Friday 10 April 2015

Snes Review : Pachinko Wars 2 (Game 076)

How much can a non-Japanese speaking player enjoy a game based on a Japanese past time they don’t understand ?
Released in 1994.
Developed by Coconuts Japan
Published by Game Tek

It all started out as a bit of a joke. A friend sent a slightly rubbish pachinko game to me simply because I once said to him that no one outside of Japan would ever play a pachinko game. While I have researched and even visited pachinko parlours in Japan I can’t pretend I fully understand their addictive life ruining appeal. Even when I played the game for the first time I still didn't understand why people would miss work and give up all their money to keep playing. To a westerner pachinko, be it electronic or in real life, is just a game where you bounce little metal balls into holes. There's more luck required than skill. While there may be a certain amount of jubilation when "reach mode" is achieved and lights start flashing, I thought those few minutes of joy are not worth the hours you have to spend to experience it. I played 'Pachinko Wars' because I was intrigued by the Japanese pachinko phenomenon and because the title excited me. But, even though I know the game is pretty terrible I still have a fondness for it and that's down to two people, one fictitious one a close friend.

Whenever I try to play an un-translated Japanese game I always find myself bombarding fellow blogger Sara with nonstop questions. "What did he say in the cut scene?" "What button do I have to press to open a menu?" "Why are they doing a crazy dance and why is the Ninja doing naked star jumps?" I am pretty sure she never imagined she would play a game called 'Pachinko Wars' but I am certain she never thought she would be compelled by its story. Given that I can't speak Japanese, I had no idea what was going on in the original ‘Pachinko Wars’. For my own amusement I imagined the kanji letters spoke of a world of intrigue and espionage; a tale where an undercover agent used his office worker job as a cover for his dealings with the Yakuza. I imagined the most ridiculous over the top scenarios I could to add excitement to what was probably a pretty mundane story about a man going to play in a pachinko parlour after work. The joke was on me. When Sara played and translated the game she shocked me with her findings. Not only were my ridiculous spy fantasies surprisingly close, they didn't go far enough! Given that she can read Japanese, Sara could play the game with much more success than I had. By the closing credits, Pachinko Spy 008 had not only infiltrated criminal gangs but he had over turned criminal empires. This mild mannered office worker had ended evil schemes by blowing up the Pachinko Parlours that evil organisations operated from (presumably only after he had single handed lead all the innocent pachinko addicts to safety). He saved the day and he got the girl. The fiction is more exciting than my imagination.

Pachinko Spy 008 has to us become less a man, more a legend. Sara describes him as "a half Superman, half James Bond salary man, thrown into ludicrous ‘Mission Impossible’-esque pachinko situations". No one else outside of Japan would have any idea who this heroic man is but to us he is a constant source of inspiration. Why would we not want to play another game involving him? It is for this reason that I once again descend into the murky world of pachinko.

There is no western equivalent to a pachinko machine, the closest form of comparison would be a pinball table, (if you remove the flippers, covered it in pins and holes and shrunk the balls). The player simply has to set the rate that their purchased balls are fired into a table so that they bounce off the pins and go into the holes. Doing this successfully earns the player points and more balls, missing a hole means a ball is lost for good.  When enough balls have been sunk and enough points have been earn’t a range of things can happen. Sometimes other parts of the table open, but more exciting a slot machine style wheel could spin. A successful result on this triggers "reach mode" or "lucky time" when points and more balls are lavished onto the player.

In the real world as the machines reward the player with the same balls they are putting into the machine, they are essentially gambling. They are risking balls they have bought to win more. Through a convoluted method a pachinko parlour will semi-legally buy back any unused or won balls. This is why the real life game is so addictive; gamblers are convinced a lucky turn on a pachinko table will make them rich. This is also why it's a past time that's linked with the Yakuza and publically frowned upon by Japanese officials. It's an exciting back drop for a game. However in the majority of Super Famicom games the flashing lights excitement and noise of the pachinko parlour is focused on. The 'Pachinko Wars' games are different, though, they look all cute and adorable to the casual onlooker yet underneath it all are gangland struggles and ball bouncing addictions.

'Pachinko Wars 2' is set in Digital City, a place "where people from around the world gather to forget about the time and do nothing but play pachinko. People who love pachinko dream of gambling here once in their lives." However, behind the dazzling lights and ear shattering noise of a million balls bouncing at once lurks another side. It's a city of danger, one home to a prison that houses the world's most wanted dictator General Ri-ru. In short it's a place most of us would avoid but for Pachinko Spy 008 it's the perfect place for a holiday.

As luck would have it, he is there at the very moment when a group of villains start freeing the inmates of Digital City’s prison. If Pachinko Spy 008's commanding officer is to be believed, law enforcement has collapse and only our legendary protagonist can re-capture the most wanted man in the world. It'll be a Herculean mission and one that will no doubt be completed by playing a lot of Pachinko. Danger and lots of tiny metal balls, clearly Pachinko Spy 008 has chosen the right place for a holiday.

