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// review by SoyBomb

Simple is as simple does.

In Japan, Culture Publishers (and later D3 Publisher) released a series of budget titles for the PlayStation (and a variety of consoles, including the PlayStation 2, PSP, Dreamcast, Nintendo DS, and the Wii), all under the "Simple" moniker. The PlayStation series was called "Simple 1500", the 1500 representing the cost of each game (1500 yen, which was indeed relatively cheap compared to full-priced retail games at the time). The games were developed by a variety of smaller companies, and the Simple series was a great way to give the little guys a voice, a method similar to the modern Steam/PSN/XBLA/eShop. Some of these games made it overseas thanks to a few gung-ho American and European publishers who saw promise in this little titles, the most prolific at the time being Agetec.

Today, we're going to take a look at the first five games of the Simple 1500 Series for the PlayStation, none of which escaped Japan.

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 1: The Mahjong

The very first game in the Simple 1500 series is entitled "The Mahjong". Not "Mahjong", but THE Mahjong. There is, literally, no other mahjong out there aside from this one. The Mahjong was developed by Chat Noir, who was known mostly for their abundance of mahjong games throughout the years. They are no longer around, likely because people tired of their incessant love for mahjong and little else. I doubt they even had a cute mahjong tile mascot. Anyway, it's time to give this game a go. There's just one little problem standing in my way.

I have no idea how to play mahjong.

When I was a young lad, I used to play a single-player DOS version of Mahjong: a stack of tiles on a simple blue background. The object was to remove pairs until all of the tiles were gone. Those were fun times indeed. Sadly, that's not really how mahjong is played. It's actually a more complex game played by four people sitting in a square with a row of tiles lain before them. The object is to form groups (called "melds") and pairs (or "heads") by putting down 14 of your tiles, just as everyone else does, taking turns in the process. It sounds simple, but it feels a bit more complicated than I make it seem.

Everybody loves playing mahjong! ...except for that guy.

The Simple 1500 version of Mahjong seems to deliver the bare basics. You don't get to see any digitized opponents, and the visuals we do get of the playing table are merely functional more that stylistic. The Mahjong is a game for purists who wish not to enjoy superfluous frills! There are a few stock background tunes you can listen to while playing, and the players you can't see occasionally shouted random things at me. I hope they weren't saying offensive things about my face.

There are also numerous options you can fiddle around with, though without knowing how to read Japanese, they are completely useless. The default settings work well enough, although I seem to have lost a significant amount of yen. Now all that occupy my wallet are the moths of unhappiness.

The Mahjong is fine if all you want to do is literally play mahjong. But if you were looking for something a little more stylish, trendy, or downright entertaining, maybe you're better off looking for another mahjong that isn't "The".

Tile be glad when this game's over.

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 2: The Shōgi

There's something about the Simple 1500 series' incessant use of the determinant "the" that irks me. It's as if they believe no other video games with these concepts exist. Volume 2 of the Simple 1500 series is called "The Shōgi". Like mahjong, shōgi is a game with which I am not credibly familiar. I did, however, manage to figure this one out and perform somewhat better. Granted, I failed and lost, but I know it's because of my questionable skills and not because I didn't know what I was doing!

If shōgi resembles anything Westerners could relate to, it's chess. In fact, the game is sometimes referred to as "Japanese chess". You're on a 9x9 playing board, slightly larger than a chessboard and with all squares coloured the same. Both players have their own little cavalry, although the pieces are labeled with Japanese symbols and are shaped like wedges, rather than the elaborate stand-up characters of chess. Each player has 20 pieces, instead of the popular 16 in chess, and the player's army includes standards like a king, a rook, a bishop, knights, and pawns. You also get 2 gold generals, 2 silver generals, and 2 lances. The vast majority of pieces can only move to a nearby square, though a few of them have their own moves, such as leaping over pieces (the knight) or moving in a line (rook or bishop). The generals have their own unique directions where they can move. It's strange, really.

Other than that, it's chess with a Japanese twist. I'm not a great chess player by any means, and I'm a slightly worse shōgi player. The game itself is calm and enjoyable enough, though the graphics are nothing that will make your eyeballs do the lambada outside of their sockets. Developer Alpha-Beta put very little effort into the simplistic presentation. At least there's a second player option.

Now here's something bothersome: you can choose from three different options for background music, but they are the exact same songs as from The Mahjong, even if this game was NOT created by the same developer. This leads me to believe that the publisher (first a company called "Culture Publishers", and later D3 Publisher) found these tracks for much cheaper and opted to dump these stock Japanese elevator music selections on the consumer. For shame!

On the left: Me, playing shōgi. On the right: Me, accepting defeat.

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 3: The Gomoku Narabe

Now I'm just sad. The first two games were very region-specific and had nuances that I have never experienced, not being raised in Japan and all. The Mahjong was a game we have little equivalent to, outside of Rummy-O. The Shōgi was a take on chess, but it was just different enough to be considered challenging to the unsuspecting oaf, played by none other than I. The Gomoku Narabe (that's right: The Gomoku Narabe, and no other), on the other hand, is universal, and I still stunk it up. Repeatedly.

