I just realized that I have an entire bookshelf in my magazine/ferret room (plus part of another) devoted to nothing but Japanese-language magazines, but I have yet to write about any of them. I figured I'd put a stop to that this week and write up the history of Famitsu, Japan's most prestigious console-game rag, as well as give you a quick look of its very first issue back in 1986.

Famitsu is a shortening of "Famicom Tsushin", or (as it called itself in English) "Famicom Journal". It actually began in March 1985 not as a magazine, but a column within LOGiN, a title published by ASCII that specialized in computer-games coverage. (LOGiN is still published monthly in Japan by current Famitsu owner Enterbrain, making it the oldest Japanese-language game mag still in existence.)

The first issue of Famicom Tsushin (dated June 20) hit Japanese newsstands on June 6, 1986, arriving smack-dab in the middle of the country's massive obsession with Nintendo's Family Computer, Japan's NES. It started as a biweekly publication, switching to weekly in 1991 and officially shortening its name to "Famitsu" in 1995, long after the Famicom passed out of the marketplace. (The mag called itself Famitsu for most of its existence, but the new name didn't become official until this point.)

Famitsu is still the largest game mag in Japan, although its claimed circulation has dropped mightily -- from 800,000 in 2000 to 500,000 today, although in a marketplace dominated by newsstand sales, the number of copies actually sold is undoubtedly much lower. It's the only game mag routinely on sale in newsstands and train-station kiosks in Japan, and its name is so trusted that Famitsu's editors have written game-industry articles in the past for national newspapers in Japan. This prestige is mainly thanks to a revolutionary (for its time) page structure and its weekly sales rankings -- Famitsu was the first mag in Japan to attempt to estimate actual product sales instead of simply giving a general game ranking. (Just like with NPD sales figures, there is some controversy that Famitsu's figures underreport Nintendo game sales, since important Nintendo outlets like Amazon and Toys R Us aren't inculded in their tabulation.)

Being the number-one mag in Japan has naturally made Famitsu an enormous influence on magazines elsewhere in the world -- most famously in its multi-writer "cross review" system, which was borrowed wholescale by EGM starting with issue 2 and remains that mag's trademark. Like with EGM, Famitsu's reviews generate all manner of controversy on an almost weekly basis, but the stakes are even greater with Famitsu, because its reviews are said to have a major impact on game sales -- much more than any US mag could hope for. Here are a couple of game-review incidents from 2006 alone:

- Famitsu's reviewers gave a straight 40 score (10-10-10-10) to Final Fantasy XII, only the sixth perfect score in the mag's history and something that many Japanese forum nerds cried foul against. They weren't the only one, either. Hikaru Ijuin, a Japanese radio broadcaster who writes a column for Famitsu and used to host their TV show, even commented about it publicly on his radio show: "No matter how generous you want to be, this can't possibly be a perfect-score game. All I can think is that something's screwed up with the Cross Review system. Me, I could be as nice as I possibly can and maybe I can give it an 8." Ijuin later tempered his statement by reminding himself that he's a game dork and probably not FF12's target audience, but

- In the September 1, 2006 issue, one of the reviewers for horror/adventure game Ayakashibito criticized a section of the game's play system that didn't actually exist. In response to this, developer Propellor wrote on its staff weblog that "we don't mind being told straight up that the game's not fun -- just don't try to back up that logic with points that don't exist in realisty."

Still, the review system has helped relatively no-name games become massive hits, so it's not all that bad. (Example: Capcom's Resident Evil had almost zero ad push in Japan before Famitsu gave it a total score of 38.)


Anyway, the cover of the first issue of Famicom Tsushin features a guy named BASIC-kun (who had a four-panel comic inside) going "Whoooa! This is exciting!" There's also a special number printed on the bottom right corner; if my number matches the set they printed in issue 2, then I could one of 10,000 prizes -- 2000 game carts and 8000 bits of Famitsu-themed merchandise. That must've been a fun contest to organize.

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Here we have the first Top 30, with numerical figures based on numbers provided by only five stores (three in Tokyo, two in Osaka). Top this time around is Gegege no Kitaro: Yokai Daimakyo, which got rebranded to Ninja Kid in the US. Super Mario Bros. is number two even though it's been eight months since its Japanese release.

On the right is the USA news page. Famitsu actually had a US correspondent (a guy named Tom Randolph who also contributed to LOGiN) way back in 1986, putting it way ahead of rags like EGM and GameFan who did the same thing the other way around. The textbox on the bottom actually covers the test-marketing Nintendo did for the NES in New York late 1985, which is more than any English-language publication did as far as I can tell.

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And wahey, it's the magazine's first review, this one for The Legend of Zelda. The Cross Review didn't debut for another dozen or so issues, so instead we have these long-form reviews combined with a smattering of ratings (based off some kind of crazy weather-themed system) from four writers. As you can see from the pix, the Famitsu of the time was completely unafraid to spoil endings -- something that got it in hot water with Enix one issue later when it published a strategy guide to Dragon Quest that took the player all the way to the end.

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Most of this issue, however, is much more boring -- filled with combination intro feature/strategy guides for the games of the day. Here's one for Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese one, that is). On the right is an arcade-game strategy Q&A column co-written by Satoshi Tajiri (that's his portrait on the upper-left of the page), who later became much more famous creating games like Pokemon and now doesn't have to write copy for a living the way schlubs like me do. Sniff.

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