UK-based Onion Soup Interactive’s Nippon Marathon has a bit. That bit is somewhere in-between “Japan is wacky” and “bad, on purpose, is actually good.” After spending time with it over a weekend, I’m still not sure if I don’t “get” it, I’m not buying what it’s selling, or if I fell into a time portal to a distant, meme-y past. Wherever the truth lies in terms of this game’s goals or authorial intent, at the end of the day I can’t say I enjoyed my time bumbling around a bunch of almost sardonic-feeling Japan humor and gameplay that seems to have been inspired by QWOP.
The Most Awkward Love Letter
It’s really hard to read Nippon Marathon. On one hand, it’s definitely inspired by the likes of visual novels and strange Japanese video games that thrive on unconventional gameplay, bright colors, and non-sequitur humor. On the other hand, it also seems to subscribe to the Most Extreme Elimination Challenge style of “point and laugh at the weird foreigners without a shred of self-awareness” schlock. It feels earnest, showing at times the developers are probably legitimately into things like Japanese culture, obscure video games, so on and so forth. But it also leans hard on lazy “lol Japan” humor such as making fun of accent-fueled pronunciation of English words and featuring a character who looks like an old man but dresses and speaks like a young girl. I spent more time rolling my eyes or playing “what’s actually supposed to be the joke here” than laughing at any gags that were legitimately funny.
Anyway, the conceit of Nippon Marathon is that it’s a mix between a visual novel-style experience featuring four different character stories, and a marathon-style footrace game that relies on goofy physics, sight gags, and again its whole Takeshi’s Castle thing to make what otherwise is not fun compelling. That lack of fun is 100% deliberate, as evidenced by how it wants to lean on being a local multiplayer experience, and also how hard it is to lose a race against the computer. There are interesting fail-safes implemented to make sure the “bad on purpose” style doesn’t hamper things like pace, but ultimately you’re playing a sluggish, busted (again, on purpose) runner game that is constantly throwing memes in your face and then studying it for a reaction.
In doing research on this game to try and decipher its madness (I failed), I found out that at one point Nippon Marathon was on display at a Nico Nico event in Japan, and categorized there as a “bakage,” or “stupid game.” This of course is a term of endearment, a sign that the subject matter is dripping with irony. That’s pretty much what we’re dealing with here, something that’s goofy and “bad on purpose,” and depending on your patience threshold for that kind of thing, you’ll either love this or hate it.
The gameplay itself is relatively simple. You have direct control over your character in a 4-person footrace, and you can jump, duck and either use or eat items you find in Mario Kart-like item boxes. The items themselves have strange properties that don’t generally impact the race much, but chowing down on them grants a huge speed boost that may as well be the “win” button against the AI. Beyond that, the levels are full of wacky obstacles such as Shiba Inu dogs and fruit carts, along with precarious bridges, carts, manholes, so on and so forth.
Much of the races consist of attempting to dodge obstacles with the floaty jumping physics, but eventually either landing immediately on the next one or getting caught on or tripped up by something. Mashing the jump button gets you back in the race, unless you’re so far behind you get bumped out. Mercifully, lagging behind will lead to an elimination, while getting far enough ahead immediately ends the race and moves it to the next round. In effect, this keeps the pace moving briskly from silly moment to silly moment, without bogging the player down in the actual win/lose struggle of a race. Without that key detail, the score below would probably be caught in a whirlpool of endless suffering and decaying memes.
The biggest problem here is, well, the humor. That’s the pillar holding everything up here, and unless you’re in on the joke one hundred percent, there isn’t anything else to make the experience worthwhile. It’s committed to the bit for better or worse, and from my perspective, it’s generally the latter. Having sloppy mechanics on purpose is good for a laugh or two, and maybe a YouTube video, but having people with on the couch, just as confused as you are, doesn’t help when you could play something like Gang Beasts, which has a similar concept but is a little more built to sustain multiple play sessions. Here, you get the joke or you don’t pretty much right away, and playing multiple races doesn’t really affect that or add to it over time.
If you’re the kind of person who, in the current year of your video game lord 2018 still likes to chuckle at “Engrish” memes and has at least one Sharknado flick in your collection on purpose, boy do I have the game for you. Nippon Marathon is all about the bit, building the gameplay experience, seemingly, all around a tongue in cheek version of Japanese culture. There is a wacky, multiplayer racing game in there, but it feels more like a side effect of a notepad full of gags than a gaming experience that can entertain a group of friends long enough to make them briefly forget about Super Smash Bros., nor does the single-player experience do much after you understand what’s happening in front of you. Perhaps the subjectivity of humor is the pass/fail condition for Nippon Marathon, but in a space full of wacky, physics-based multiplayer games, this one feels like it’s too confused about what it is and who it’s for to stand out.
Nippon Marathon review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Console Title. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.