Tabletop Baseball / 野球盤 / Yakyuuban
Here we are again, looking at something that may or may not count as a videogame. It’s in the game centre, you put a coin in, and a computer makes it work. But you’re not looking at a screen, and the physics model is just actual physics. In those regards, it’s very much like Speed Basketball, and like Speed Basketball, the game mechanics here could just as well have been rendered on a screen.
The controls are at a degree of abstraction — I press a button to pitch or to hit, rather than actually throwing or swinging something — and they’re electronic, not mechanical. All in all, Yakyuuban, like so many featured in the Tokyo Game Centre series before it, is making a mess of the line between videogames and something else. That discussion is due a thorough going over, but for now let’s just throw this one on my bonfire-pile of examples.
Perhaps you’re aware that baseball is very popular in Japan, but I wasn’t before I went there. It’s pretty much the national sport, with two professional leagues, and the national team has always put in a good showing at the World Baseball Classic, which is an actual international tournament (unlike the World Series). Japan’s arch rivals in the sport are South Korea whom they defeated in the final of the 2009 Classic. I didn’t know they liked baseball either.
So that explains all the Japanese baseball games I never really played, as well as all the cameos in things like Rhythm Tengoku, WarioWare, Inc., et al. What’s interesting about Yakyuuban is that it doesn’t really belong in the game centre at all. Apparently, Epoch Co., the makers of this machine, have been making home versions of tabletop baseball since 1958. Here’s Epoch’s website, with a video of kids playing the latest home version in a completely bare room. The jumbo monster version we’re looking at today was a 50th anniversary special, released into Japanese arcades in 2008.
Take me out to the baseball match
So, what’s it like? Should we be dropping our ¥100s in this thing? Is it a field of dreams? Is it in a league of its own? Am I a fan (like in The Fan)?
Yakyuuban goes on a bit too long, has minimal action, is low-scoring, highly repetitive, difficult, confusing, and a little boring. I’m sure it will appeal to baseball fans the world over.
Epoch Co. sounded sort of familiar, I thought, so I did a little digging. The company was founded in 1958 in order to sell Yakyuuban, and they still sell that and a ton of other tabletop games in Japan, including 23 licensed Mario play sets.
What’s more, they’re responsible for having unleashed Sylvanian Families on the world, which I’m amazed to find are still going 30 years later.
Sure enough, though, their Wikipedia page lists a load of videogames, too, including some notable ones. R-Type DX, yes; Gauntlet Legends, yes. None as notable, however, as the Barcode Battler handheld console system, which I actually owned. Barcode Battler interpreted the information stored in everyday barcodes and represented it as fighters facing off in deadly battles. We would collect any barcoded packages we could get our hands on, and pit cornflake boxes against vacuum cleaner bags against 4-packs of toilet fresheners, all in search of the ultimate undefeatable champion warrior grocery item.
I have an awkward memory of discovering the intimidating power of my mother’s feminine hygiene products. I suppose I could have just cut out the barcode and not carried the whole wrapper around. Still, a winner’s a winner, and this was the Shao Kahn of barcodes.
So Epoch’s had a remarkable history, even if illustrious is perhaps too strong a word.
Epoch’s crossover between games mechanical, electronic, and video got me thinking of Nintendo, who famously progressed from hanafuda cards onto electronic toys before defining an era of videogaming. Considering that apparently well-trodden route from not-videogames to indisputably-videogames, I do wonder if a lot of the typical trappings of videogames — graphics, sounds, abstracted controls — are just a different manifestation of the same underlying concept got at by the tabletops and exploding bottles. All the superficial kinds of videogame-ness seem like an implementation detail.
I’ll consider that thought lighter fluid on my example bonfire, which must be about ready to burn now. One of these days I’ll check it for hedgehogs and we’ll see how it goes up.
Next time: top secret. Watch this space.
(See all postcards from the game centre here.)
Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people