Ultimate Rock Paper Scissors - a review
Up til now I’ve really only been using this space to discuss game design. Of course, there are more things I’m passionate about that I want to discuss. Today I’ll talk about a comic (specifically a manga) I read recently that immediately stood out. Sometimes I’ll experience a work of something and, once I’m finished, be left with a sense of wonder. In 20 chapters, this series did that.
And it’s about rock-paper-Scissors.
Ultimate rock-paper-Scissors is a manga written and illustrated by author Inukorosuke. It follows a simple premise: The God of Rock-Paper-Scissors hosts an international RPS tournament, with the winner being granted a wish. The finalists gathered together all have some special ability that helped them through the tournament - there’s a telepath, a ninja, a spirit medium, then there’s people like an incredibly wealthy man and a really lucky kid. The bracket that follows is a bizarre yet compelling showdown of wits and gambits.
Ultimate Rock Paper Scissors exists as an honest parody of the shonen battle genre and the gambling or “battleless battle” genres. By honesty parody, I mean a certain form of parody that has become more frequent and popular in the post-postmodernist era (a discussion for another time). Unlike many parodies, Ultimate Rock Paper Scissors doesn’t try to remind you that it’s a parody. There aren’t fourth wall breaks where a character references some event outside of the work’s universe. The tropes are magnified, often played straight instead of subverted. A character that has some power, like the ninja who can disguise himself, is just that - good at disguising himself. Unlike satire, the characters aren’t meant to necessarily criticize something either. They do play off the absurdity of manga tropes, but it never really feels like it’s denouncing those. If anything, it celebrates those tropes for being over-the-top fun.
Shonen battle manga have been around for decades. The genre covers many different settings and themes, but a few cliches have stood out and found their way into many series. Often times the characters in these series have some sort of ability or power unique to themselves - think like a fighting game character. Often characters develop their ability over the course of the series. Being a short series, Ultimate RPS doesn’t have the gradual mastery in its character arcs, but the characters do change their methods. Part of this is a natural consequence of the tournament setting.
The concept of a tournament arc, a story arc in a serialized work in which characters compete in, well, a tournament, is another cliche infused in the blood of the genre. As an author, it allows one to write several separate battles that showcase fighting styles in a single arena, an arena where people are expected to fight without interruption. Each fight can have consequences due to the tournament structure, so readers are often invested in battles between side characters because they determine the main character’s fate. It puts characters in a situation where they’re forced to adapt to the opponent without any help coming their way, letting the author write character growth in some way and giving the readers new insight on those characters.
However, the tournament arc in this series isn’t just a battle - it’s a mental contest as well. The gambits and tactics in Ultimate RPS are similar to those in gambling manga. Gambling manga is a subgenre of the “battle-less battle manga,” where conflicts are framed as battles and given some sort of similar narrative weight but involve no actual combat. Gambling manga are less about the money - usually a tool to add risk to situations - and more about the games involved. The author presents a game, gives a detailed rules explanation, and then writes situations where players plan, bluff, and diplomacize to reach the win. Often these rules have intentional loopholes for characters to exploit, masked by the seemingly normal description. It’s an interesting intersection of writing and game design, though not quite the focus here. In Ultimate RPS, the rules are delivered at the start of the series and don’t change significantly throughout. As characters’ specialties are showcased, the characters adapt and strategize around their weaknesses.
All together, these elements combine in a series where special powers that wouldn’t be out of place in a standard fighting manga are given that same importance over a game of rock-paper-scissors. RPS as a concept is both commonly-known and almost childish. That nature is reflected in the art, which is less detailed than an average series, focusing most of its efforts on the main characters. It’s for a good reason, of course. Each character is stylized in their own way, and those characters are maybe 99% of the series anyways. The art matches the tone, one that never gets too heavy. The crazy matches, wild mind games, and absurd powers all combine in a way that just highlights what’s so fun about these types of stories.