Writing VGJunk for all this time has revealed certain truths about videogames to me. Jaleco games are almost always slightly disappointing, licensed Game Boy Color tie-ins are a plot by the devil to darken the collective soul of humanity, and Japan loves mahjong games. Really loves them, judging by the sheer volume of titles based on the ancient tile game. On every format since the dawn of gaming, mahjong games were there and in great numbers, so today’s article won’t be an exhaustive look at the history and evolution of the mahjong game. For starters, I’ve never been able to get my head around mahjong’s betting system, despite knowing the basic rules of the game, and my usual poker tactic of going all-in on every hand will probably not suffice. Instead, here’s a bunch of cover art from Super Famicom mahjong games. I had to narrow it down to one console, but don’t worry, that still gives me more than enough to look at.
Haisei Mahjong Ryouga

You’re going to get some anime in your Japanese mahjong games, naturally. That’s one way to sell the product – by giving you a crazy cast of characters to play against, a bunch of wild-haired, big-eyed challengers of the sort you’re unlikely to meet at your local real-life mahjong parlour. Okay, so I could see the old bloke with the moustache being there in real life, but not so much the rest of them. Do they even let school kids into mahjong parlours? Maybe if their parents are hardcore gamblers and they bring their kids along, making them sit and wait in the corner with a bottle of cheap fizzy pop and a bag of crisps until dad has blown that week’s wage packet.
I’m guessing the generic looking brown-haired guy on the left is the main character, a personality-free cipher who allows the player to project their own dreams of becoming the world’s best mahjong player onto him. I say this because everyone else looks far too interesting to be the main character. Like, check out the slick-looking guy at the bottom right. What’s his deal? Aside from his crippling gambling addiction, obviously.

Bishoujo Janshi Suchie-Pai

This poor woman has been in the mahjong parlour so long she’s resorted to eating the scoring sticks. She also appears to be some kind of futuristic cyborg. Sitting around playing mahjong seems like a criminal waste of cyborg powers, but who am I to judge? Even robots need down-time. Except they don’t. Because they’re robots.
The “bishoujo” in the title means “pretty girl,” and that’s another fairly standard type of mahjong game – the kind with cute girls that encourage you to play further because if you do well enough they might take their top off. This is especially prevalent in arcade mahjong games, and if this was an article about arcade mahjong games you’d be seeing a lot more pixellated boobs. Okay, maybe not boobs, I’m not good enough at mahjong to get that kind of pay-off. Pixellated lingerie, at least. You can recreate the experience at home by playing mahjong and looking at a page from the Ann Summers catalogue every time you win a point.

Super Real Mahjong PIV

I’ll be honest, this doesn’t look super real. For starters, these young ladies appear to be playing as a three-person team, and I don’t think that’s part of the standard mahjong rule set. The one at the back has the facial expression of someone who’s just about to sneeze. Also, you know, they’re cartoons. If I bought a game called “Super Real Mahjong” I’d be expecting to play against haggard middle-aged salary men and little old women who will absolutely crush you, not rejected cast members from a harem anime.

Pro Mahjong Tsuwamono

Ah, this is more like it! A bunch of people who look as though they’re having an absolutely miserable time playing mahjong. So many stern expressions! I guess that’s what you get in the world of pro mahjong. The lady at the middle-left has something of a wry smile, but other than that everyone’s got their game face on.

If this image I found on the official website of the Japan Professional Mahjong League is anything to go by, the game has not become any more cheerful during the intervening years. Given the famously small size of Japanese living spaces, the winner is probably upset because he’s going to have to give up either his bed or his toilet to make room for his giant trophy.

Pro Mahjong Kiwame 2

“You’ve stepped into the wrong mahjong parlour, my friend. We’re your worst goddamn nightmare.”

Mahjong Goku Tenjiku

That’ll be ancient literary figure Son Goku the Monkey King, not Goku from Dragonball Z, then? Disappointing. Yes, I know Goku is based on the Monkey King – they both have a nature that is irrepressible, for one thing – but the Money King was never forced into taking driving lessons by his wife so they’re clearly very different characters. This is quite a sinister-looking Son Goku, too, his eyes burning red with ape rage, one of the most dangerous kinds of rage there is. Perhaps he just lost a game of mahjong? Or maybe he did something wrong and the secret phrase was used to punish him, causing the circlet that keeps him under control to contract and crush his skull. It’s most likely a combination of the two: he saw he was about to lose at mahjong so he started urinating on the board, causing his headgear to be activated.

Game no Tetsujin: The Shanghai

This one’s a Shanghai game – the game where you eliminate matching mahjong tiles from a pile rather than the actual game of mahjong – but I’m willing to loosen the entry requirements for this article for a big blue dragon. I’m actually having trouble telling whether the dragon is a CG render or a traditional picture. Something about his whiskers screams “nineties CG” to me. However it was created, it’s an arresting visual. Exploding blue dragons do tend to catch the eye, especially when they’re balancing mahjong tiles on their nose.

