The Amazing, Unrecognized World of Japanese Arcade Quiz Games

Quiz games. They’re one of the most basic forms of game out there, going a long, long way back to the days of game shows on radio and television, persisting to this very day. They’ve also been a part of videogaming from the early days: as soon as ROM chips could feasibly hold a decent amount of text, quiz games started to appear in arcades and on consoles.

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Nowadays, when you think of arcade quiz games, you probably think of something like the multiplayer setups you see at trivia nights in a local bar. This is the direction Western quiz games evolved in: they never really eschewed a game-show/board-game style format, and evolved to implement either real-money gambling mechanics or large-scale multiplayer, competitive functionality.

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In Japan, however, things played out very differently. Arcade quiz games started to appear there in the mid-late 80s, through companies like Sega and Nichibutsu. As the 90s came along, a renaissance of quiz-game development created a unique, fascinating genre with an abundance of different thematic elements.

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The genre first saw significant advancement through games like Adventure Quiz: Capcom World, a trivia game loaded with 80s Capcom fanservice, and Mitchell’s Quiz Sangokushi, which melded the question-and-answer format with strategic, territory-conquering gameplay. These games utilized elements of visual novels and strategy games to make the quiz experience more appealing and engaging. Other games put quiz elements into fun new genres: Taito’s Quiz Chikyuu Boueigun (“Quiz Earth Defense Force,” no relation to the current Earth Defense Force games by D3 Publisher) has you saving the planet in a story that’s chock-full of classic sci-fi parodies, while SNK’s Quiz Daisousasen (“Quiz Big Criminal Investigation”) is a detective story that morphs into a weird sci-fi/horror thing at the end. You still had game-show style quiz games too, but they were quickly losing ground to more ambitious efforts.

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In some cases, publishers adapted existing properties but added a quiz-game twist, hoping the familiar name would draw in customers. This is how we got games like Saurus’s Quiz King of Fighters and Taito’s Quiz HQ, which combined existing game properties with a quiz-game element. As time passed, however, more and more experimentation happened. The mid-late 90s were really a golden age for arcade quiz games, resulting in a stunning variety of thematic and gameplay genres mixing in with traditional quiz elements.

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Interestingly, quiz games tend to be very lengthy, sometimes taking an hour or more to complete from start to finish… which, in theory, goes against the short, focused play experiences arcades want to offer. You want to get people off that machine as quickly as possible, right? However, with these new thematic ideas, players became more committed to seeing the games through to the end. It doesn’t hurt as much to abandon a gameshow you feel like you’re not doing well in, but when you’re in the middle of a story about saving the universe? Hell yes you’re going to brute-force your way through with yen! Add a second player into the mix and watch earnings double!

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Unfortunately, most the appeal of these games is lost on the West. Japanese quiz games might be the most culturally impenetrable games out there: not only do you have to be fluent in the language, you also have to be fluent in a variety of cultural elements. Sure, you might know the multiple readings of thousands and thousands of kanji, but unless you lived in Japan during the early 1990s and remember which popular talent of the time appeared in a specific ad campaign, you’re probably not going to get very far. That is, unless you cheat. Thankfully, emulating most of these games allows you to cheat through the quiz portions, making the games somewhat more accessible… though it does result in the game losing a big part of its inherent charm. (Plus, even if you do cheat, if you don’t speak the language you can find yourself making very poor choices.)

You don’t hear a lot about quiz games nowadays — the genre saw a sharp decline in development and interest after the 1990s. Currently, the big name (and basically the only name) in Japanese quiz games is Konami’s Harry Potter-inspired Quiz Magic Academy, which has a new arcade version releasing soon (along with a mobile version that is no doubt raking in plenty of money). Right now, it’s practically the only arcade quiz game in town, unless your local game center has an older game installed in a cabinet somewhere.

But where does someone who doesn’t know anything about Japanese arcade quiz games go to get a good sampling of what the genre has to offer? Well, that’s why I’ve taken the time to write this. Today, we’re going to take a look at some noteworthy Japanese-style arcade quiz games: One that, against all odds, got a localized release, and three others that showcase some very interesting experiences. Continue reading

INTERVIEW: Hideo Yoshizawa and Keiji Yamagishi

Few games are as fondly remembered by NES kids as the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these games put the small publisher Tecmo on the map and set a high bar for many action games going forward. Of course, part of the reson why these games were so good was the talented staff behind their production, which included director Hideo Yoshizawa and composer Keiji Yamagishi. But their exemplary work in games continues far beyond the adventures of Ryu Hayabusa: Yoshizawa has helped in the creation of fan favorites like Klonoa and Mr. Driller, while Yamagishi is involved with game music production company Brave Wave.

