Introduction to Scorekeeping for Japanese Arcade Games
and Why World Record Videos are not Mandatory
Written by: Plasmo
(Gus playing Mushihimesama Futari Ultra at HEY arcade, Tokyo)
I noticed that recently the same types of questions regarding world records, verification methods etc. keep popping up. Newcomers to arcade games, perhaps used to how the speedrunning scene is handling their records, often seem to wonder what is going on in this scene and how we can even accept world records without any video proof. For this reason, I have written this small introduction that aims to cover the methods of scorekeeping, their historical background and the common way we determine world records. This guide focuses on shmups, but is likewise applicable for arcade games of other genres.
– Let’s get started! –
Arcades have been around since the late 70s and the hunt for high scores existed from the very beginning. Already the infamous Space Invaders had a built-in score counter, making it possible to compete against your friends. Many early games have very rudimentary scoring systems and often loop endlessly, testing not only the skill and reflexes of the player, but also his endurance.
The first official scoreboard concerned with arcade games was Twin Galaxies, which was founded by Walter Day in 1981 and still exists up to this day.In the beginning, the scores from their database were made public in the Twin Galaxies arcade and by appearing in video game magazines. One major limitation was their strong focus on the USA. Twin Galaxies called their scores “world records,” which was additionally enforced by their recognition from Guinness Book of World Records. In fact, separate scorekeeping communities were founded around the world, most notably in various European countries: e.g. England and Italy. Japan also had its own scorekeeping community. The scoreboards of these countries likewise appeared in monthly published video game magazines, many of which would later on not only collect scores for arcade games, but also other console games.
The first Japanese video game magazine to record high scores from arcades all around the country was AM LIFE. This typical youth-oriented magazine reported about various topics such as theme parks, movies, fishing, and also video games. It was published between 1983 to 1984, with the beginning of the fourth issue asking for readers to send in their high scores from the arcades. Scores of any skill would be published and grouped depending on the game center they were achieved in. This format would turn out to be the norm for the following decades to come. The strict focus on only the top score happened much later on.
The next influential publication was MyCom BASIC Magazine. The scores were published from January 1984 to March 1999. This means that the magazine started later than Twin Galaxies, but was still actively publishing scores long after TG had already vanished into obscurity during the late 80s. With console gaming on the rise, arcades died in the West and people generally lost interest in competing for high scores. In contrast to this, the situation in Japan was very different. New arcade games continued to be produced alongside the home market releases, which kept the arcade alive. Scoring systems became increasingly more complex, continuously making competitive high score play an interesting endeavor. Some of the most appreciated titles of the genre, such as Dodonpachi and Battle Garegga, came out in the mid to late 90s and never found their way out of Japan. Therefore, when these games were ported to home consoles, they would regularly be released exclusively in Japan, alienating the shmup genre even more from the West. Due to this situation, Japan was the only country with a strong community chasing high scores, while the rest of the world had mostly lost interest. This is the reason why we can consider the top scores submitted to these magazines as world records. Interestingly enough, unlike Twin Galaxies, the Japanese magazines never considered their scores to be world records, but consistently called them nationwide records.
MyCom BASIC, December 1994
In April of 1986, the first issue of GAMEST magazine came out, which would constitute the foundation of the modern scorekeeping community in Japan. GAMEST existed alongside MyCom BASIC and maintained their own independent leaderboards for each game. Some players were only submitting their scores to one of the two magazines, others to both simultaneously. Looking at the two magazines in retrospect today, we can generally say that, in most cases, the scores found in GAMEST were higher than the ones recorded in MyCom BASIC. Shortly after the leaderboards published in MyCom BASIC came to a halt, GAMEST was likewise discontinued in September 1999.
GAMEST, August 1997
However, a few months after in December 1999, ARCADIA magazine came out. ARCADIA magazine was a collaborative effort of a number of writers from GAMEST and NEO GEO FREAK; published 1995–2000) – a magazine focused exclusively on Neo Geo, which maintained a small number of scoreboards, but was chiefly concerned with fighting games instead. The leaderboards published in ARCADIA were an immediate continuation of the GAMEST leaderboards, whereas the MyCom BASIC leaderboards had no such successor. Just like its predecessor GAMEST, ARCADIA was a magazine focusing only on arcade games and was fully accepted as the go-to place for top scores. All in all, 168 issues were published until April of 2015. What followed afterwards was almost a year of silence before the Japan High Score Association (or JHA, for short) was finally founded in March 2016 by former writers of ARCADIA.JHA is the first exclusively digital installment, collecting and publishing top scores on a monthly basis just like GAMEST and ARCADIA did before. For this reason, we can speak of one continuous leaderboard from 1986 to the present. JHA still makes no claim over the term “world record” and continues to merely speak of nationwide records. Unfortunately, their digital leaderboardsonly show the scores submitted to them directly from 2016 onward – the old top scores from ARCADIA and GAMEST cannot be retrieved from their website, although JHA will only accept new scores higher than these old scores. So how do we find out about these old scores when we do not have a complete collection of all GAMEST and ARCADIA magazines at home? There are several possibilities, each with its advantages and disadvantages.
