At first glance, Youkai Yashiki appears to be a game lacking in significance; a game that conforms so heavily to well understood trends and modifies them so little that one struggles to learn what makes this game in particular worthy of study. Examining the game further only risks reinforcing this impression. A minor release from a company with only a tangential interest in video games, the most notable fact one may find when reading about Youkai Yashiki is that it was originally an MSX game which later received a Famicom Disk System (courtesy of Irem) with a visual overhaul and an extra level. Such paltry information would seem to confirm the game’s status as a minor endeavor made to be forgotten after its brief time in a crowded spotlight.
Playing Youkai Yashiki, however, one comes away with a different understanding of the game. It may not contradict our previous understanding, but it does expand on that understanding significantly. Far from being bound to the era it emerged into, Youkai Yashiki is a game caught between both video games’ recent past and their immediate present – and all the philosophies associated with either. Its inability to properly reconcile the two eras proves more fruitful than one might expect, as the result points to all sorts of histories and developments we might otherwise ignore. Any influence these developments exert on the play experience is questionable, but they remain an interesting point of study nonetheless.
Before we proceed with this study, though, I feel it necessary to clarify what the game’s influences – what these well understood trends and its immediate present – are. Like Lupin III to follow, Youkai Yashiki strictly adheres to the Super Mario Bros. template and puts no real effort into hiding this source of inspiration. The primary focus on navigational challenges like maneuvering between platforms and avoiding dangerous creatures, the secondary theme park-esque focus of experiencing minor set pieces throughout levels, the gradual difficulty curve meant to both familiarize and challenge players wherever appropriate, the diminutive characters connotting a certain toylike charisma – all of these signal Youkai Yashiki as a game firmly planted in the Mario tradition.
The narrative premise and the function it serves make these roots particularly clear. We begin with a little girl approaching a shrine and innocently removing the seal holding it shut. She may not know why the shrine was sealed off, but as the kanji 呪 burns itself into the torn shoji and a malicious glare emerges seemingly from the void, its purpose becomes all too clear to us. It is now the protagonist’s duty to venture into the haunted shrine to rescue the girl (her kidnapping being vaguely implied). In other words, Youkai Yashiki’s story is a typical rescue the princess narrative; an unambiguous, easily resolved conflict with no inherent value beyond its ability to establish the necessary play premises.
To the game’s credit, that narrative premise is very direct about what sort of play will entail from it. Youkai Yashiki begins with the protagonist entering the eponymous mansion. In fact, it’s the first action the player performs in the game. From this, we can surmise that the focus of play is on navigating this mansion, IE that play will be spatial in nature. The game is quick to reinforce that assumption as play develops further. Each level tasks you with finding five talismans scattered in various locations before finding the location that will take you to that level’s boss. All the while, you’re also taking warps, finding items, and uncovering whatever secrets you suspect the game of hiding from you.
What makes Youkai Yashiki such a distinctive game is how, in spite of how spatially grounded play is, the game utterly refuses any sort of spatial logic, both across and within levels. The first is easy enough to describe: mansions are understood as strictly defined areas, but the game complicates such definitions by shifting from mansion to ice cave to swamp to graveyard without any explanation. Whether these are separates spaces or are all part of the same area is difficult to ascertain.
Limiting ourselves to a single level only complicates things further. The closest Youkai Yashiki has to a consistent spatial logic on its part is the Bubble Bobble-esque playful arrangements of rooms to resemble kanji. This is at least somewhat clear when looking at maps of the levels, but characterizing the arrangements as a direct feature of play is problematic. As players, we don’t perceive a given level from a bird’s eye perspective that would allow us to appreciate these designs. In fact, the perspective we do occupy denies us any such ability. We perceive the levels relationally; on a room-to-room basis.
