As promised, I bought every (well, ok, most) game mag in Japan while traveling there on holiday, and I thought I'd tell you a bit about what I've found.

A quick history of J-mags

From the late 1970s, video games received coverage in Japan's PC mags and kids' manga anthologies. The first mags entirely devoted to games popped up in 1982, starting with ASCII's LOGiN and Kadokawa Shoten's Comptiq and continuing with Softbank's Beep, the first mag to also cover arcade and home console games.

In 1985 Tokuma Shoten opened Family Computer Magazine, the first fully console (i.e. Famicom)-oriented magazine in Japan. With a design that shares a lot in common with early-era Nintendo Power, it was a massive success and spawned all manner of imitators, including ASCII's Famicom Tsushin (originally a column in LOGiN), Kadokawa's Marukatsu Famicom, and JICC's Famicom Hisshoubon. This situation remained largely the same throughout the Famicom/Super Famicom's reign, with these multiplatform mags dominating the marketplace and maybe one or two mags covering the Mega Drive and PC Engine.

Things changed in the mid-90s when the PlayStation and Saturn became serious forces in the game marketplace. Along with their "flagship" multiplatform mag, every existing game-mag publisher in Japan also launched an arrage of single-platform mags -- which, when thrown in with all the new multiplatform mags hitting stores, made for an extremely crowded marketplace. The saturation point was reached pretty quickly, and closures began in the late 90s and extended all through this decade, with the rise of the Internet only serving to hurry things along.

These days, the game-mag scene in Japan is in a state of near-monopoly, thanks to Kadokawa's purchase/merger/whatever-you-wanna-call-it with Enterbrain bringing production of the Famitsu and Dengeki stables under the same umbrella.

For the purposes of my survey, I bought every video-game magazine on regular rotation, ignoring any one-offs or specials (zoukan in Japanese), PC game mags (LOGiN is the only one left that is not "adult"), mags devoted entirely to MMO's (there's around five these days), and mags devoted entirely to girl or BL games (of which there are about fifty million).

The Famitsu stable

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Weekly Famitsu is the most popular game mag in Japan; although its stated circulation figure of 500,000 is almost certainly inflated, it's still the most widely recognized title and the only one you're likely to find in railway kiosks and other heavily-frequented newsstands. It was the first weekly game mag in Japan, with two separate editorial departments alternating between each issue. (Generally, the issues that come out on even-numbered weeks have an actor or idol-singer or something on the cover, while the odd-numbered issues feature Necky the fox inside the world of whatever game's currently hot -- Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G, in this case.

Although it was originally just one of many Famicom mags, Famitsu made a name for itself with its detailed strategies, its bountiful industry-news pieces (unique at a time when all the mags were kid-oriented) and, later, its four-man Cross Review system and Top 30 sales lists. Famitsu's reviews have a reputation for being the toughest in Japan, but by and large this stopped being true toward the late 1990s, when Famitsu undeniably became the dominant mag and the relationship between it and publishers really got incestuous. Like most US game mags, there are a few dubious reviews in Famitsu's past -- rating games without mentioning bugs that the retail product wound up shipping with, that sort of thing. Still, Weekly Famitsu's reviews are nearly the only print-mag ones that Japanese gamers pay very close attention to.

While the magazine changes visual designs at least once a year, the structure has changed surprisingly little since 1986. The majority of color pages is still given to strategy guides, of the sort that would put most Brady/Prima books to shame designwise. There's a fair bit of regular columns and features, however, including a special this month on new limited editions of games and a column by Goichi Suda all about US-made games. In this fashion, Famitsu fulfills a number of posts -- strategy mag, review guide to new games, and industry news source, complete with tons of dev interviews and such. It's still probably the most influential enthusiast press for games in Japan, and while part of that is because game websites in Japan suck (though they're getting better), the consistency of quality they put out every week is still pretty astounding.

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Famitsu PlayStation+ is a monthly mag launched in 1996 in response to rival publishers' Sony titles and, as you'd expect, it's devoted fully to Sony's systems. It was released twice a month from 1996 to June of 2007, when it went back to monthly (a better fate than most other PS mags, a couple of which folded around this time). It has a tendency to cover "girl games" a fair bit more often than other console mags in Japan, a bit of a surprise since girl-games were practically the exclusive territory of the Dengeki series all through the 90s.

Famitsu Xbox 360 has a claimed circulation of 80,000, which is a lie but at least not as boldfaced as when Enterbrain claimed it was 100,000 a year after the original Xbox was released in Japan. As you'd expect, this is the most "mature" of the Enterbrain mags; it's the only Famitsu publication to not use furigana on top of the Chinese characters in the text, and the focus is less on strategy and more on columns and industry news (including the only Game Developers Conference report I've seen in Japanese print mag-dom). Most of the staff came from Famitsu DC, the Dreamcast mag Enterbrain published until late 2001.

