Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji is one of the strangest games I’ve ever played. It’s basically a rock-paper-scissors game for PlayStation, and it cost nearly sixty dollars upon its release. On the surface, a game centered on rock-paper-scissors would be too simplistic. The gameplay would consist of randomly selecting a gesture and hoping you win. Will, the developers of Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji, rectified this problem by affixing many unusual elements to rock-paper-scissors. The result is a game unlike any I’ve ever played.
The game is an adaption of Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji, a manga series written and illustrated by Nobuyuki Fukumoto. It stars a broke delinquent named Kaiji who constantly finds himself in extreme gambling games. In the beginning, he vandalizes a car belonging to a Yakuza member. To erase his debt, Kaiji must win a gambling tournament on a cruise ship. The participants play a variation of rock-paper-scissors where a limited amount of cards represent the three moves. Each participant has three stars used for betting in matches. To win the game, a participant must maintain or exceed their three stars and exhaust all their cards. Destroying cards or throwing them away results in disqualification. The video game adapts this gambling tournament and omits the story of the manga. Instead of playing as Kaiji, you control another character who is on the same cruise ship. This makes Kaiji’s appearance in the game prominent and the closest thing you get to having an ally.
The beginning of the game sets an ominous tone the manga series doesn’t have. On a rainy night, a man in debt is about to board the cruise ship. Grotesque arms symbolizing his plight drag him down. This is one of many visual metaphors inspired by the ones in the manga. You’ll scale a cliff, balance on a log, and wade through mud, depending on the situations you’re in. After this scene, you’re presented with a personality test that will determine the type of player you are. The background images for each question are bizarre, and the animations that play after you select an answer are stranger. Like many tracks in the game, the music that plays during the personality test sounds foreboding. The soundtrack captures the feeling that you’re in a seedy underground world of gambling. I especially like the use of piano strings to accentuate dramatic moments, such as the beginning of a duel. Even the music that plays while you name your character sounds suspenseful.
Before the tournament begins, you have to select how much money to borrow. You can choose from a minimum of 1 million dollars to a maximum of 10 million dollars. The interest rate increases by 3% every ten minutes. You have fours hours to obtain stars and exhaust your cards. Time flows in real time, and it ticks down even when you’re checking menus or talking to characters. Your attributes are your intuition and your mental state. Your intuition level and the initial value of your mental state change depending on your answers during the personality test. There are three mental states: “calm,” “normal,” and “frustrated.” Losing negatively impacts both your mental state and your intuition meter. The timer will speed up if you become frustrated. Using the restroom and smoking a cigarette improves your mental state and normalizes the speed of the timer, but it depletes a portion of your intuition meter. The mental state meter is a way to represent the pressure and frustration of gambling and the importance of remaining calm. There are few, if any, video games that make the psychological effects of gambling a part of the gameplay. If your intuition is high, the icons appearing over the characters’ heads will change so you can identify what you’ll get by speaking to them. For example, a versus icon means that character might be available to duel, and a notepad icon means you can obtain information from them. If you begin a duel and your intuition meter is full, you’ll receive a hint about your opponent’s plan. You can chew gum to increase your intuition level.
The first person you duel is Funai, a character from the manga who backstabs Kaiji after consecutive draws. Funai wants you to draw with him by playing paper. A player that read the manga could use this opportunity to betray Funai by playing scissors instead of paper. However, Funai is aware of this. If you play scissors, he will counter with rock. Afterwards, he’ll play scissors and want you to play rock to make things even. This too is a trap because he is using the allure of a free star as bait. He is planning to betray you by playing paper to counter your rock.
