When Game Boy launched in Japan, it arrived with four games (each sold separately, of course). Most of them made their way to the West – as did the overwhelming majority of game releases from Game Boy’s first year of existence, for that matter – with one notable exception: Yakuman.
Yakuman‘s failure to venture beyond Japanese shores doesn’t require much explanation, though. It’s just that it would have been financial suiciden. Yakuman would have been lucky to achieve triple-digit sales figures in the U.S. After all, Americans aren’t exactly clamoring for Japanese-style mahjong games.
Mahjong is a very old and very complex Chinese tabletop game, loosely similar to poker or euchre in its focus on matching combinations of suites and values, but faster… and louder, thanks to its use of small, hard tiles instead of cards. Japanese mahjong, much like the Japanese alphabet, takes a Chinese tradition and adds all kinds of new variants to it, modifying it to the point that it’s barely recognizable. It’s an incredibly popular pastime in Japan, but as you might expect it doesn’t exactly inspire massive tournaments in the West.
Mahjong games have been a mainstay of Japanese consoles since the Famicom first exploded into popularity, and they were popping up en masse on Japanese home computers long before that. So Yakuman‘s existence should hardly be a surprise – it simply had the distinction of being the first of many mahjong games that would appear on Game Boy through the years.
Despite the genre’s pervasiveness, first-party Nintendo mahjong games are hardly the norm. They’ve only published a handful over the years. Yakuman is not, however, the first mahjong game Nintendo had ever produced.
Several years before Game Boy came into being, Nintendo produced a standalone mahjong game that went by the name Yakuman. A high-end variant on the Game & Watch line, Yakuman had a unique design, looking almost like a large multi-purpose ruler with a built-in LCD screen, or perhaps a bizarrely oblong calculator. Its extremely widescreen design was a necessity to accommodate the game’s standard side-by-side arrangement of active tiles. Interestingly, because the game’s tiles bear a wide variety of symbols and markings, the original Yakuman didn’t employ the Game & Watch series’ distinct silkscreened, illustrated graphics but instead presented its playing pieces with a more standard LCD pixel grid.
The unique design and tech of the Yakuman standalone made for a capable but pricey piece of gaming hardware. It also made a compelling case for Game Boy: At a retail price of ¥16800, the standalone was only slightly less expensive than the Game Boy hardware (¥12500) and a copy of the new Yakuman cartridge (¥4900). Not only that, but the Game Boy’s comparatively high-resolution screen and link cable made possible a much more detailed playing field.
About the only thing Yakuman Game Boy couldn’t offer over its predecessor was a better interface; where the standalone incorporated a large array of buttons for fast, precise tile selection, the Game Boy version forced players to scroll methodically through their rows of tiles and modifiers, making for a much slower experience than real mahjong… though this is a standard compromise for video mahjong and can hardly count as a mark against Yakuman.
Yakuman has largely been forgotten and probably would have vanished beneath the waves of obscurity long ago if not for the novelty of its being a launch title for the best-selling game system of the 20th century. And yet it holds an important place in the Game Boy’s legacy over and above simply having been present on day one. Yakuman signified Nintendo’s determination to make the Game Boy a success with adults as well as children.
Mahjong holds roughly the same place in Japanese culture that Texas Hold-em does in America: It’s a lively social game, often played for money, with an intensely competitive element that lends itself to tournament play. It also isn’t a game for kids. Not that kids can’t play, but realistically they wouldn’t want to, anymore than most American kids would want to play cutthroat poker. Give a Japanese schoolboy a choice between playing a mahjong sim or Super Mario Land he’d go for Mario every time.
On the other hand, a middle-aged commuter on the Yamanote line doesn’t want to fuss with a twitchy platformer in the bustling rush-hour crowd. But a sedate, turn-based time-killer based on the parlor game she plays with her friends on weekends? Perfection. Nintendo’s handheld gaming business was inspired by salarymen messing with gadgets to kill time during the daily commute, and Game Boy embraced that element of its heritage.
Nintendo marketed Game Boy to older audiences straightaway, but marketing only goes so far. Yakuman introduced the other half of the Game Boy equation, making it the first game system designed as much for adults as children. It has the distinction of being the first mahjong game to appear at the launch of any console. Famicom Disk System (1986) had one, but that was an expansion for an existing system, which already had an entrenched player base. And PC Engine (1987) had Shanghai at launch, but… well, Shanghai was Game Boy’s seventh release, so we’ll look at it soon and explore why it doesn’t really count as mahjong despite its use of mahjong tiles.
As mahjong games go, Yakuman seems to be on par with contemporary console mahjong adaptations – aside from its lack of color graphics, of course. I freely admit I don’t understand mahjong (that’s something I’ll be picking up in the course of creating this site), but the design of the game seems straightforward enough. You can choose the number of players, your AI-controlled opponents, and specific rule variants and options. Play advances by alternating turns in which you select tiles one at a time and, when possible, apply special conditions to your play. Play continues with money changing hands after each round until one player’s pot of ¥30000 ($300, more or less) is depleted.
Given its simplicity and limitations, I can’t imagine that Yakuman is a game that mahjong fans feel compelled to return to. I guess it’s possible that it’s the mahjong equivalent of Game Boy Tetris, the gold standard for the genre despite its primitive appearance… but somehow I rather doubt it. Like its fellow Intelligent Systems-designed Game Boy launch titles, Yakuman got by on novelty and mild-mannered competence, but it lacked the ambition of a true Game Boy classic.
Japanese title: Yakuman • 役満
Developer: Nintendo R&D1/Intelligent Systems
Release date: 4.21.1989 [JP only]
Genre: Tabletop (mahjong)
Super Game Boy: Enhanced color palette (built into Super Game Boy)
Previous in series: Yakuman (standalone LCD game)
Next in series: Yakuman DS (DS, 2005)
Similar titles: Nichibutsu Mahjong: Yoshimoto Gekijou (Nichibutsu, 1994), Pocket Mahjong (Bottom Up, 1997)
Yakuman box front [Japan]
Yakuman box back [Japan]
Yakuman all contents [Japan]
Yakuman cartridge [Japan]
Yakuman manual [Japan]
Yakuman insert explaining how to connect two players via Link Cable [Japan]
Yakuman packaging [Japan]