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Famitsu DS + Wii is the complete opposite -- it's completely for the kids, and like many kids' mags in Japan, the cover devotes more space to all the cool bonuses inside the polybag than any individual game. This issue includes a booklet of Smash Brothers Brawl strategy, another booklet of manga based on Wii games, and a three-piece Pokemon stationery set (eraser, ruler, and mechanical pencil). Strategy and previews dominate the innards.

Finally, Arcadia is a monthly launched in 1999 devoted entirely to arcade games. Its original staff was mostly taken from Gamest and Neo Geo Freak, two mags that died at roughly the same time in 1998. Despite this pedigree, the book isn't nearly as hardcore-oriented as either of those two titles -- it tries to appeal to a general gaming audience, including the ladies and casual gamers who mostly stick to the music, trading-card, or prize games. Arcadia has never been a super-successful magazine, and it's had to deal with internet rumors of its imminent demise as early as 2006. It's still around, but it's not like arcades in Japan are doing so wonderful these days, either.

The Dengeki stable

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Dengeki PlayStation is the oldest Sony-only mag, launching right alongside the birth of the system in late 1994. From the beginning, the title's been way hardcore oriented -- while most other PS mags kicked off their coverage by putting Ridge Racer on the cover, Den-Pure decided that the PS version of Princess Maker would be a better cover subject. While being hardcore back then meant lots of strategy pages, these days the mag has shifted to become heavier on reader participation, manga, US-style feature articles, and so forth. The formula seems to be working, because Den-Pure is the only magazine in Japan that gives Famitsu a run for its money saleswise, even outselling it on rare occasions.

Dengeki Nintendo DS, like Famitsu DS + Wii, is totally kiddie, although this is a fairly recent invention -- until around 2004, it was very much an all-ages mag, similar to Famitsu. (Media Works also publishes Dengeki DS&Wii Style, a mature audience-oriented Nintendo mag, on a bimonthly-ish basis.) It gets points for being the only Japanese game mag that's full color from start to finish and for having a ferret run its reader-contribution section. It also has even more bonus crap than Famitsu's Nintendo mag -- in this issue, a Brawl guide, a Pokemon TCG guide, a Mario Kart Wii guide, a Pokemon Ranger guide, a book of Mario-themed pencil puzzles, and a large Pokemon movie poster. All this for 630 yen! To put this on US newsstands and make a profit, you'd have to charge at least $15 or so.

The others

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Nintendo Dream (Nindori) is the last game mag Mainichi Communications publishes (they once had around 10-ish). It was originally called The 64 Dream when it launched in 1996. It's difficult to make direct comparisons between Japanese and US mags, but Nindori is almost exactly like modern Nintendo Power in style -- immensely popular among Nintendo fanboys, written largely for a mature audience, featuring a lot of exclusive previews, and concentrating more and more on industry topics as time goes on (it's the only Nintendo mag in Japan to do any sort of industry coverage, including dev interviews). If I were living in Japan, Weekly Famitsu, Dengeki PlayStation and Nindori would probably be the three game mags I'd buy regularly.

Ge-maga (short for "game magazine") is the oldest Japanese game mag currently in existence. It launched as Beep in December 1984, then switched names over the years to Beep! Megadrive, Sega Saturn Magazine, Dreamcast Magazine, Dorimaga (after Sega dropped hardware in 2001), and finally Ge-maga in June 2006. Sega may not be what it once was, but old habits die hard at Ge-maga, and they still devote lots of space to girl games and reader submissions (I'm talking page after page of postcard fanart here). I liked this mag a lot in the Dorimaga era, but my impression after reading through this issue of Ge-maga is that the magic's largely gone -- perhaps because the girl-game audience has moved to the net far more quickly than the rest of game fandom.

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Wahey, here's a couple of bimonthly game-mag mooks. Game Side is quite a bit like a Japanese take on the UK's Retro Gamer, although it came first by a mile, originally launching as Used Games in 1996. While it occasionally throws a bone at modern games, the vast majority of pages is devoted to roundup features on old hardware and game genres. It's a great resource and I read it cover to cover whenever I'm able to nab new issues.

Continue is another favorite of mine, featuring long essays, even longer interviews, and an extremely thoughtful approach to covering the game industry worldwide. It's also the only Japanese mag to interview Kevin Gifford (which happened in 2004), but I won't hold that against it. On this trip I was a little disappointed to find that Continue's devoting a lot of pages to anime coverage these days, something I'm not sure most of its readers care about.

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And finally there's V-Jump. I'm not sure how to classify V-Jump, so I just saved it for last. Launched in 1993, Shueisha's only game mag mostly concentrated on console games, in particular RPG series like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, as well as anything based off Shonen Jump properties. Whenever new info on DQ/FF games leaks out, it's often found in V-Jump first, a reminder of the days when Yuji Horii was a writer for Shonen Jump. As you may be able to surmise from the cover, though, trading card games have become V-Jump's bread and butter -- there are five bonus cards inserted into the magazine, and it's also where the Yu-Gi-Oh manga has run since 2004. It's an odd mix of manga rag, game journal, and outright advertising vehicle for Jump-brand stuff, and the only thing I can say for sure about it is that I'm way too old to be reading it.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also executive editor at PiQ magazine.]