This is a difficult game to win because you can quickly lose at it. Acting impulsively by challenging someone to a duel is a surefire way to lose your stars. The key to winning is obtaining information about other people on the ship. You can buy information and sometimes obtain it for free. You can learn how many remaining cards of each type a character has. Likewise, you can learn the amount of cards they have and the last two they used. However, not all information about a character will be revealed. In one instance, I learned that one character had no paper cards left. As a result, I knew that he wouldn’t be able to beat one of my rock cards. I played a rock card against him, and he surprised me with a paper card. The information I had gotten was incorrect. It was as if he knew that I thought he had zero paper cards left and used that to his advantage. In another instance, I learned that a man had one remaining paper card. I challenged him to a duel under the assumption that he wouldn’t play it. I played rock knowing that I could either draw or win. This was a trap. The man countered my rock with his last paper. Opponents don’t play their cards randomly, so the developers created these duels knowing what the player might be thinking. For example, knowing that a character has one paper left would lead you to believe he would protect it by not playing it. Taking this into account, the developers can create duels that subvert your expectations when you fall for this line of thinking. For instance, a man has one rock, no scissors, and four papers. You might assume the man will play paper because of how many of it he has. However, he will play rock instead. These duels are like a double-edged sword. The upside to predetermined duels is that it turns rock-paper-scissors into a mind game. The downside is that you’ll know which card your opponent will play the next time you duel him.
As you progress in the game, you learn new strategies that change how you approach a duel. One of them is balance theory, a concept Kaiji uses in the manga. Since cards are discarded after a duel, a player will try to keep an even amount of cards. If your opponent has two rocks, two scissors, and three papers, then the card they would most likely play is paper. My favorite strategy is the one you learn from Funai. You can convince your opponent to play a specific card so you can force a draw or backstab them by playing a different card. However, not every strategy can be used on everyone.
What also makes the game unique is how open-ended it is despite there being only four rooms you can visit. There are a large number of events and characters you can interact with, ignore, or never see in a single run. One chapter begins with a man using psychic powers to defeat his opponent. You can get involved and attempt to beat his psychic ability or you can ignore him. There is even an equivalent to a final boss in the game you can miss if you don’t follow the correct route. It’s a showdown with all money and all stars on the line against a surprising character. Discovering new events requires you to follow certain routes. This can be difficult because you have to meet certain conditions, such as having a specific amount of cards or stars. The language barrier makes accessing other routes very difficult to do.
Participants can buy and sell stars during the final minutes of the game. Depending on how well you played this can either be a race against the clock to survive or a money-making opportunity. In one session, I found myself with two stars and little money. With ten minutes remaining, I scrambled to find someone who would sell me a star. Using the last amount of money I had left, I was able to purchase a star and survive. The experience left me with a large debt and a poor ranking, but it was better than being dragged away by the Yakuza. Losing in the game results in a fate more harrowing than the manga. You’re strapped onto a surgical table where two doctors seemingly remove your organs.
There are so many weird and fascinating intricacies in the game that it’s hard to name them all. The game is compatible with the PocketStation, so you can purchase stars, play rock-paper-scissors on the go, and even add decorations to the room you save your game in. The vibration-feedback of the DualShock controller is used to emphasize moments during conversations. If your intuition meter is full at the beginning of a duel, your controller will vibrate with a corresponding hint. My favorite detail is that the game punishes you for resetting the console after you save to a memory card. You’re forced to wash the windows of a building after you attempt to load your save file. The minigame’s poor controls definitely made washing windows feel like a chore I never wanted to do again.
Ultimately, this game is unique because it’s based on a unique manga. Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji is highly praised because of how it’s relatable protagonist uses wit and luck to win harrowing gambles. There have been very few games based on the manga, despite Nobuyuki’s gambles fitting well with the medium. Limited rock-paper-scissors returns in Gyakkyō Burai Kaiji: Death or Survival, but it is simpler than it is in Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji. Will wanted to give fans of the manga a way to experience the high stakes hell of gambling Kaiji went through. In doing so, they made a game that adapts the manga but has its own identity and atmosphere. The psychological effects of gambling and the mind games behind the simple rock-paper-scissors duels make the game still wholly unique to this day.