Saikyou Habu Shogi: The N64’s Forgotten Launch Title – N64 Chronicles Episode 2

Saikyou Habu Shogi: The N64’s Forgotten Launch Title – N64 Chronicles Episode 2


[Mario 64 coin sfx]
[Gentle shogi music]
For as popular as the Nintendo 64 was, early
adopters didn’t have many games to choose from.
Players in the United States and Europe could
pick up Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 at launch,
but Nintendo fans in Japan got an
additional launch title that was never released
in other regions.
It’s Saikyou Habu Shogi!
[Shogi announcer speaks in Japanese against a silent, eerie background with just the sounds of pieces clacking against the board]
Yep, we sure missed out on this one.
If you’re unfamiliar with shogi, it’s a strategic
board game that descended from the same ancient
ancestor game as western chess, and many pieces
have direct chess equivalents.
There’s one piece that moves like a bishop,
another that acts like a rook,
and this one moves like the horsey!
At the same time, there’s plenty of additions
that set shogi apart from chess.
Many of the pieces can be promoted once they
reach the opposing side of the board,
giving them more movement options.
And in what’s probably the biggest difference
between the two games, you can actually deploy
enemy pieces that you’ve captured and add
them to your own side.
This rule in particular is what makes stalemates
rare in shogi compared to chess.
Saikyou Habu Shogi is significant for a few
reasons.
For one, it’s the first third-party published
Nintendo 64 game.
Seta published this one, following up on the
company’s many previous shogi and mahjong
releases for the Super Famicom.
Over in the United States they were also responsible
for publishing stuff like Castle of Dragon,
QBillion and that awful SNES Wizard of Oz
game.
Saikyou Habu Shogi is also the first celebrity-endorsed
N64 game,
since it features the likeness of a pro Shogi player.
The “Habu” part of the title refers to its
cover star Yoshihara Habu, who was fresh off
of winning all seven of Japan’s major shogi
championships earlier in 1996.
So in terms of star power, he was a pretty
good get.
You know, as far as shogi players go.
A year earlier he starred in Tomy’s Habu Meijin
no Omoshiro Shogi – or Master Habu’s Interesting Shogi
for the Super Famicom, so he was no
stranger to the world of video games at this point.
Now, while Habu is a master of his craft,
I haven’t been to chess club since elementary school,
and I don’t even know where to start
with shogi.
To the game’s credit, there’s plenty of tutorials
and hints for beginners, and there’s a mode
that lets you replay matches step-by-step
and save them to an N64 controller pak.
In fact, Saikyou Habu Shogi was the first
N64 game to make use of controller paks instead
of internal battery backup for save data.
But as you might expect, all of the menus
are in Japanese, and they use a lot
of specialized kanji, so the language barrier
here is pretty high.
I’m not really sure how much of an improvement
this game is over 16-bit shogi games, either.
Prior to Saikyou Habu Shogi’s release, Seta
made vague promises about using the N64’s
processing power to produce better shogi AI,
but any improvements here are lost on me.
And while the board and pieces are in full
3D and can be viewed from a variety of angles,
the framerate is lower than you might expect
for a game with such a simple graphical presentation.
Players in Japan were also apparently underwhelmed
when the game originally launched.
Visiting Tokyo in 2009, games writer Chris
Kohler saw one store giving away entire shipping
boxes full of Saikyou Habu Shogi, free of
charge.
These brand new copies couldn’t even be sold
when they were clearanced out at 50 yen.
The game had apparently been hanging around
shops for quite awhile at that point.
Kohler goes on to explain that whereas Super Mario 64
had a one-to-one sales ratio with Nintendo
64 consoles at launch in Japan, console tie-in
sales for Saikyou Habu Shogi were apparently
more like 100-to-one.
So, it was a major flop and a blight on Japanese
retailers for decades after its release.
Big deal!
Saikyou Habu Shogi has exactly one redeeming feature,
and it’s this amazing collection of
Sears Portrait Studio shots of its cover star.
I love how it rolls in a different one every
time you bring up this screen,
I could do this forever.
Man, there’s a lot of these!
This ROM’s gotta be, like, 10 percent shogi
pieces the rest of it’s just this guy’s face.
So yeah, aside from that one excellent feature,
Saikyou Habu Shogi is best known as
Super Mario 64’s forgotten launch partner in Japan.
But it wasn’t all bad news!
Seta’s work apparently impressed Nintendo,
and the two companies later collaborated to
develop the Aleck 64, an arcade board based
on Nintendo 64 hardware that powered a dozen
games released between 1998 and 2003.
And almost immediately after Habu Shogi’s
release Seta announced a sequel, Morita Shogi 64,
which launched in 1998 with a modem connection
port on the cartridge, allowing for online play.
But let’s be real here, which would you rather
have? Online play, or the Habu family photo album?
Next is the N64’s other worldwide launch title,
Pilotwings 64.
How does it stack up compared to the SNES
original?
We’ll find out.
If you like watching me struggle with Japanese
table games, we previously covered early PS1
mahjong sims in our companion series PlayStation
Year Zero.
And if you want to see new episodes before
they’re released to the public, you can back
us on Patreon for early access.
Thanks for watching!

9 thoughts on “Saikyou Habu Shogi: The N64’s Forgotten Launch Title – N64 Chronicles Episode 2”

  1. wow so they couldn't give that one away by the boxful?! geez…. I don't know jack about shogi so I don't know that I'd want to import this one that badly…. but still an entertaining look at one of the N64 Japanese launch titles! … then again I suppose it would be neat for that photo mode. 😛

  2. I remember seeing this mentioned in a magazine back in the day. I think they described it as a chess game. Could be wrong, though

  3. I feel like if N64 was a more universal/widely adopted console like the PS1, this would make sense, but N64 was a more specialized gaming box with expensive carts.

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