Pre-Evo Thoughts: Video Games vs. Chess Analogies

Introduction: “It’s like Chess, but…”

One of the most common ways to try and explain the appeal of competitive video games is to make a comparison to chess. Starcraft is “real-time chess.” Smash Bros. Brawl players used to explain the importance of decision-making by saying the game was more “chess-like” compared to Melee. While I haven’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone called Dota 2 “chess where each piece is controlled by a different player.” Making the connection is essentially shorthand for highlighting a game a “thinking man’s endeavor.”

The accuracy of the comparison is often limited to the most basic similarities, and tends to fall apart under greater scrutiny. Despite that being the case, however, I find that there is another kind of chess comparison that can open up greater understanding of how we view competition through games. Namely, if we think about not just the western version of chess, but also the many variations of chess and chess-like games that exist in the world, then it can help us understand and appreciate the unique qualities of video games that are from the same series but have differing gameplay.

As a note, I am not an expert on chess or any chess-like game. There will not be any high level examples, and most of the comparisons will be based on descriptions I’ve found from others. I’m also knowledgeable but not amazing at any competitive games I mention, so keep that in mind as well.

Chess vs. Shogi: Similar Games, Different Dynamics

Chess and shogi (“Japanese chess”) have a lot in common. Both are turn-based games played on large, tile-based boards where the goal is trap the enemy king in an inescapable situation. Both have different types of pieces, each of which have different rules for moving, with the most common pieces (the pawns) having the fewest choices and the strongest pieces being much rarer. However, there are differences of opinion as to which game is better, and they hinge on a few key elements.

The queen: chess’s mightiest warrior

Chess pieces have more freedom of movement compared to ones in shogi. Chess has two rooks and two bishops on each side, who can move as far as the board (and any interfering pieces) can take them. It has two knights who can jump in that characteristic “L” shape. And it has the queen, which can move across the board in eight directions. In contrast, shogi pieces can cover much less ground. Not only is shogi board bigger (10 x 10 as opposed to chess’s 8 x 8), but players get only one rook and one bishop, and there’s no such thing as a queen. Shogi has pieces that chess doesn’t, but all of them are much more restricted in terms of their mobility.

The gold general in shogi is extremely powerful, but no chess queen

The result of this difference is that chess emphasizes the center of the board as a major point of contention because the pieces simply have more movement options. Shogi pieces take more turns to get from one place to another, but this also means skirmishes can happen all over the board. Also, whereas the king in chess is seen as a relatively weak piece because it can “only” move one space at a time, in shogi the king is a fearsome fighter because of its relative versatility.

Example in Esports

In spite of their similarities, chess is a game where greater range and possibility of movement produces one range of play, while shogi’s shorter range per piece produces another. They’re actually different enough that a person can love one but hate the other. One can find a similar relationships in other games in the same “families,” of which I’ll be listing a couple below.

Take the Street Fighter series and the Marvel vs. series, for example. Movement in Street Fighter games are traditionally very restricted. One walks back and forth and maybe has the ability to do a small dash, but jumping is a risky commitment and the game stays very grounded. In Marvel Vs. games, however, characters can make massive leaps, fire large beams that cover most of the screen, and dismantle each other quickly. Even though they’re both fighting games, tweaking certain elements means one could be great in the former type but awful at the latter.

Even games within the same series can be as dissimilar as chess and shogi. When discussing what makes Smash Bros. Melee such a beloved game among its fans, one common reason given is “movement options.” Not only do platforms allow for vertical movement, but a plethora of advanced inputs exist for players to practice—wavedashing, dash dancing, ledge dashing, etc. Other games in the Smash Bros. franchise, such as the more recent Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U (aka Smash 4) have nowhere near as much range of movement, but small steps matter more. Melee top player Mang0 has mentioned in the past that walking (as opposed to dashing or wavedashing) is under-utilized in Melee. When looking at Smash 4, walking is incredibly common.

