A Night On The Tiles: My Mahjong Song

I'm writing a blog about my pain in order to rise above it. But I'm getting ahead of myself; allow me to start at the beginning, since that's usually the place to go for starting things.

The Dragon of Dojima. No, not Nanako.

Yakuza 2 is a game from Amusement Vision, a subsidiary of Sega that has been through a few name changes, as in-house Sega development studios tend to do. You all might know the series from the odd advertising campaign surrounding its third entry involving Pizza Hut and the George Foreman Grill, but failing that the studio has also been behind the original (i.e. good) batch of Super Monkey Ball games, Binary Domain and some of the more recent Shining RPGs (which is a series I've been paying close attention to for the past month).

Anyway, Yakuza 2 probably doesn't need much more of an introduction than that. It has a wiki page to save me the effort. What matters here is that it is a game with a hell of a lot of content beyond simply the main plot, which involves quite a lot of cutscenes told in a very well-established sub-genre of Japanese narrative fiction involving their particular brand of organized crime for which the game is named. I'd be doing the game's otherwise competent storytelling a disservice by comparing the genre to America's Godfather/Goodfellas/Scarface stable of similarly themed criminal underworld movies, but then video game adaptations of those tend to fall way short of their movie equivalents too. I'd say the Yakuza games acquit themselves quite well in comparison.

So let's not worry about that. Let's worry about the various mini-games the game offers, in a similar manner to open-world games of the west (though to a far greater extent, it feels): You can bowl, you can golf, you can swing a bat in a batting cage. These three simply give you more options for their respective items (that would be a bowling ball, a golf club and a baseball bat) in combat by mastering the mini-game, which while difficult isn't beyond the realm of possibility for anyone with decent reaction speeds that bothered to learn how they tick (or read a FAQ, which I'd also advise for a game like this, simply due to its vast amount of missable content).

What this long pre-amble is leading to are the other two major mini-games of Yakuza 2, both of which have a considerably more Eastern flair: Shogi and Mahjong. Shogi... I couldn't even begin to explain how that works. It's chess, but not? That's all you're getting out of me in that regard. However, before playing Yakuza 2 I knew how to play Mahjong, or at least had the basics of it down pat. Hell, my blog writing can't seem to include enough overlong edifying today, so why don't I explain said basics? It'll help you all understand my position. Which would be shit creek without a riichi, for anyone who missed the hint in the opening paragraph (or simply forgot, since it was so many damn words ago).

Mahjong, as she is played

This is the only picture on the site relating to Mahjong, it would seem. Also, this guy has a much better hand than I usually have.

All right, so the basics of Mahjong are thus: You and your three opponents have a hand of tiles. Which is like a hand of cards, but with tiles. These hands are thirteen pieces long, or fourteen in the middle of a turn. Each turn you collect a piece (bringing it to fourteen) and then discard a piece. The idea is you want a winning hand, which is comprised of four sets and a pair of whatever you want. A set is a trio of tiles that either follow in a run (which is a chow) or are three of the same tile (which is a pung). The tiles comprise of three suits - Characters, Bamboo and Circles - and two special suits called Dragons (of Green, White and Red varieties) and Winds (of the four cardinal directions). If you have a winning hand, you declare either ron or tsumo and you rake in a variable amount of cash from the other players. Simple, right?

All right, so here's where it gets more complicated: When collecting a tile for your turn, you can elect to pick from the many leftover tiles that weren't dealt out which comprises the wall around the center of the board (though we can just say "the deck" for simplicity's sake), or you can collect a piece one of your opponents just discarded. Crafting a set with a discarded tile makes that set "visible", and is subsequently worth less points. If you happen to be given the right piece from the deck, you can keep that set to yourself to earn more from it at the end of the game. So, with this in mind, a winning hand is called a ron when you use a discarded tile to complete it and a tsumo for when you just come upon the right piece - the latter is worth more than the former.

