Shogi was the third Game Boy release to revolve around an endemic Japanese pastime, and the third Game Boy release never to see a release in the West. It’s almost like there’s a pattern evolving, or something. As we venture further into the Game Boy’s life, the disparity between Japanese and Western releases will grow considerably; in these early days, however, the simplicity of Game Boy releases and the uniformity of the system’s global market meant most releases showed up in all territories.
It’s quite a change, in terms of Nintendo system strategies, from the Famicom/NES schism. The NES launched in America almost three years after the Famicom’s debut, so the earliest Famicom releases were almost entirely Japan-exclusive; by the time the NES arrived, those formative works were entirely too primitive to bother localizing. But with the American Game Boy lagging a mere year behind the Japanese launch, it made sense for publishers to translate pretty much everything they had… especially if there was little to no text.
Japanese pastimes like shogi, however, stood as the exception. Like Yakuman and Pachinko Time before it, Pony Canyon’s Shogi featured a tabletop game that’s never found its way beyond Asia… though in this case, it’s not because shogi is particularly unique to Japan but rather because the West already has its own variant: Chess. The two classic games are essentially the same thing, minus some differences in rules and aesthetics. But the two are sufficiently redundant that Americans have no need for shogi… yet sufficiently different that publishers can’t just reskin a shogi game and pass it off as chess, either.
Another similarity between Shogi, Yakuman, and Pachinko Time: This Game Boy release was a part of something akin to a tradition for its publisher, Pony Canyon. Just as Nintendo had released a few mahjong games before Yakuman and Coconuts Japan was all about dressing up virtual pachinko with the trappings of an adventure game, Pony Canyon specialized in shogi titles. They’d already released several variants for Famicom by 1989, many endorsed by well-known shogi experts. (Alas, former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi — reputed to be a world-class player of the game — was not among them.)
Shogi, then, was a publisher dipping its toes into a new market with a known quantity. Of course, Pony Canyon, also known as FCI and a part of the massive Fujisankei media conglomerate, had already made its Game Boy debut with Boxxle, already a known quantity of sorts as well. But this was a rather conservative effort for the company, a guaranteed seller to a small but dedicated and reliable audience. Like Harvest Moon, sort of.
Unsurprisingly, there’s nothing particularly exciting about this adaptation of shogi. It’s as bare-bones as you can get; the standard game allows solo or competitive play, and you can choose whether you move first or second. A second mode allows you to try to solve dozens of different play scenarios. You can “rewind” the game to step back through your moves and try for other outcomes if you screw up, which of course is horribly dishonorable but awfully tempting nevertheless.
And that’s it. There’s no tutorial mode, and the visuals are incredibly minimalistic. The board barely fits into the Game Boy’s screen resolution, and the pieces within the board not only lack the traditional arrowhead shape of shogi tiles — essential for denoting player possession — they also display only one of each piece’s two defining kanji.
Which is to say, this is not a game for newcomers to the hobby. Shogi is even more complex than chess, and Pony Canyon’s adaptation offers no leeway for the inexperienced. It also requires the patience of a grandmaster as well; the further you get into a game, and the greater the advantage you gain over the CPU, the longer the artificial intelligence takes to run through its routines and decide on a move. Even as a raw novice, I managed to back the computer into a corner a few times, which resulted in me sitting in silence for two or three minutes (Shogi features no music behind the title screen and introductory fanfare, though it does feature some satisfying samples of “checkmate” exclamations and the clacking of tiles on the board) while the system tried to figure out its best move.
It’s surely a familiar refrain by now: Shogi is an unremarkable and unexciting adaptation of a well-known pastime. There’s nothing about it to excite players today. But in 1989, this was as good as portable shogi games got. Not exactly a glowing recommendation, but when you have the field to yourself, “barely adequate” can be enough.