Is larger range of movement and prerequisite to a better game? The answer is that it’s largely a matter of personal preference, as opposed to any sort of objective standard. Take this 2007 post from the chess blog The Only Winning Move:

I do think [shogi] is probably more complex than chess …

Naturally, “more complex” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more fun” …. I much prefer Chess…. My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer’s, which he describes as a “lightningbolt,” in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling … Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It’s a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work….

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi – and that’s simply because it’s mindfood….

Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It’s a truly beautiful thing when done right – and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better.

And Still More

If the chess vs. shogi comparison seems too simplistic in terms of how games of a similar genre can differ, keep in mind that there are many variations of chess-type games out there as well. Xiangqi (“Chinese chess”), for example, is famous for having a very explosive mid-game, as well as obstacles to get around in the form of rivers. Perhaps your preferred game resembles xiangqi more than chess or shogi.
Let’s Appreciate the Differences

Games can be “chess-like,” but it’s potentially better to bring that up relative to other forms of chess so that discussion can be more fruitful. The examples I’ve given do not map perfectly to chess and shogi, but the point is less to find a perfect analogy and more to show how games that can look the same on the surface can produce very different games that can carry different appeals to their respective player bases.

 

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Love, Shogi, and World Domination: 81 Diver

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At long last, after many years and 35 volumes of manga, I have finished the exhilarating, hilarious, ugly, and beautiful shogi manga known as 81 Diver. Its bizarre narrative and even stranger art work captivated me from the very beginning, and now that I have seen this series to its end (one of the three series I followed intently that have concluded recently), I want to write to confirm that 81 Diver not only ends strong but in many ways either matched or exceeded my expectations.

81 Diver is the story of Sugata Kontarou, a failed shogi [Japanese chess] player who has taken up gambling through shogi to make ends meet and to fulfill his love of the board game. One day, he decides to order a maid service to clean up his apartment, and discovers at his doorstep an absolutely voluptuous redhead as if out of a fantasy. However, this maid has another identity as Akihabara’s strongest shougi player and a gambler just like Sugata. Known as “Ukeshi,” what translates loosely to “master of defense,” Nakashizu Soyo (as we later learn her name) has her own mission in life: to avenge her brother and father who were both killed by shogi.

As the series progresses, the characters wind up not only challenging and befriending a variety of powerful shogi players and for some reason martial arts experts (actually it’s because the author Shibata also wrote Air Master), but end up in a tournament to save the world from the Kishoukai, the “Demonic Shougi Organization.” The amounts of ridiculous twists and turns this series goes through are almost too many to count. As crazy and as strangely epic as this sounds, however, what really makes 81 Diver special is that the art looks like this:

When discussing the character Kiryuuin Satsuki in Kill la Kill, I once wrote that she has so much presence and so much inner strength that it is the very first thing you notice even as she’s wearing the most ridiculous and revealing outfit possible. I find 81 Diver‘s portrayal of Soyo to be of a similar vein. Sometimes there will be pages of her character where half of it is occupied by a shogi board and the other half is taken up by her enormous chest. At the climax of the manga, her breasts become one of the central points of conflict. And yet, her raw shogi power level is what stand out most about her.

The difference is that, while Kill la Kill achieves this through incredibly well-rendered, stylized, and intense artwork, I ended up including 81 Diver as one of the many titles at my Otakon 2015 panel, “Great Ugly Manga.” On some level, this is clearly on purpose, but it’s also clear, especially given Shibata’s guest essay manga in Gundam: The Origin, that he’s making the best out of what he has, and what he has is a lot of spirit and not a lot of conventional drawing talent.

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I would not call 81 Diver an intentionally feminist or progressive work, especially given all of the attention given to girls’ bodies, but it is notably diverse in its cast. There’s an admirable homosexual character who isn’t stereotypically flamboyant, who also dresses like a tokusatsu character and shoots rocket punches. There are also numerous romances between unlikely individuals, and what stands out most is the strange romance between Kontarou and Soyo that portrays them as equals above all else.