Taken on these terms, we don’t perceive any sort of playfulness, but only confusion, treachery, and disorientation as the game sabotages our efforts to complete the tasks given us. Visually identical rooms disrupt my understanding both of where I am in a level and how a given room behaves. Warps follow their own unintuitive ruleset. Over time, the mansion feels less like a coherent space and more like a set of rooms vaguely connected to one another. Further compounding matters is each level’s unique method of confusing the player: hiding vital information within a room, cycling between similar sets of rooms, etc. This isn’t even accounting for the other tricks Youkai Yashiki plays with the player’s expectations, like certain hazards leading to bonus levels or enemies that deplete the player’s energy when killed. One might go so far as to describe Youkai Yashiki as a thorough and arbitrary refutation of the expectations it trains players to read into it.
But what is that refutation itself based in? One may conclude Shinto beliefs (especially as they pertain to shrines) form part of the answer. Youkai Yashiki is certainly conducive to such a reading. All the game’s monsters come from the pages of Japanese folklore, and shrines in Shinto are treated as portals to another world. However, it’s hard to tell to what extent, if any, Youkai Yashiki actually relies on this logic, since, putting aside the horror motifs, the game’s design can be explained in other ways; most of them involving its immediate context.
Toys offer an obvious example. At this point in history, games were envisioned as toys first and foremost and Youkai Yashiki is nothing if not happy to embrace that status for itself. The various idiosyncrasies we’ve discussed thus far make the game an object with a novel nature, a nature made for players to unfold and delight in. We might also read the game as the confused byproduct of two eras: the single-screen design of the early arcades, still progressing at a healthy pace; and the naturalist extended-screen logic Mario had made popular. Between these two poles, Youkai Yashiki’s relational design logic makes more sense.
I bring all of this up not to dismiss the game’s importance by reducing it to the trends it’s connected to, but to better appreciate its significance in relation to those trends. In conceptualizing virtual worlds, we often do so with a degree of certainty regarding what they are, as though they’ve a definite physical existence. We know this to be false – we know how easily we can puncture that certainty – but we consider the possibility of their being certain central to our understanding of games regardless. Japanese indie horror games in particular invoke this logic, even if they don’t seem to at first. These games derive their effect from contradicting our initial assumption through some other logic – psychological for Yume Nikki, the same (or possibly cosmic) for Strange Telephone.
On the one hand, Youkai Yashiki foreshadows, if not the motifs these games would use, then at least the techniques through which they present those motifs. On the other hand, I believe the game’s significance goes further than this. By adhering to contemporary trends/design philosophies so heavily, Youkai Yashiki achieves the same destabilizing effect as the games to follow but completely divorced from any remnants of naturalist logic. It points to alternate histories, which is to say it’s not the only game to achieve what it does (Monster Party comes to mind). In doing so, the game not only paints naturalism as contingent on certain developments that could have occurred otherwise, but perhaps also suggests these alternate techniques and approaches through its own construction.
As intriguing as all of this may be to us reading about/playing the game in 2018, it’s dubious how valuable these insights would be to the game in its original 1986 context. In some respects, what we’ve discussed regarding the game may be more limiting than I’ve suggested. Consider the history we’ve discussed. By our own admission, its position in regards to naturalism wouldn’t have been apparent at the time of its release, meaning its tricks are more consistent with its surrounding context than a modern observer may note. And to those modern observers who do note it, the connection appears more as a historical anomaly than anything else. Accepting the game on its own terms (IE interpreting it as a toy) doesn’t improve its prospects. Envisioned solely as a toy to be played around with, Youkai Yashiki lacks any depth beyond that initial vision. It struggles to find some more substantial direction, so its spatial play, interesting though it may be, never develops into something more.
That being said, I remain reluctant to dismiss Youkai Yashiki out of hand. For as much as its Color Splash-esque concentration on self-entertainment hinders the game, that concentration is also the key to realizing what potential it has. Despite aspiring to nothing more than novelty, the game shows both a keen awareness of its fictive and virtual nature and the acumen needed to translate that awareness into practice. The world it depicts is one beyond our ability to understand; where traditional rules of cause and effect simply don’t apply. Youkai Yashiki is hardly the only game to imagine such a world, and it’s unlikely any of the games to follow it took direct inspiration from the game, but it nonetheless demonstrates such a world’s flexibility and one of its many potential appeals.