Collection of the final top scores from MyCom BASIC, GAMEST, and ARCADIA. Unfortunately, the list is only available in Japanese and some games are missing. A number of mistakes have also been reported. The page is no longer updated with the new scores from JHA but is a historical resource only.
Compiled on the shmups forum by the user NTSC-J. This page shows a complete listing of all top scores for every shmup (no other genres) in English. The list is still updated with the newest scores submitted to JHA. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it lists proven scores, but also unofficial ones (e.g. found on Twitter), and mixes them all together without giving a source. Therefore, it contains a number of erroneous scores. If available, it also provides video links.
An ambitious project by Marco “Gemant” Frattino, which selects 600 arcade games (all genres) and lists not only the top scores but also gives a countless number of valuable insights to the games’ scoring systems. The project includes all top scores currently known and specifies the source. Under certain circumstances, more than one score is given. Regrettably, the document is primarily in Italian only. The project is in an unfinished state as of now and given the file format, it is not clear whether this document will ever receive regular updates.
With these three websites it is possible to retrieve the world records for each arcade shmup. The aforementioned Twin Galaxies site is practically useless for shmup world records and only holds some value for games from the so-called Golden Era of arcade games, i.e. up to the mid-80s, so anything preceding the Japanese leaderboards.
To sum up, here is an overview of the Japanese scorekeeping magazines and leaderboards discussed above. The dates given refer to the time span in which they were publishing leaderboards.
- Verification methods and legitimacy of high scores
In the days of speedrunning, in the days of “no vid, no did,” how can we accept a myriad of alleged world records that do not have any video proof, not even picture proof along with them? From the very beginnings of scorekeeping, people quickly realized that a strict verification policy is the only way to sustain a fair competition for everyone. To submit scores to video game magazines it appeared necessary to demand at least a picture of the achievement. But pictures can be manipulated, which is the main reason why so many console leaderboard records from old magazines cannot always be considered trustworthy. To claim legitimacy, the Japanese arcade scene introduced what is probably one of the strictest proof policies there is. The verification process has slowly developed over time and looks like the following today:
- Every credit has to be played at a public arcade during working hours.
- Only verified arcades are eligible to state if a score was legitimately achieved.
- The player has to contact the staff after his achievement. The staff then has to double check the score and the machine settings. The player fills out a form, which is signed and stamped by the arcade staff.
- The player sends in the signed form to the magazine.
With this verification process, the scores from the Japanese leaderboards can be considered to be extremely trustworthy. Cheating is virtually impossible. However, since no video proof is needed, it is not always easy to understand how these scores were achieved. Recording gameplay from arcade machines is still a cumbersome undertaking but has been even more difficult in the past. Nonetheless, so-called superplays were sold on VHS tapes from the late-80s onward. These superplay tapes were sometimes collaborations of GAMEST magazine and the top players, or were directly produced by the game developer. With the late-90s, we also see privately recorded superplay tapes for sale. Generally speaking, only a small fraction of all top scores were recorded on tape, even during the 90s. With the advent of readily available recording and capture equipment, we witness a boom of replays during the late 90s. Succeeding the VHS format, several official superplay DVDs were also produced and sold commercially during the coming years.
Superplay VHS tapes for sale at Mandarake Akihabara, Tokyo
Although the internet and accessible video websites nowadays make it significantly easier to capture and upload gameplay for the world to see, the general verification method of arcade scores stays the same in Japan. The immense history of over 30 years of competitive gaming has the drawback to have created an incredibly conservative system that is almost immune to change in this regard. Now, we understand that videos are not needed as a proof, but why does not the player himself record footage of his achievements and uploads it for everyone to see? In fact, a number of world records indeed do get uploaded – but why not all of them? There are several reasons for this.
As the verification policy demands the credit to be played at a public arcade, it is not always possible to capture gameplay. However, arcades dedicated to competitive play often provide recording equipment for selected cabinets. In this case, the player can simply copy the files to a USB stick and take them home. This service is generally free to use for all customers. In other cases, cabinets are sometimes streamed online. While we can say for sure that most of the world record scores are recorded nowadays, many runs are never uploaded to video websites and are only shared privately in Japan. The motivations behind this can be very diverse. From my own experience, I have seen the following arguments.
- Japanese copyright laws are incredibly strict. It is not entirely clear how uploaded gameplay is affected by this. In a rush of pre-emptive subservience, some arcade owners do not allow the footage recorded at their arcade to be uploaded anywhere. Players also feel insecure about this situation and decide to not upload their runs to widely prevent any potential complications.
- Players generally feel less need to record their runs because they can simply show strategies to their peers next time they all meet up at the arcade. Likewise, if you are interested in certain strategies, you just head over to the next arcade and check out the top players there. A good percentage of the community operates offline.
- Some perfectionist players are unsatisfied with their scores and do not want to upload what they consider to be unfinished business, even in the case of world records.
- Other players share their achievements only privately because they do not think that there is any interest for their gameplay outside of their own small circles. Many Japanese people have no connection to the international anglophone shmups scene. The language barrier is still a great obstacle for many players that they have yet to overcome.