I was given the opportunity to interview both Yoshizawa and Yamagishi at MAGfest 2018, and was eager to get some insight on the creation of these games. I was joined in this interview by the wonderful Jonathan Wheeler, alias ProtonJon, who is one of the biggest classic Ninja Gaiden fans I know. (His questions are notated by italics.) Read on to learn plenty of surprising details about the origins of some of the most beloved games of all time (and a few notable obscurities)! (I also suggest watching the official panel they had at MAGfest, too!)

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Masaya Nakamura Tribute: Namco arcade classics (that are just as important as Pac-Man)

With the passing of Masaya Nakamura, founder of Nakamura Amusement Machine Manufacturing Company — better known to everyone as Namco — we’ve lost a man who was a pioneer of the game industry in many ways. When Nakamura bought out Atari Japan’s flagging division back in the 70s (offering far more money than rival Sega), he was spurred to add video game development to the company’s core business of kiddie rides, prize games, and other electromechanical amusements. From there, Namco went on to become one of the Japanese game industry’s arcade powerhouses during the game center boom of the 80s. Their competition with the other heavyweights in the arcade arena at the time — Sega, Taito, and Konami — spurred an incredible era of arcade innovation that helped advance game hardware and game genres to amazing new heights.

But here’s the problem: A lot of people don’t know much about that beyond Pac-Man.

While Namco had a US branch during the 80s, it was mostly a licensing arm until quite late in the decade.1. Games that looked like they’d have strong global appeal were quickly snatched up by the likes of Bally/Midway and Atari, while many others languished as Japanese exclusives, never to be seen outside of the country until MAME and the Namco Museums came about.

As a result, we have plenty of memorials dedicated to Nakamura speaking of him as “The Father of Pac-Man” (a title that really should go to creator Toru Iwatani), treating his legacy as if Pac-Man was the only thing that really mattered. Even without taking into account more modern Namco hits like Tekken, Ridge Racer, and the Tales series, this reductive titling ignores numerous games he helped spearhead into existence that had a tremendous impact on the industry. Sadly, because these games didn’t see much attention in the West, many players don’t know how important they really are. I’ve decided to highlight three very important Namco arcade games here to show just how important Nakamura’s legacy is — there are plenty more examples, but these three titles embody what Namco meant to a generation of Japanese arcadegoers and game creators alike.

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  1. One of my biggest frustrations in studying arcade history is how poorly-documented a lot of dealing between US and Japanese companies during the 80s and early 90s are. Details like when Namco US started to sell their own cabinets are scarce. And furthermore, how did companies like Taito USA decide which games to sell themselves and which to sell out to Romstar?! ARGH

Arcade Road Trip: Grinkers Grand Palace (Eagle, Idaho)

I’ve mentioned Game Center CX more than a few times in my writing, and for good reason – it’s a fantastic show that everyone who enjoys older games will appreciate. But while the most popular segment of the program among most fans is the Arino’s Challenge portions, I personally enjoy the “Tama-ge” bits a lot more. In these parts of the show, Arino travels to visit various arcades, large and small, across Japan. It’s a wonderful combination of travelogue and nostalgia, showcasing the (sometimes very odd) places where arcades turn up, the games and atmosphere that make that particular arcade experience interesting, and the people who maintain these game centers. It’s both inspiring and a bit depressing, as the number of mom-and-pop arcades in Japan has been plummeting over the last decade. Oftentimes, it feels like Arino’s travels are an attempt to encourage people to help preserve a dying cultural institution (the segment’s title means “You should visit this game center sometime”).

When I was a teenager, I used to love doing what Arino did during my family’s trips across the country – looking up arcades in the area, visiting them, and seeing what they had to offer. (I was especially devoted to this when Virtua Fighter 3 was really, really hard to find in North America outside certain urban areas – my hunts were often targeted towards finding that particular game.) Nowadays, this is hard to do, because the state of Western arcades is utterly miserable. Most arcades these days – the ones that are still around, anyway – are parts of massive “entertainment centers” that make far more off of redemption games than dedicated video cabinets, and what they do have for games is often old and suffering from disrepair. But there are enthusiasts out there trying to find ways to preserve the more traditional, video-game-focused arcade experience: one of the more popular modern concepts is the “barcade,” a combination of pub/eatery and retrogaming arcade catering to an older clientele.

Generally, most of my experiences with said “barcades”1 have been kinda blah – the alcohol part doesn’t do much for me since I’m one of those irritating teetotalers, and the game selection is generally pretty similar across many of these establishments: Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, a bunch of Donkey Kongs, some Space Invaders, probably a Tapper or two to fit the bar theme, Robotron 2064, and a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat to get some 90s kid cred. These are good and all, but they’re also pretty easy to find. What I’m interested in are titles that you don’t see everyday, particularly Japanese games from the mid-late 80s – stuff that came out after the crash-correction of the Western video game market in the earlier part of the decade and is considerably less common as a result.

