Super Hanafuda 2: Finding fun in strange places

I know reading an article about an old digital recreation of a traditional tabletop card game might not sound like the most exciting way to spend a few minutes of your precious free time but this is a good one (honest), and a longstanding personal favourite of mine.

Card games are card games – nobody needs two versions of Solitaire, do they? Once you’ve got one then you’re done with the whole genre unless something breaks, surely? That’s true to a certain extent: The whole point of releases like Super Hanafuda 2 is to digitally recreate a pre-existing real world game, so there’s only so much anyone can do with the formula before they end up pushing it too far and turning it into something else – something other than the reason people (both of us) wanted to buy it in the first place. Mahjong Cop‘s wacky lawsuit-dodging adventure hijinks are the exception after all, not the rule.

And in many ways this 1995 game plays it safe. It includes both koi-koi and hana-awase rulesets to play across several free battle, league, versus, and tournament modes, so if you want to play a popular hanafuda-based card game on the Super Famicom then this is definitely as good a way as any other to do it. The card art, each of the twelve suits – one for every month of the year – represented by a different flower, grass, or tree, all look recognisably close to the standard versions of the real thing, the “table” backgrounds add a little visual interest without being distracting, and the music remains pleasantly unobtrusive even over extended sessions. The rules can even be tweaked to some degree, allowing you to (to some extent) play the game you really like rather than just the game you’ve been given.

Which is great news for someone fresh to this area of gaming, but as far as card game features go it’s also pretty standard, really. What sets Super Hanafuda 2 apart, and what kept me coming back even as a deeply confused newbie at a time when internet access wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is now, is how welcoming this game feels. This is something you could (and I did) learn how to play koi-koi (or hana-awase) with, the array of little card prompts – on by default, another sign the game wishes to make the less confident feel at ease and leave experienced hands to decide for themselves whether to turn this handy feature off – helping to cut through the early fog of remembering which cards form valid pairs. Little tags next to cards you’ve claimed name (in Japanese) the point-scoring combinations you’ve got components of and can work towards so long as nobody else snags a vital card first, and when you’ve completed a set the tag turns red, so even if you choose to koi-koi on for a potentially even greater victory it’s still easy to see what’s been completed and what you can work towards. On your turn you’re never more than a single button press away from a thorough explanation of the rules and terminology as well as pictorial representations of every scoring combination, all of this information broken down in a way that allows you to quickly select the exact word or subject you’re unsure about without having to wade through everything else first.

But best of all is the way Super Hanafuda 2 wraps all of this help up in a presentation style that can only be described as “friendly”, every interaction infused with a relaxed and happy mood.

That help with the rules I mentioned above? That’s accompanied by an animated portrait of a sweet old man, as though a patient grandparent is walking you through it all at a pace that suits you. The opponent select screen shows a different season every time you access it, with random characters seen passing by in temperature-appropriate clothing (you might even spot Santa in winter). Every opponent and even your own avatar (available in both male and female forms) has a surprising amount of animation to them, the game going so far as to not only include unique win/lose actions for them all but also take a brief moment to show them give a cheeky smile when they play well or enthusiastically place their next card. This behaviour is often accompanied by a few lively speech samples too, only serving to further reinforce Super Hanafuda 2’s charm and warmth. It’s hard to feel bad playing this even when you’re being utterly crushed, because all of your interactions with your opponent make you believe you’re playing a game with a friend rather than engaging in battle with someone wants you to take hanafuda very seriously and hopes you will provide a worthy challenge.

But in spite of all the fluffy window dressing going on, Super Hanafuda 2 never puts the cards second – the game always treats its namesake as the focal point of the experience and its reason for being, with everything else included purely to encourage those who might a little extra nudge.

After you’ve been on the receiving end of that nudge long enough you find yourself, almost accidentally, playing the game for real. It’s at this point you begin to appreciate the satisfying slap sound effect played whenever a card connects another on the “table”, the way the cards make for a beautiful screen even though they’re not really doing anything, the modes that let you play for longer, or against tougher opponents. Tactical plays start to emerge, safe in the knowledge that win or lose, Super Hanafuda 2 will always make you feel good for trying.

Some games must be bought the instant you learn of their existence, the very idea of them enough to justify their purchase and generate a confidence-boosting round of praise from like-minded peers. This isn’t that sort of game. This is more something you occasionally show mild interest in yet keep passing on until “next time” at any price – and then an hour after finally playing it wonder why you didn’t rush to buy it years ago.

[Ko-fi supporters read this last week!]