What an awful spin-off.
When I first watched Saki's premiere episode, I didn't find it that interesting. I didn't care about its characters, despite the really yuri-ish moment between two of them, and didn't see why I should care about watching them play mahjong. But Saki improved from there and really came into its own after its eponymous protagonist and the other members of Kiyosumi High School's mahjong team started competing in tournaments, working towards winning the Nationals.
In addition to Saki's team, we got to know three of the other teams aiming to be #1 at Nationals. Saki's cast had an assortment of likeable personalities in addition to being one of the gayest casts I have ever come across, their preternatural mahjong-playing abilities made their games entertaining, and the entire thing simmered into a tasty tournament stew. (I didn't like its service, but think of that aspect as the celery pieces I had to avoid while enjoying the rest of the stew.)
In Saki we met Nodoka, a teammate of Saki's.
In middle school, Nodoka attended Achiga Girls' Academy. She joined Achiga's mahjong club and made friends with Shizuno, Ako, and Kuro.
Saki Achiga-hen episode of side-A is about Shizuno's (and to a lesser extent, Ako and Kuro's) desire to play mahjong against Nodoka again at the high school-level Nationals after Nodoka moves away.
Shizuno, Ako, and Kuro revive their school's mahjong team in high school and get two more girls, Yuu and Arata, to join. Their coach is Harue, an alumna of their school who took Achiga's team to the Nationals in high school but lost, causing her to lose confidence in herself.
This series has about half the episode count Saki does, so by necessity, everything is compressed. But man, even taking that into account, its pacing sucked.
Achiga-hen's team gets to the tournament portion of this show after two episodes (five episodes in Saki), which I didn't mind since the tournament portion is what I really looked forward to. And two episodes is enough time to establish the personalities of the Achiga characters
Too bad they don't have personalities. They're bland. Really bland.
In fact, the final arc of Achiga-hen stopped focusing on the Achiga team in favor of a different team, contrary to what the build-up to it led us to believe. The Achiga girls are so dull, I think even their creator realized they were bland and thought "Screw it" at that point.
This series zipped through the nationals qualifying tournament that Saki spent fourteen episodes on in one episode, spent three episodes on the first round of the Nationals, and then spent four episodes on the first match of the second round of the Nationals. I don't know whether the wonky pacing is the manga's fault or a weird adaptation decision.
On the plus side, the final arc's greater focus on the non-Achiga players (Saki's older sister Teru, one of the players from Senriyama, and the girl who sounds like Railgun's Kuroko) made it somewhat more entertaining than this series' previous matches. I don't even remember Achiga's opponents besides the Senriyama team, Teru, and the girl who sounds like Kuroko. I rooted for Teru to kick everyone's asses, honestly. She was the only one who I wanted to keep see playing.
The characters from Saki showed up for some cameos. I know that it was fan-pandering, but it was a welcome respite from the dullness of the Achiga crew. I especially liked seeing Yumi and Momo, my favorite Saki couple, still being wonderful and coupley in the first half of episode 8. I replayed the scene in which Momo jumped into Yumi's arms upon seeing her again after I first watched it. ^_^
The Saki anime ended before its characters started playing in the nationals. It did not animate the entire story because it didn't have enough source material to draw from. But it still ended on a much better note than Achiga-hen. Saki's ending was cliffhangery in a "Kiyosumi kicked ass in the qualifying tournament. Look at all the awesome opponents they will face in the nationals!" way. Achiga-hen's ending was cliffhangery in a "This round hasn't concluded yet, but whoops, we're out of time" way. To the credit of whoever produced this series, Achiga-hen is going to get a three episode sequel at some point.
At the end of Achiga-hen's final episode, this series remembered that it's supposed to be about the Achiga team. I didn't realize how much I loathed spending time with the Achiga team until they saw Nodoka and had this exchange with her.
Sometimes friends lose contact because life happens- you no longer have enough in common with them to stay in touch or you didn't have a strong enough bond in with them the first place to keep in touch after you changed to a situation in which you wouldn't see them regularly at school (or work, in your neighborhod, etc) anymore, or one of many other reasons. It can be nice to reestablish contact with an old friend, but in this case, I wish the Achiga girls had let it go. For our sake, as viewers.
Where's my Saki season 2?