In 2009, doujin group D.N.A. Softwares released the game Touhou Gensou Mahjong, also known as Touhou Unreal Mahjong. Combining the popular Touhou franchise (known for its cute, supernatural aesthetic and its bullet hell gameplay) with one of Asia’s favorite pastimes, it combined two passions that engender loyal and hardcore audiences. D.N.A. Softwares has recently released a new version of the game on the Japanese Nintendo Switch eShop store.
Touhou Genshou Mahjong features dozens of characters from the Touhou games, as well as multiple ways to play mahjong. If you’re looking for a basic, no-frills experience, you can set up a standard room. If you want a crazier experience, there are specific rooms based around different locales in the Touhou universe, such as the Scarlet Devil Mansion and the Human Village, each of which have unique rules. In these rooms, characters have access to unique powers that are, as far as I can tell, based in some way on their established traits in the Touhou universe. Shrine maiden Hakurei Reimu can avoid dealing into opponents’ hands for three turns, likely as a callback to her role as a bullet-dodging player character in the main games. Cirno the ice fairy can “freeze” someone’s hand and prevent them from doing anything for three turns, but true to her reputation as the land of Gensokyo’s biggest idiot, she can accidentally lock out her own hand.
Even if you’re only passingly familiar with Touhou through the music and memes, there’s a good chance you can recognize some of the playable characters. Alice and Marisa from “Marisa Stole the Precious Thing,” Nitori from “Geddan,” and the many silhouettes from “Bad Apple” are all here. Moreover, compared to the 2009 game, the Switch version includes a number of new characters and modes—a result of the continued growth and expansion of the Touhou franchise over the past 11 years. For example, Motoori Kosuzu, the heroine of the manga Forbidden Scrollery, is playable. It’s a bit disappointing that none of the characters have unique voices, but that might be asking a bit too much from such a small game. The aesthetics have also been updated, with a more realistic-looking mahjong table and new character portraits, though the latter is a bit inconsistent because they’re drawn by different artists.
Do you need to know how to play mahjong to get started? Technically, no, but I highly recommend it. Touhou Genshou Mahjong comes with a how-to-play guide, but it can be confusing even to those fully literate in Japanese. The Japanese style of mahjong (one of many worldwide variations) is a complex and convoluted game with strange and at times seemingly arbitrary rules. It takes a lot of time to fully learn—more than can possibly be covered in a review. Your best bet when you’re first starting out is to consult a guide, namely a list of yaku (essentially key patterns in your hand that allow you the ability to win) with the understanding that certain hands can win while “open” while others have to remain “closed.” If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. It takes a combination of reviewing the gameplay rules and trying it firsthand for the mahjong-playing experience to feel intuitive.
But if you’re hoping that the computer will provide an easy dummy for you to practice on, think again. The developers of Touhou Gensou Mahjong have programmed the AI to be efficient and fairly brutal, and there’s no difficulty switch to tone them down. Players might arguably benefit from just playing against other humans online, but that’s a bit of a crapshoot. Most of the players are based in Japan (so you might not always be around at an ideal time), they might be total newbies or seasoned veterans, and you’ll need a Nintendo Switch Online account to even get the chance to play them.
Mahjong is also generally not for the faint of heart, and by that I mean those who are easily frustrated by random chance. While you can’t bet real money in Touhou Gensou Mahjong, it’s still based on a longstanding gambling game, and there’s a heavy luck element to playing, and the experts are basically those who are best at dealing with that unpredictability over the long term. If you think getting the wrong gacha or lootbox is a crime, then prepare to get extra-angry in this realm.
The characters’ powers are a double-edged sword in this respect. In a way, they add some consistency to the game (a character’s individual ability never changes and often does something inherently useful), but they’re also often ridiculous to the point that it can feel like cheating—because it essentially is. If you’ve ever read the manga Saki or watched its anime adaptation, it’s a very similar experience.
If you’re undaunted and still willing to play Touhou Gensou Mahjong, you can get it off of the Japanese Nintendo Switch eShop for 3,800 yen. Even if you’re not located in Japan, it’s actually pretty easy to access the region’s eShop. All you need is a separate Nintendo account with a region set to Japan, and then a second profile on your Switch that you can tie it to. From there, you can purchase digital Nintendo eShop cards and download the game. Also, you can use your non-Japan account to play, so you can use your existing Nintendo Switch Online account to play human opponents over the internet instead of trying to purchase a second Japan-only subscription.
Perhaps cute anime girls will always be a way to draw people into the world of mahjong—not that I’m complaining.