Warning! If you are humorless person, Nippon Marathon is not for you. On that note, if you see bad reviews of it, they’re written by those grievous and lonely individuals who think they’re too important to have some fun. I do pity them fools. Also, if polished Western triple-A titles are your only thing, steer clear of the game as well. Nippon Marathon is all about fun, fun and some more fun, and not about violence, gloom and misery. Okay, now that all the sad and boring people are gone, let’s continue!
As the title suggests, Nippon Marathon is a foot race through Japan in a style of Japanese game shows, with crazy obstacles, harassing by-passers, animals running amok, and all kinds of incomprehensible things happening all around. Japanese people are often considered moderate and temperate but the amount of humiliation they’re ready to endure in their lunatic game shows is something else. It may come as a surprise that Nippon Marathon isn’t actually developed by Japanese, but definitely by Japanophiles. Maybe it takes an outsider to see to the core of Japanese madness and mimic it perfectly. Then again, Nippon Marathon could very well be even crazier if it was made in Japan…
The game consists of eight races across Japan, each divided into checkpoints and presented from an isometric viewpoint with the screen scrolling mostly to the right. The gameplay is so simple your dog could probably play the game (cats wouldn’t even bother as they rather watch their subordinates humiliate themselves). There are buttons for jumping, diving (some gaps need a jumping dive to overcome!) and ducking, while the bumpers manage using or consuming pick-ups. The competition runs through river banks, temple grounds, shopping malls, suburban streets, breweries, hot springs, train stations and busy city centers, all familiar sights from illustrated travel guides, but not as safe and sound. Hurrying business people, steamy monkeys, boiling sake tanks, swarming shiba dogs, erratic traffic and collapsing sidewalks, to name a few, spell trouble for the runners.
Fruit pick-ups are scattered around stages, and you can grab one for each hand. They’re either eaten for a small burst of extra speed, or used to harm other competitors. Recipe for success is focusing on your own performance, though, because more often than not you’re bound slip to the fruit pulp of that melon you threw to try to knock out the leader. Once in a while, the race gets interrupted by a maze conducted by a queer doctor De Jong, or by a questionnaire by local reporter Wedy Jones. Each race sees players competing for stars and popularity. Winning a checkpoint and thus gaining a star doesn’t necessarily require crossing the finishing line but simply being the last one running. So much happens throughout that a checkpoint can end in a matter of seconds. If you drop out of the screen, you lose a star. Some actions, like pushing business people and getting sniffed by dogs, earn favor while some, such as holding onto out-of-fashion mushrooms for too long or jumping over ticket gates, are seen offensive.
It’s a bit puzzling what really amounts for popularity but collecting and reading lost pages of Wedy Jones’s travel guide can shed some light on amusing details of what’s cool and what’s not in the wacky world of Nippon Marathon. At the end of each race, the number of stars, finishing position in the last checkpoint, and the popularity gained along the way are calculated together to rank the four contestants. Winning a race also earns yens to spend on in-game store to purchase new characters and options, such as disabling interruptions in the versus mode.
Nippon Marathon is first and foremost a party game for up to four local players. The game doesn’t support online play so you need a real friend or two (or relatives, neighbors, or whoever!) to fill up the couch. You can compete in a single race, half-marathon (the first four or the last four races) or a full marathon for a whole evening of joy with friends. Super-fun English live commentary spoken in Japanese accent keeps up the spirits and never gets old even if you’re bound to eventually hear all the lines. Likewise, the catchy music accompanying each race stands repeated plays. Two mini games, L.O.B.S.T.E.R and Go-Go-Trolley, where you old-fashionably pass the controller to other players, add to the social palate. The first is a constantly changing obstacle course, a bit like popular Ninja Warrior TV show, while the latter sees you jumping onto a shopping trolley, rolling down the slope and trying to hit the pins. Otherwise, normal bowling scoring applies!
The story mode for a single player has a whole marathon to race through to eventually dethrone Handsome Hazuki, the winner of Nippon Marathon for ten-years running. So, something fishy must be going on, and oh boy, that’s an understatement if anything! There’s a plentiful and hilarious narrative in each campaign for the four default characters. Narwhal-loving Elizabeth Nishibori (dressed in a onesie for the occasion), a pensioner Zenbei “Xen Bae” who thinks he’s a teenage girl, J Darwin who fancies himself as a human lobster and Snuguru Maestro, a man in dog suit or perhaps a man-dog keen on opening a dating service, have all different reasons to compete in and win the marathon. The stories are so over-the-top that if they don’t make you crap your pants laughing, you should consider consulting a doctor to have laugh glands implanted. At the end of the day, though, the story is all about friendship and how it can conquer even overwhelming odds.
Nippon Marathon could pass for a Sega Dreamcast game for two reasons. First, Dreamcast was the last major console to have such an anarchistic library of completely uncommercial games. Second, the game looks like a genuine Dreamcast title, but not even a very good one. However, the intentionally crappy looks are part of the joke. It really is supposed to be rough around the edges and badly defined. If the game looked any better, it would miss its punchline by a mile (it should be noted that the game is in no way enhanced for either PS4 Pro or Xbox One X!). Despite shabby (but colorful) presentation, the gameplay is actually quite snappy. Characters move as you want them to, and the all-important ragdoll physics work pretty nicely, even if they seem exaggerated at first. The more you play, though, the more you appreciate how the characters somersault briskly back into action from seemingly improbable positions and drops. Especially in the L.O.B.S.T.E.R mode, where the camera is closer to the action, fun physics engine shows its best side.
In all the lively fun the game is, I feel like a party pooper when I have to bring up a few technical issues. Dips in a frame rate can lead to most inappropriate situations when you suddenly bump into an obstacle that was drawn during the hiccup. Also, when playing a single player game, you can build up such a massive lead that you’re running at the very edge of the screen and simply can’t see and avoid incoming hazards. Memorizing courses doesn’t necessarily help as there are so many random things happening all around.
If Nippon Marathon was reviewed from a serious point of view, there wouldn’t much stars below. Objectively speaking, it’s repetitive in the long run (pun intended!), damn ugly (in a charming way, of course) and trivial, but at the same I wouldn’t have it in any other way. It’s so much fun that normal gaming conventions simply don’t apply here. Seriously, ask yourself, when you have had genuine fun with a game? A kind of fun that makes you constantly burst in laughter with tears running down your cheeks, freeing you from the mundane drudgery of everyday life? See, not that often! However, don’t bother with Nippon Marathon if you don’t a have company to play the game with or if saying “keep it real, keep it Nippon” makes you irritated. Everyone else, though, forget cheap production values and throw yourself broad-mindedly into the craziness of Nippon Marathon!
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.