When you look at many shounen and seinen manga, there is often something of a lopsided relationship where love interests aren’t allowed to be as prominent in the particular subject focus of the manga (be it sports, fighting, or whatever). Not so with 81 Diver. Though Soyo is dressed in maid outfits throughout the series, and though she will sometimes playfully call him “master” as a callback to how they originally met, at the end of the day they are bonded by their mutual skill and passion for shogi. In fact, when the series begins Soyo is clearly Kontarou’s superior, and when they are able to play again much later in the series, it is one of the most satisfying duels I’ve ever seen in manga.

As mentioned by the characters, the characters fight as if they’re communicating their love through the game of shogi itself. When you see the two of them play, you genuinely don’t know who’s going to win because, even if you set aside the idea of skill in favor of narrative progress, both characters have convincing reasons why they need to win. Ultimately, I love the way they resolve all of this, but I won’t say more so that it remains a surprise for readers.

I could probably write a whole series of posts on 81 Diver, and in fact I’m quite tempted to do so. Suffice it to say, 81 Diver comes highly, highly recommended from me. If you can get past or even embrace the terrible (or perhaps terribly endeaering) artwork and style, it becomes one of the funniest, surprising, and involving manga you’ll ever read.

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81 Diver is Amazing

Sometimes I can’t believe how much I enjoy the ugly, ugly, ugly art of 81 Diver. Just look at this page for a moment.

I don’t know about you, but when I first saw that kick I simply couldn’t hold my composure. This scene, among many others, actually gets me to burst out laughing.

81 Diver is the work of Shibata Yokusaru, the same man who created Airmaster. It is a manga about Sugata Kentarou, a gambling shougi player, and the woman he loves, “Ukeshi,” an excessively well-endowed maid who is also known as a legendary shougi player renowned for her defensive and reactionary play. I have never played a game of shougi in my life, so much of the terminology goes straight over my head, but the terseness of the dialogue and the sparseness of text in the word bubbles combined with the frenetic line work makes each match extremely tense and exciting, especially given how absurd the characters are.

Let me tell you about what I believe is one of the defining moments in 81 Diver. Sugata is playing a hobo/shougi hermit. Money is on the line. Sugata’s stipulation is that if he wins, he gets the shougi hermit’s money (he’s a hobo but he isn’t poor). The hermit agrees, but in exchange, he demands that his prize be to get a handful of Ukeshi’s breasts. The hero, hearing this stipulation, demands that this be a serious match, but rather than forcing the hobo to change his prize, he takes the reward of touching Ukeshi’s chest as his own incentive, even foregoing the money to do so. As the two of them play an incredibly intense game of shougi full of blood, sweat, and tears, both of them have one thought on their mind: “I’M GONNA GRAB EM!” Spoilers, I guess, but in the end neither gets to grab them. That’s the kind of manga 81 Diver is.

I know there’s a J-drama based on 81 Diver, but I’ve yet to take a look. I do worry that the basic veneer of attractiveness that all live action Japanese manga and anime adaptations undergo with its actors would take away from the appeal of the manga. Related to that point, I honestly think that if the art were prettier or sexier or even had a more solid grasp of anatomy, then it would fundamentally change 81 Diver for the worse. The premise, a shougi-playing maid with gigantic breasts, could easily become another Ikkitousen or Queen’s Blade where the content of the manga practically bends and warps to the will of the women’s curves. And certainly there are plenty of cleavage shots of Ukeshi and the like, but the artist’s style instead manages to shift emphasis away from her attractiveness despite how much time is spent on describing her as a voluptuous woman. It’s ugly and outrageous, and the result is that when I think of Ukeshi I think of her unbelievable shougi skills first. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s shown to be in most ways Sugata’s superior in their chosen game, which makes their absurd romance all the more fun to read.