Tokoro’s Mahjong

Garfield has tried to sneak onto the cover of this game. He’s even wearing sunglasses to disguise his identity, but he’s not fooling anyone. Get back to your dull comic strip, Garfield, this game is for mahjong fans and lovers of cartoon men whose heads have been deformed into the shape of an eggplant wrapped in human skin. I’m sure those are supposed to be his lips at the bottom of his chin, where all sensible people keep their lips, but I can’t help seeing them as a pair of vestigial testicles. Going back to Garfield, given Jim Davis’ stated goal of creating the slobbish cat solely to make money I’m amazed that a cursory internet search didn’t bring up an official Garfield mahjong game. Garfield probably has tons of fans in Asia, so this seems like a misstep. There you go, Jim – you can have that idea for free.

Super Nichibutsu Mahjong 2: Zenkoku Seiha Hen

Forget the bunny girl, check out that weird creature running across the mahjong tiles. It looks like a penguin and a pineapple had one-night stand and dressed the resulting child as Batman.

Super Nichibutsu Mahjong

“What shall I draw for the cover art for this new mahjong game?”
“How about a women tying her shoelace while a weird owl-gremlin looks up her skirt?”
“Yeah, I can do that. Do you want me to give her a really messed-up spine?
“If you wouldn’t mind, that’d be great.”

Mahjong Taikai II

This is a game where various historical figures gather to do battle in the arena of mahjong, including Napoleon, George Washington and Sherlock Holmes, who isn’t real but is out of copyright and therefore free to use. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the reason for his inclusion. Some of the other characters are eluding me, though. I have no idea who the warrior on the right of the table is, but something tells me he’s probably a playable character in a Dynasty Warriors game. The third man at the table appears to be a caricature of Steve Buscemi, and behind him is what I took to be Abraham Lincoln until I realised he’s wearing a toga. Caesar? Let’s go with Caesar. Which Caesar? Look, I’m not going to narrow down my options by picking one specific Caesar. My history teacher would be appalled with me.

Naki no Ryuu: Mahjong Hishouden

See, the problem here is that you’ve tried to make playing mahjong look cool. I think that was the intention, at least. Is he supposed to be throwing those tiles? If this was an anime I’d swear his arm was in that position so the animators didn’t have to bother moving his mouth when he talked, but as it’s a still picture I’ll assume he’s posing like a big overdramatic dork.

Mahjong Hishouden: Shin Naki no Ryuu

Oh look, he’s back, with a side parting in his hair so deep and precise it must have been carved there by a bloody laser beam, his shirt unbuttoned halfway down to send his mahjong groupies into a sexual frenzy. I half expect that if he moved his hand, the disappearing shadow would reveal he’s got a Phantom of the Opera-style deformed half to his face. Women want him, men want to be him, but all he cares about is the thrill of mahjong and no-one, no matter how big their eyes or how colourful their hair, can tame him.

Sakurai Shouichi no Jankiryuu Mahjong Hisshouhou

Now this guy seems like a more believable face of mahjong – a slightly unnerving face, one that you could easily see haunting the gloomy corner of a gambling hall. When your girlfriend takes you home for dinner with her parents for the first time, this is exactly the kind of face you don’t want to see glowering at you over the spaghetti bolognese. Of course, it’s terrible of me to judge a man on his appearance. Whoever he is, he’s probably a perfectly nice chap in real life and mahjong is a fun, friendly game played by families and not just in dingy, smoke-filled rooms. It is possible that playing the Yakuza games has coloured my opinions of mahjong. After all, the main character of the Yakuza games plays mahjong, and he’s also a yakuza member who smashes his enemies’ faces into the nearest, hardest object he can find.

Saibara Rieko no Mahjong Hourouki

This one’s mostly bog-standard super-deformed anime faces… apart from the one at the bottom, which is genuinely unnerving me a little. It’s that mouth, it’s like a hellish portal to a dimension of sheer pain. Hang on, this is another cover featuring someone who’s about to eat a scoring stick. Is that something that actually happens in mahjong? Are they like breadsticks? Do they come with a dipping sauce?

Joushou Mahjong Tenpai

I don’t want to denigrate the ancient and noble Chinese dragon, but when your mythological creature is a dragon but also has deer antlers, bat wings and the full Santa Claus hair and beard combo, it might be getting a bit busy, design-wise. You don’t need to try so hard, pal. You’re already a dragon, and that’s pretty cool. There’s no need to dress like you crashed face-first through a fancy dress shop’s unsold stock.

Jissen! Mahjong Shinan

Here’s a look I like to call “Wolverine’s Japanese Grandad.” The hair and the sideburns clearly run in the family.

Sanrio Shanghai

Finally for today, here’s a cover that’s just nice, cute and simple (kinda like me). Hello Kitty’s dominance over all forms of media extends to SNES mahjong games, of course, but it’s that confused fish-man who really steals the show. He’s giving a two-fingered peace sign, but one look at his eyes is enough to tell you that he has no idea what’s going on. What are these tiles for? How does this game work? Why is that cat wearing dungarees? It’s all a mystery to him, but he wants to fit in so he’s going along with it. I think we can all empathise with that desire to be part of the group. I feel you, fish-man.

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