COMPOUNDING THIS FURTHER are the other scoring rules. These are legion and vary from game to game, much like poker. It is here where I start to lose focus, because this is the sort of byzantine ruleset professional players have to introduce to alleviate the fact that their stupid psuedo-sport card game is mostly based on luck. In most games of Mahjong, you can only score points with sets of Dragons or Winds (which are like face cards, only you can't include them in straights i.e. you can't have three different dragons in a row, they have to be three-of-a-kind only) and pungs made of "terminal" tiles, which is 1 or 9 of the other three suits. There are also dora tiles, randomly assigned when the tiles are dealt, which give you bonus points and are all but hidden until the end of the game. There's also kangs, which are four-of-a-kinds which have their own weird-ass rules - you always have to declare them (i.e. make them visible) and they add extra dora tiles for a potential bigger payout. Then there's the riichi rule, where if you need a single, specific tile to complete your hand, you can place a gambling chit down and earn more points if that piece should happen to turn up - the downside is that this gambling chit costs an investment from your pool and you're no longer able to change your hand; the game basically goes into automatic mode until you or someone else wins. Following so far? No? Well, let's keep going then.

I've added so many of these damn Mahjong games to the wiki. The Famicom was lousy with them.

Now we have all the additional point modifiers: These include having specific matching sets, such as finishing a hand with nothing but pungs or making a set of three Wind tiles that just happen to be the same direction as you are. You can work out your Wind by your position in relation to the dealer, who is always East. So if he's on your right, you're South, for instance. There's also the fact that all of the Character tiles are depicted in kanji, as are the Winds, so you kind of have to memorize which represents what if you can't read kanji symbols since the game's not going to tell you what they mean. There are literally dozens of these special winning hands, and each score modifier (called a fan) doubles your winnings: If you start compounding these with a particularly amazing hand, you can basically win the game in a single round. Of course, there are far too many of these modifiers to memorize, so your best bet is to just aim for a winning hand and hope it's worth something. There may in fact be a reason why Sega excised the Mahjong game from the international versions of Yakuzas 3 and 4.

Now that that's all been made crystal clear

We now come to the specific side-quest in Yakuza 2 that pertains to this Mahjong mini-game. Each of Yakuza 2's mini-games has one, and in each the standard rules have been changed to be even more difficult than usual, but the payoff is that you get some award (usually money, sometimes a special move for combat) and a little boost in your completionism percentages. You've all played a GTA game, presumably, so you know what the deal is there. In Mahjong's case, the narrative of the side-quest is that some poor kid got hustled by some thuggish professional players, lost most of his buy-in and tried to split before getting caught at the door. You can choose to step in and help the kid out by assuming the game from where it left off, which involves having far less money than they do to gamble with. So here we have a game that is largely based on luck (shush, it is) played against three expert AI players with a considerable malus.

I've been trying to beat this single goddamn game of Mahjong for ten hours.

The thing that becomes clear, quite early on in fact, is that when a designer with his back against the wall must ramp up the difficulty of a game based on luck the only course of action is to make the AI opponents preternaturally fortuitous. In words of less than four syllables: They cheat. I'm not even sure why I'm fixated on winning a rigged game that I barely understand, since this is a PS2 game that doesn't include achievements of any kind (and a wiser sort might've waited for the international HD PS3 rereleases with trophy support before unleashing one's inner-Caravella). Like the Terminator, I'm simply running on pure obstinate malice at this point. I refuse to let this game beat me, despite knowing just too little about Mahjong and just too much about ludology to understand that such a goal is untenable.

But this is where Yakuza 2 really starts to twist the proverbial tanto.

On many occasions, the game has ended with me coming in second place. This is in spite of the fact I began with 10,000 to their 25,000 buy-in, meaning second place is more than respectable. However, since the win condition of the side-quest is that you have to come in first, the scripted "lose" event occurs as soon as the game ends and the whole table derides your terrible Mahjong skills, despite the fact that two thirds of said table really ought to shut their fat mouths. Furthermore, to buy back into the game for a second chance requires two items that are extremely expensive to purchase, meaning this is more of a "save first, reset later" save-scumming scenario, which after several dozen resets must not be doing my aged PS2 any favors. Furthermost, I've noticed an unsettling tendency of the CPU players to start dumping all their eggs in one basket as soon as the accursed human starts doing well: Essentially, once you reach first or second place, a specific CPU player (randomly assigned; ostensibly they draw lots before you get there) will keep winning hands until they've completely trounced you, leading to the aforementioned second place humiliation conga. The one time I finished first after the fixed number of rounds had passed? The game asked me if I wanted to quit. I thought I accidentally hit the button for quitting the match early and would forfeit the game by hitting "yes", so I selected "no" and the game continued for another round, after which a CPU player managed to edge ahead in points and the match ended as usual with me in second place.

This game is infuriating.