Even with an overwhelming name like "gomoku narabe", the game is quite simple. There is a 15x15 board and two players, one with black stones and the other with white stones. You take turns putting down your stones with the goal of creating a row of five of your colour. That's the whole game. Think Connect Four, but with a more traditional-looking board. And it's Connect Five. And there are no horrible 90s commercials...

Yet somehow, it's extremely difficult against the computer. He's quite good, that Computer Jones. He can figure out the most efficient move within microseconds of mine, and he is able to easily identify holes in my strategy. He is a graduate of Gomoku Academy (The Gomoku Academy, if I follow the Simple Series' logic) with a solid 4.0 GPA, and he was also captain of the debate team. He is a frequent volunteer with many local charities, plays baseball on the local team, and reads to the elderly on weekends.

I can spread peanut butter on a cracker all by myself.

The graphics are as basic as can be. The background looks like it was ripped from the Windows 95 Desktop Museum, and everything else is dismally low-detail. This could have been a SNES launch title and still have been considered poor. The audio isn't much better. Guess what! They use the same background music for the third time in a row! Isn't that wonderful?

The Gomoku Narabe isn't a terrible game, but it was still terribly overpriced. This would now qualify as either a 99-cent iOS title or a pack-in game with your new cellphone, right beside the Tetris ripoff. You know, "Tootris", or whatever it's called.

This sure ended quickly. I lost before I could even scratch myself.

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 4: The Reversi

Volume 4 of the Simple Series is called "The Reversi". Again, there is no other Reversi. Actually, there is, but they don't want you to know about it! The game of Reversi has also been marketed under the name "Othello". You've probably heard of that. Now then... the first three Simple games were not quite as simple as I anticipated. But there's one thing that separates The Reversi from the rest.

I actually beat the computer.

That's right: I'm not completely incompetent! Granted, it took a few tries, but I succeeded! And I feel a certain joie de vivre that the first three games failed to instill within me. There is an internal empowerment glowing from the depths of every cortex of my brain and every orifice of my soul. In other words, there is hope, and I no longer desire to give up and drop all these games into a dumpster with an overwhelming thud.

In (The) Reversi, you play against one opponent on an 8x8 board. One player uses black chips, the other gets the white ones. All chips have black and white sides, but it's what's showing that matters. That's why we wear clothes, too. Your goal is to, by the end, cover more of the board than your opponent, and you take turns placing chips on the squares. That's simple enough, but there's a trick. You can only place your chips on squares that are on the same line (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) as another chip of your playing colour. In the process, any chips caught between your new chip and others of the same colour get their colour flipped as well! Work hard and win!

Like the other Simple games, the presentation leaves much to be desired. It doesn't take much processing power to render black and white circles, so a little effort could have been spent on making the visuals a little more fiery and thrilling, possibly even animated. But wait! What's this?! New music?! I'm beyond shocked! And it's fairly jazzy as well! I'm glad to finally hear more uplifting tunes than the traditional schlock I heard in the first three volumes.

Of all the Simple series' games thus far, this was the most enjoyable, only because it is a) very accessible to non-Japanese players, and b) the easiest to win. I like games where I have a chance for success. Nonetheless, this was still overpriced.

Of all the fruits in the world, the winfruit has the sweetest nectar.

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 5: The Igo

Wherever you go, Igo, too. Actually, Idonotgo where this game goes because, like The Mahjong, I wasn't quite sure how to play. This required significant experimentation and extensive research (see also: a quick trip to Wikipedia). This game was developed by Ken Chen. I'm not sure if that's a company name or simply a programmer's name. He or it made no other games aside from this one, so this is his or its pride and joy.

Igo (sorry, The Igo) is a name variation of Go, one of China's most famous board games, played initially within Asia; it has gradually expanded Westward and is now enjoyed worldwide by tens of millions, even being ensconced by an International Go Federation. That's... something else.

In Igo/Go/The Igo/Game I Failed, you have one player with black chips and another with white ones. Your goal is to get more chips on the board than your opponent, just as in The Reversi. You can only remove a player's chips by completely surrounding them with your own. That's tough. It requires an impressive amount of strategy, the likes of which I... must have left in my other pants.

The graphics are as simple as I'd expect from a Simple Series game. In fact, it resembles The Reversi very closely. I'm starting to think that all the developers are, in fact, the same person. Egad! Ken Chen is Chat Noir! That's telling. To make matters even worse, the same music is used from Volumes 1 through 3! Variety took a backseat in favour of the mindset that if you license one audio disc of music, you're set for life.

I'm not sure what to make of this, but I know Iwouldgo for something else. This version uses a 9x9 grid, which is suited for beginners. I'm not sure if you can expand to the expert-level 19x19 grid, but even if I could, I'm frightened off my rocker of the prospect. Lovers of Go will dig this, but lovers of sanity will probably not.

I honestly believe I ran out of possible moves here. Igo to bed now.

And there you have it. Jolly good, then. Maybe we should do this again sometime.

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