As with the first game, 008 can travel from one casino or pachinko parlour to the next, with numerous venues to visit at any time. In the last game our spy avatar walked, but this time a trendy red sports car is at his disposal; presumably keeping a low profile is less of a priority. Upon arrival at any venue, play once again shifts to an overhead ‘Zelda’ style perspective and this, like the overall game, has been given a bit of a visual spruce up. There is more detail in both the character sprites and the environments, with better (although not great) less-Russian music. As before this over head view is essentially a hub world to select which pachinko machine you wish to play.
Much like the first game, the pachinko machines in 'Pachinko Wars 2' are single screen tables. Although the physics are convincing realistic, the tables feature oversized balls and are much sparser than a lot of real life equivalents. As is true of all pachinko games and pachinko in general, a player's input is somewhat minimal. A dial must be rotated which adjusts the amount of power used to fire the balls into the table. Too much power will see them simply shoot into an exit, too little and the will miss the target holes . Pachinko is essentially about finding and maintaining a sweet spot on this dial, one where the majority of balls fall into the bonus holes. Consistency will eventually trigger "reach mode" and in 'Pachinko Wars 2' the much desired "lucky time" means a change of background music and more flashing lights. As with the prequel, a table can finished if it is cleared of all balls, a process that can take hours. This is the quickest way to accumulate enough balls to open other parlours though, which of course means new pachinko machines to play on. Not that they are hugely different of course. The background images, the position of the pins and holes, and the music may change but what you do on each table is the same. It doesn't matter where in "Digital City" you play or which machine you choose, all you need to do to win is find that ideal point on the dial where you win more balls than you lose. Game play is limited but you can't be critical of 'Pachinko Wars 2' for that; it’s reflecting a real life game that, to a pachinko virgin, is equally dull.

Evidently the original 'Pachinko Wars' sold enough copies to warrant a sequel. There are other Super Famicom pachinko games that have more realistic tables, better graphics and superior music, so you have to wonder what drew so many people to the first 'Pachinko Wars'. Although we mock the ridiculous over the top story, the fact that it had one at all was somewhat unique. In the west our equivalent to pachinko simulation games would be digital versions of pinball. The Snes saw several of these games, but the best of these was certainly 'Pinball Fantasies'. In this game you don't have virtual pinball halls to guide an avatar around, you don't have cut scenes or introductions. The extent a player needs to do to choose which table they want to play is selecting it from a menu and press x. It's somewhat irrelevant that 'PachinkoWars' probably included narrative segments to distract from the fact that the pachinko parts of the game were pretty poor. The fact they were there at all separated the game from the huge number of other Super Famicom pachinko games that Japanese players could pick between. I am generally of the opinion that a narrative, however bad or unnecessary it is, is always preferable over no story at all. It’s just a shame getting to the exciting story parts of a game is so tricky for someone who doesn't understand Japanese and has the most basic of grasps of pachinko. Based on the last games story twist and turns, I'm sure there is exciting lunacy to be enjoyed in 'Pachinko Wars 2'.

Clearly, since the Super Famicom cannot dispense physical money, narrative progression is the carrot on the stick that keeps someone playing. It won’t make a player rich, but they play on, they gamble more, just to see what will happen next. For a non-Japanese player there is no reward, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t addictive and strangely compelling. A friend who often sits next to me on the train while I play games remarked that when playing ‘Pachinko Wars 2’ I uttered not one word to her. Like the comatose lines of business men in real life Japanese Pachinko parlours I was so absorbed in the game that I barely looked away from the screen. It had taken two ‘Pachinko Wars’ games but finally it had clicked; finally the addiction had set in. I had no idea what was going on in the story, I would never win any real Yen, but I couldn’t stop playing. There is joy to be had in the simple process of trying to get tiny balls, into tiny holes. There’s excitement in longing for the next “reach”, in hoping that the “lucky time” lasts long enough to clear the table. What may have looked like the most alien thing in the World, now is a genuinely enjoyable pleasure.

I may never find out if the world's most wanted dictator General Ri-ru is caught, I may never truly understand the nuances of pachinko, but that did not stop me really enjoying ‘Pachinko Wars 2’. It may have started as a dare, developed as a joke but thanks to Pachinko Spy 008, I had a very enjoyable yet equally absurd time with a Super Famicom game that most wouldn’t look twice at.

Where did I get this from?

‘Pachinko Wars 2’ was the ideal Christmas presents for Sara to get me. In fact, there is no one else on Earth who could have given this as a gift to a more willing recipient. Playing this game was a shared experience, across Skype and trans-Atlantic waters. However, given the ludicrous story I made her translate, I would be willing to bet my Pachinko balls on the fact that Sara is probably very pleased there isn’t a third game.  

To import games from Japan, eBay isn't your only option. I always check on sites like Solaris Japan as often they have a game in stock cheaper than the final price it goes for on eBay. The also have a few gadget that removes any worry of getting charged extra at customs, so they're worth a look.

1 comment:

  1. Not a game i'd play. Looks too weird....


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