- A small number of people specifically want their strategies to be kept secret and only share them with their close friends. If one of these friends happens to beat the score using these unpublished strategies, he also feels obliged to keep these strategies secret — even if he would have otherwise shared them if he would have found out these strategies on his own. The cycle continues.
- A closer look on the Japanese leaderboards
While JHA is widely accepted as the definitive place for arcade world records, it is not without its problems. At times, it feels arbitrary how the categories for a game have been decided. For example, while Raiden Fighters and Raiden Fighters 2 both have categories for each of the different ships (8 and 11 categories respectively), Raiden Fighters Jet only has one single category, even though the game features 14 ships to select from. As a general rule, subtypes of ships are lumped together into a single category notwithstanding their potentially very different score ceilings. This way, there is no distinction between Shot and Laser types in Dodonpachi. Only very recently, JHA has decided to create a small number of new categories.
Under certain circumstances, categories are sometimes also closed for competition. This typically happens when an infinite pattern is discovered, for instance by abusing a checkpoint or a boss fight with no timer (e.g. Battle Garegga or Daioh). It is sufficient if the infinite pattern is demonstrated to work in theory. Another reason for scoreboards to be closed is when an invincibility glitch is found (e.g. Darius Gaiden or Gradius III). Other score glitches (e.g. Dodonpachi Saidaioujou) or extend glitches (e.g. Pink Sweets) are generally allowed to be abused for scoring purposes. Possibly the most popular reason for the closure of a game is a counterstop of the score. (e.g. Batsugun Special or Mushihimesama Futari, Ultra mode).
Related to this are games that could potentially be played in a marathon fashion, but that fall under the special “+α rule”. For example, Hishouzame, aka Flying Shark, has a counterstop at exactly 100 million points, which would take a player approximately 43 hours of continuous play to achieve. Due to the constraint that world records have to be achieved during working hours of an arcade, the leaderboards have set an arbitrary threshold of 10 million points for this game. The first person who achieved this goal remains as the top score and the scoreboard for this game is closed. The submission is marked as “10,000,000+α” to indicate that the score counter broke at least 10 million points. These special +α rules were mainly set for a number of older titles and are not common anymore. This stays in stark contrast to the leaderboards of Twin Galaxies under which ruleset no arbitrary thresholds are set, allowing for long marathon sessions sometimes spanning over several days, for example the world records for Missile Command (71 hours) or Q*Bert (84 hours).
While the vast majority of world records achieved in Japan is nowadays recorded in the leaderboards of JHA, a small number of scores are not recognized. Some players play on original hardware or emulator at home and cannot officially send their scores in. Other players play under official settings in an arcade but simply do not care about submitting their scores in an official fashion. In this case, we sometimes only read about these achievements on social media such as Twitter.
- Quo vadis? or, What about us?
The competition for high scores in arcade games has an incredibly rich history. However, due to the lack of arcades worldwide, the competition appeared to be confined to Japan up to the second half of the 2000s, when an interest for modern shmups slowly began to emerge on a global scale. With the advent of speedrunning, we can observe a newly sparked interest towards single player games as competitive video games again. During the past two decades, a small number of world records were achieved outside of Japan. Most notably, comparatively strong communities have built around arcades in China and South Korea – two countries that cannot submit their scores to JHA. Therefore, a globally accessible leaderboard appears to become even more desired. In the past, a prototype was launched by Nakano Ryūzō. A global leaderboard was opened on his website (active ca. 2008–2014) for which it was possible to submit scores even outside of Japan.Unfortunately, the submission of scores was still only limited to public arcades, meaning the anglophone world was largely excluded again.
As for the western world, several digital projects to keep track of high scores for shmups have been started over the years. Let’s take a brief look at a few of them.
Largely centered around players of the long-standing shmups forum,the user CStarFlare initiated this global leaderboard in 2012. The project is still active today and keeps track of shmup high scores not limited to arcade games, but also encouraging score submissions for console and doujin games. The scoreboards are based on trust and generally lack any verification process.
General leaderboard of the French community. The project emerged from the French shmup forum and the score submission format is still directly tied to the forum.Just like Restart Syndrome, the leaderboards are not limited to arcade shmups and there is no actively pursued verification policy.
The leaderboards on this site already started in 1999 and the submitted scores are immediately based on replays recorded on MAME. For this reason, the site has a great history to look back to and features a strict verification policy, making video proof essential to any score submission. For obvious reasons, the leaderboards are limited to arcade games, but also include other genres.
As mentioned before, when it comes to arcade shmups from the first half of the 80s, Twin Galaxies might also be worth a visit.
1. Official website: https://www.twingalaxies.com
2. A complete database of all submitted scores can be found here: http://www.north-wind.ne.jp/~yoshino/challehigh/
3. Official website: http://www.jha-arcade.com/
4. Official website: https://wiki.denfaminicogamer.jp/highscore/
5. Now defunct website: http://www9.plala.or.jp/nakanoryuzo/HS/Front.html
6. Official website: https://shmups.system11.org/
7. Official website: http://forum.shmup.com/
*Thank you very much for reading and 600 million thank you’s to Plasmo for writing this awesome article!*