Readers of a blog I wrote about a year ago about a particularly ill-conceived set of achievements for the otherwise excellent Tales of Vesperia might be aware of my specific vein of venomous vehemence. It's not really made itself known too often in the months since I wrote that article, but man if these Japanese games bring it out of me sometimes. I wonder if it's because they're created specifically to be way more unfair (given Dark Souls, it seems likely) or if I simply care more about helping Kazuma Kiryu win a dumb Mahjong game to get some overwhelmed youngster out of a jam than I do about something like helping Kratos avenge his murdered family with more murder or assisting the interchangeable gruff-accented bowling balls of Gears of War in taking back their planet of Waisthighwallia. Given what I just wrote, there might be some inherent snobbery in play as well; in which case I probably deserve this self-inflicted Tartarus.

The happiest of endings

After so many innumerable hours and last second defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, I finally won a game. And not just by a little bit either. Truly the random tile Gods shined down on my plight or at the very least started worrying about my mental health. Next, I explore the hostess portions of this game in another side-quest extravaganza. See you then? Perhaps? Maybe not. It might get licentious. (That sub-title certainly doesn't help.)

Let us talk of other things, other things that aren't Mahjong

CAW Gabe Newell on a ring-ruining rampage.

Jeff got me hooked on VGCW recently, thanks to some choice tweets of his before the March 12th showing. I missed most of last night's episode, because I only ever seem to neglect my Twitter feed when it would be beneficial to pay attention to it, but I have been watching the archives for most of this week. It's really fun to watch peripherally if - just hypothetically speaking here - you're playing the same goddamn hour of a video game over and over. Jeff wrote a recent article about it with links to tell you everything you need to know to get started on watching it, though I'd advise skipping the lengthy Twitch archives and head to a channel on YouTube run by VGCWClem. Any further back, you can peruse their official wiki for match info and story beats. Watch a few to see if it's worth this much investment first, of course, but it's oddly captivating and I say this as someone who has never been a particular fan of professional wrestling. I guess there's something about how the artificiality of the pseudo-sport combined with the inherent artificiality of video game characters makes it work. Or maybe it's just dumb fun that I'm reading too much into. Anyway, the last episode's stinger hinted at a Kefka reveal so I am 100% on board for next week's show. Come to their Twitch chatroom during the next live stream and yell SON OF A SUBMARINER alongside me, why don't you?

Oh yeah, I watched Wreck-It Ralph too. It's only tangentially video-game related, but it's one of the better non-Pixar CGI movies I've seen and that's not even factoring in the bonus kudos that comes about setting one's movie around old video games. I'd also highly recommend a bonus mockumentary made either to promote the movie or as a Blu-Ray extra about a King of Kong style attempt at the Fix-It Felix Jr. (the movie's fictional arcade game and home of two of its main characters) world record, as well as the song Buckner and Garcia specially wrote for said fictional arcade game around the time that they sold out with a promo for some website or other.


Yakuza 2

"The Vinny Punchline". Which is to say a line of video game people getting punched by Vinny.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@mento said:

Oh yeah, I watched Wreck-It Ralph too. It's only tangentially video-game related, but it's one of the better non-Pixar CGI movies I've seen

Wasn't Wreck-it Ralph made by Pixar, though? (That's about as much as I could follow. Trying to read up on mahjong eventually turned into this.)

Posted by Mento

@video_game_king: Yes, Mahjong is a strange and alluring mistress. It's one of those things you're better off playing and picking up the rules from there; it's just got too many to keep track of without any context to make sense of it all. Or optionally, just avoid it whenever it pops up in Yakuza games, like I should've done.

Wreck-It Ralph is Pixar in all but name, really. It's Disney's official animation studio still, but staffed with various Pixar people and lead by former Pixar bigwig John Lasseter after Disney bought them out. Both it and Pixar exist separately but are lead by the same duders so it's getting harder to make the distinction.

Edited by Mirado

@mento said:

Readers of a blog I wrote about a year ago about a particularly ill-conceived set of achievements for the otherwise excellent Tales of Vesperia might be aware of my specific vein of venomous vehemence.

Verily, your vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose....

If you're anything like me, you're so damn invested in beating this challenge simply because of how unfair it is. When I run into something like this, I want to play it, beat it, and then rub the developer's nose in it, because you know there had to be some cackling malice behind the specifics of this scenario. I love cranking up the difficulty in games just to evoke this feeling; part of is is masochism, sure, but part of it is just the knowledge that you have defeated as hard of a scenario as they possibly could have concocted. I especially enjoy games like Advance Wars, where each scenario compounds the difficulty of the previous with even more bullshit.