I discovered one such arcade on a recent trip. While I spent most of my life in Iowa, my parents retired to the Boise area in Idaho a couple years ago, so I went to visit my parents there over Mother’s Day weekend. My dad suggested stopping by a few arcades while I was there, and one of them was a place called the Grinkers Grand Palace in the Boise suburb of Eagle. It’s nestled into a corner of a strip-shopping center that doesn’t look like the kind of place that would host a bar-arcade. When I stepped inside, however, I knew I had found someplace very special. So today, I’m going to imitate our beloved Kacho Arino and tell you: you should go to Grinkers sometime!

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  1. Note that I’m referring to the “barcade” as a concept – there is an actual chain of these sorts of places called Barcade in the NYC area, which I hear are pretty awesome. Don’t confuse the two!

Book review: Shigeki Toyama Works Artworks Volume by Zekuu/circle Game Area 51

First off, I apologize for this review taking so long – I haven’t been in the best of physical health this week, and that combined with the craziness of family obligations over the holiday weekend meant that I couldn’t update the site as I wanted to. I’d intended to have this up around last Monday or so, but those plans came crashing down fairly quickly. I don’t want to disappoint gaming.moe supporters with a lack of site content, but alas, sometimes real life foils even the best-laid plans. I’m working on a manner of contingency plan for the next time such a thing happens. Anyhow, on to the main piece!

A while back I wrote a piece for WIRED about the subsection of the Japanese doujinshi subculture that caters to gaming devotees. Part of the reason why doujin fascinates me so much is because of the sheer variety of stuff people create under the term, and the fact that there are other extremely passionate nerds self-publishing books about all manner of delightful gaming minutae makes me very happy indeed. I interviewed a publisher under the name Zekuu for the piece, as his circle, Game Area 51, does some of the most impressive and in-depth doujin publications on retrogames and important people involved with their creation. Thanks to his work, I’ve become more aware of the contributions of many creators to games and companies that have notable places in gaming history.

Such is the case with Zekuu’s books about Shigeki Toyama, who has a lengthy history at Namco. I was mostly unfamiliar with Toyama’s contributions to gaming, but the two volumes of doujin Zekuu published – two interview books and an artbook – have taught me a great deal about the man who designed Mappy, the iconic graphical imagery of Xevious, and several arcade cabinets and logos. He was also a robotics designer, helping create everything from small animatronics to massive amusement attractions (such as the gigantic¬†Galaxian¬≥ setup at the Osaka Expo in 1990). Later, he’d also be a key contributor to the design of Sony’s AIBO robot dog. After learning so much about everything Toyama had helped create, I found myself filled with a profound respect for his incredible talent. (And, to be honest, I felt a little bit embarassed that I hadn’t properly recognized it sooner.)

Out of the three books, I chose this one for review because it’s largely art-based – and since I’m writing for a primarily English-speaking audience, it doesn’t really do folks much good to recommend an interview book in Japanese. It’s 242 pages long, B&W, and contains a truly astounding amount of design material for some of the coolest, most ambitious stuff that Namco ever produced. Without further ado, let’s look over….

00_art_hyoushiShigeki Toyama Works: Artworks Volume (Toyama Shigeki Sakuhinshuu: Artworks Hen)

Cover image: A sampling of titles Toyama’s talent has touched

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Libble Rabble (Namco, arcade, 1983)

Like many folks in the games media, I got a copy of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U a few weeks before it released to the public. Priority #1 was unlocking as much stuff as I could (A task that’s proven surprisingly tough – I’m still missing a few stages), particularly the extra stages and music. Among the unlockables is Pac-Land, which is an extremely cool stage with a lot of neat implementations of the progression and hazards found in the original arcade game.

Pac-Land, however, doesn’t include the original Pac-Land theme, probably because of rights reasons (it’s a chiptune version of the old Hanna-Barbera Pac-Man cartoon theme song). There’s no shortage of songs to pick from in the stage, though, and among them is a medley of music from something called Libble Rabble.

I’m pretty sure most folks outside of Japan are going to look at this and just say “Libble Rabble? What the HELL is that?” If you’re here, however, you more than likely took that next step of actually attempting to find out what the hell Libble Rabble is. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you all about it. Get your magic ropes ready, ’cause we’re going to take a good look at Namco’s beloved-among-devout-Japanese-retrogamers-but-utterly-unknown-in-the-West arcade cult classic.

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