This article first appeared in the May/Jun 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Still a well-kept secret from the west, gaming arcades remain a popular place across much of Asia for lovers of mahjong to whittle away the hours and even test their skills against the pros.
Take a walk down the street in central Hong Kong, or even Sheung Wan. You might come across a door that looks shady. The sign outside, if there is one, just reads “Game”. Go ahead and take a looksee. You’ll find something that only happens in Asia.
Inside is a peek into old Japan (old as in the year 2000). A run-down but crowded game center or arcade. Games run from about HK$4-8 per turn and only take coins. You can make change at the window where the older lady is watching TV and smoking a cigarette. She’ll hand you a bowl full of HK$1 coins for your bills. The arcade looks run-down but it carries the latest Japanese game trends and don’t be surprised if you have to wait in line to get a shot at your favorite game.
A few years ago I was a regular at these places. That’s because I happened to be spending a lot of time in Hong Kong and I am a character (playing myself) in Konami’s Mahjong Fight Club. The game is found in arcades all over Japan, Hong Kong and there’s even a little spot in Macau boasting four machines. I’m still a regular in the Japanese game centers and occasionally I make an appearance in the basement arcade in Macau.
Online Mahjong to westerners generally means a game that doesn’t have anything to do with Mahjong at all! Instead they usually find themselves playing a solitaire matching game with a grid of tiles that slowly disappears as they click matching pairs. Even in Asia, video game mahjong used to mean two players – you and an animated girl willing to disrobe as she lost to you. You can still find these machines here and there, often in bowling alleys in Tokyo. But networked games like MFC made a splash on the scene about 10 years ago and they are here to stay.
To someone reading World Gaming magazine, playing online games like mahjong or poker would have to be for some stakes, be they big or small. Don’t expect to get anything out of the arcade games but pride and a chance to play against some famous pros live. In accordance with gambling laws in Japan and Hong Kong, these networked games don’t even allow four players to set up their own game in one game center. Three players can play against each other but at least one CPU will join the game to prevent wagering of any kind. These CPU’s are wily and win way more than I can appreciate.
Once you log in with your card (to save your game data and rankings), the network will match you with three other players to play with live (as long as the matching is random, four human players can play against each other). The more you win, the more you advance your level and ranking. There are regular events that pros participate in and at any time of day there is usually between one and twenty of them playing with the masses.
Paying for each game and playing just for enjoyment and pride is common with games like this and there is never a shortage of men in suits (possibly meant to be at work, but I’m not pointing any fingers) putting coins in one after the other and trying to get the top rank in the arcade or even the region.
The truth is, these games are an excellent place to polish your mahjong skills without risking anything but some time and a few coins. The players know the game inside and out and the competition is fierce. You can also play at your own pace – one game to kill a few minutes or even an all-day event. You may even see me at the machine next to you!