you’re stuck waiting for the 6)

Afterwards you steal points from your opponents, and so it continues for about 8 hands. The best thing about playing it in a videogame is that the computer handles all the complex scoring. Often I’ve finished a hand with more multipliers than I’d realised. It’s well worth learning to play, and the easiest way would be through Yakuza 2. There’s also a good FAQ on GameFAQs which covers the extra rules not mentioned in Yakuza 2 (you can’t pick up an opponent’s tile if you’ve declared Riichi and the tile you need to win is in your discard pile).
I’m not sure if Yakuza 3 features Mahjong, but if it does, hopefully it gets localised and is not cut out. Pictured here is Mahjong Kakutou Club for PS3, by Konami. Here meanwhile is a rather nifty guide.

Having been aware of Shogi since learning Chess, this should have been easy to learn. It’s basically the same concept of a board of military figures, each with their own specific movement pattern. You can also promote characters, much like in Chess and Chequers.

Unfortunately while Chess has physical pieces with their own defined shape and colour, Shogi simply has small wooden chips with the piece’s name written on it in Kanaji - sometimes very elaborate Kanji, difficult for the western eye to discern. As such it’s a complete mystery to me. I’ve tried repeatedly to practice it, with easy computer opponents, but after a few minutes the indistinct text becomes blurry and my brain finds it impossible to calculate the situation at a glance. At least with Mahjong each piece is visually distinct and coloured for easy recognition (well, except the Wind pieces, but they constitute only 4 symbols).

If you want to learn how to play, avoid the Yakuza 2 version which has no tutorial (and has REALLY blurry kanji), and instead get 42-in-1 All Time Classics for the Nintendo DS. It has an extremely good guide. There’s also Shotest Shogi on XBLA (pictured).

I first became interested in Go (aka: Igo) when I read that Hiroshi Yamauchi of Nintendo was a keen player, and enjoyed testing Western businessmen he met, if they knew how to play. Losing not too badly apparently impresses him, according to David Sheff’s Game Over book.

Each player takes it in turn to place their coloured stone on a grid. So long as your stone either has an empty space adjacent to it, or has a stone of the same colour along side it which is adjacent an empty space, those stones are alive. Basically image that each stone represents a platoon - if they’re completely surrounded, they’re dead and are removed from the board. The game ends when both players feel there are no further moves to be made.

Unfortunately it suffers from the same problem that makes me sometimes dislike Chess - the need to think ahead by several moves. This never works for me, because if I set up an ingenious 20-step plan for victory, it’s entirely reliant on my opponent not doing anything to upset it. So if they do something 15 moves in which doesn’t fit my template, out goes the complicated plan and my patience.

Thing is, with Chess you can wing it a lot of the time, and so I play on the fly. I’ve heard that’s how Chess players who take on multiple opponents do it - they focus only on each move at hand and ignore long-term strategy. You can’t do this with Go – you need to look ahead, I’m told, by sometimes 50 moves. By the time I’ve seen the strategy my opponent has been planning, it’s too late and everyone is dead – there’s no sending the Queen to the frontline to sacrifice herself and freak the opponent out. There are no gung-ho moves in Go and the value of any single stone is only built over considerable time.

Which is a pity, because conceptually I love the game. No complicated rules about what pieces do what, just black stones and white stones on a grid. A battle for territory where each placed piece remains stationary until capture. It’s kind of poetic. I’ve played a few games with a Japanese friend’s father, and I’ve dabbled in various game versions, from the Famicom to the DS, but I’ve never found one in English (except online versions), and I’ve never found one that I was comfortable enough with to really practice on.
Do any HG101 readers have a console version of Go they’d recommend? I’d love to find an English version for a handheld system, or even an intuitive Japanese title for PS3. Apparently 1 in every 222 people on Earth plays Go!


Ahh, now this is my favourite, more so than any of the above. I learned this on my first trip to Japan, playing it wherever I wandered, like some kind of card-playing Ronin.
A Japanese woman with hanafuda tatoos

There are 12 suits, based on each month of the year, each containing 4 cards. Every card has a visual representation, like a man in the rain, a stork, or just plain flowers, so they’re easy to memorise. Two players take it in turns to pick a card from the deck, and then either match one of the cards in their hand with one of those face up on the table, or discard one from their hand. You match cards of the same suit, so if there’s 2 September cards on the table, you need one of the other 2 September cards to pick one on the table up.

The fun comes from the scoring combinations. To win a game you need to achieve at least one scoring combination (for example: Wild Board, Wild Deer and Butterflies - or Sake Cup and Full Moon). After that you can either continue playing until you get another combination, or end it there to receive your scores for that combination. Continuing is risky though, since if the opponent then gets a combination, he’ll receive double the points.
I first played it while wearing loose jimbei, sipping warm sake and eating chilled raw horse meat in a small mountain town, while outside the cicadas buzzed in the hot night air – there are few other things to do in Japan which, to me, convey such an authentic atmosphere. As the game of choice for the nation’s organised criminals, there’s a certain satisfaction when getting into a really good game and discussing the poetic merits of each score combination. This was also the card game that made Nintendo’s fortune in their early days, and they still manufacture it.

For added fun, it’s said there are as many rule variations as there are Japanese towns, and inventing your own scoring combinations for play with friends is encouraged, as long as everyone is happy with them.
Videogame wise there are nearly as many Hanafuda games as Mahjong available, though the best is in Clubhouse Games on the Nintendo DS, which is in English with a great learning guide. The rules and scoring combinations are pleasant and authentic, and the computer takes care of things like scoring, even going so far as to make cards in your hand flash if they can be paired up with something on the table. This is perfect, as it allows beginners to learn it very quickly. It also features online play, so you never need feel bored with the computer AI!

If you have any interest at all in card games, you owe it to yourself to learn Hanafuda, which is supremely satisfying to play.