Really, my feelings are best summed up by a quote from an entirely different film: "Come on! I'm still standin', huh! Fuck! Come on! Go ahead! I take your fuckin' bullet! Come on! I take your fuckin' bullets! You think you kill me with bullets? I take your fuckin' bullets! Go ahead!"

Now, whether or not you do this for all games (and whether or not you fly into a Tony-Montanta-hopped-up-on-coke-esq flurry of bravado during/after doing so), I don't know. But if you're bashing your head into a rigged mahjong minigame for little more reason than "it is there", then I think you and I share some common ground. Best of luck, sir.

(Also, damn Jeff and VGCW. I'm of the opinion that it is far more "real" than actual professional wrestling as it's all simulated, but I'm not sure if that's why I've become far more hooked on it than the "real" thing. Perhaps it's just because I got to see Geno kick the shit out of Duke Nukem? Either way, watching the show with a bunch of other idiots, as we scream about a video game playing itself...that has to be one of the most uniquely entertaining experiences of my life. It's just that weird.)

Posted by Little_Socrates

I can't play the Yakuza games due to that kind of side-content. Which sucks, because they're actually pretty awesome.

I've played Mahjong with a real-ass group of people multiple times, though, and it's actually a pretty exciting game! I'm no good at it, while my friend who owns the set is a comparative expert, but it's fun to play every once in a while all the same.

I think one of my favorite things about VGCW is that I don't feel too bad about not knowing the history or even missing individual fights. I was talking with somebody while Ganon v. AVGN was on, and missing the fight was far less important to me than its victor or the episode's general storyline. And, yet, when I do watch a fight (my favorite so far was obviously Gaben v. Nappa a couple weeks ago) I find it completely exhilarating.

Also, I need to rent Wreck-It Ralph and watch that mockumentary because that's probably what I was hoping Wreck-It Ralph would be all along.

Edited by ArbitraryWater

I think the most annoyed I ever got at a random card-type minigame was whatever poker-variant they made me play in Suikoden 3 to get all of the characters. And yeah, I know that's a pretty softball example compared to the Triple Triads and Mahjongs of the video game world. Basically, I should play more PS2 era JRPGs if I want to experience the true hatred of dumb side-games. Because nothing says saving the world with androgynous type fellows than ultra-frustrating water football soccer thing where the AI cheats. I wonder if Final Fantasy XII has anything like that? I guess I'll find out soon enough...

In the end, I just wish every ancillary minigame was acromage or straight up poker.

Edited by Mento

@mirado: I can be like that, but only very occasionally. I think it's the case that it only happens in games I otherwise really like, and feel it's worth going crazy completionist over? If that makes sense. I'm honoring the game's content by doing as much of it as possible, warts and all. If I think back to previous examples, it's usually JRPGs with absurd amounts of side content that I became addicted to, whether or not said side content was actually any fun at all (e.g. FFX's Celestial Weapons and Vesperia's achievements).

@little_socrates: Besides for the sake of some nebulous % completion thing, the side-content of the Yakuza games is truly optional. You kind of have to seek most of it out, actually. This is opposed to games which feel that they have to show off their fancy optional content by including important-seeming tutorials for it in the main story thread before abandoning them to side-quest territory (looking at you Assassin's Creed III). Still, if you're as nuts about getting 100% as I am, Yakuza 2 ain't pretty. Also, yeah, Mahjong can be fun if you aren't playing against automatons that consistently declare tsumo within five turns.

@arbitrarywater: There's been quite a few of those over the years. I was about to say that any emphasis on randomness in such games of chance tends to make them harder and less rewarding to play (FFIX's Tetra Master, especially), but random is Acromage's bread and butter and that game is awesome. I guess there's also a factor of how well the game is implemented by the designers too; AI Poker players are notoriously difficult to code, I've heard, and it's kind of impressive that RDR's Poker doesn't suck as much as it could given the circumstances.

As for the VGCW comments from you guys, I absolutely concur. I had no idea I'd enjoy it so much. I guess what Jeff said about it being CPU vs CPU and thus truly random makes it feel realer than professional wrestling, since things often don't play out like they're "supposed to" regarding conventional wrasslin' narratives. That and the goofy community that's built up around it really make it fun to watch live.