A lobster man, a narwhal girl, a humanoid dog and an old geezer who thinks he’s a school girl race into a marathon… Quite the setup, right? The developers over at Onion Soup Interactive certainly thought so when they came up with Nippon Marathon – a thoroughly insane take on Japanese gameshows. Like any of the numerous challenge-based Japanese game shows that inspired it, the objective here is simple – race ahead of your opponents, avoid obstacles and win the affection of the viewing public in doing so, be it alone in the surprisingly lengthy single-player mode or with friends in multiplayer.
Four players line up and begin a mad dash through a variety of Japanese locales, ranging from villages filled with traditional Japanese architecture, to bustling cities and onward to the likes of disco clubs and department stores. There’s humour in the level designs themselves, with obstacles often being silly cultural references like sweeping Buddhist monks and shiba inu dogs or just as often they’re absurd classics such as the old “two guys crossing the road while holding a plate of glass.” It’s not quite Katamari Damacy levels of encapsulated Japanese oddity, but the intent is there and enough of the jokes land to make you take a second glance and chuckle at some of the scenarios the level designer came up with.
Punctuating all of this is a commentator who leans very heavily into their Japanese accent, although it’s hard to tell if it’s a native speaker reveling in his own slightly messy pronunciation of English words or if it’s a somewhat more cynical take on the accent being made by a Western actor. One thing’s for sure though – you’ll be sick of the guy after hearing him warn you that a particular section of the course is tricky for the fiftieth time.
Occasionally interrupting the races are a handful of silly mini-games that amuse at first but wear thin quite quickly. Sometimes a slot machine gives chances to get fresh power-ups, other times a jetpack clad roving reporter named Wedy arrives on the scene to make everyone play a version of the parlour game Consequences. There’s some initial amusement to be had at how utterly weird the moments are when these interruptions come, but once you’ve experienced the surprise there’s not much more fun to be had.
Similarly, the incredible number of cut scenes in single-player mode at first amused me with how much effort had been put into creating a backstory for each character, but it wasn’t long before their one-note “isn’t this all so weird?” tone wore thin. It really doesn’t help that there are so many of these scenes, often one after the other, each provoking a 30 second or more loading screen between them, even when choosing to skip past them.
As you race and jump through the game’s courses, you’ll be battling each other and the rather inexplicable and hard to predict collision detection and camera. When it comes to the battles the developers intended you to fight, it’s a case of picking up a fruit-based power up and using it to either attack your opponent or give yourself a boost, with melons homing in on first place blue shell-style and pineapples acting as speed boosting balloons. It’s typical stuff as far as in-game weapons go.
As for the battles with collision and the camera, these were not intended. There are a lot of places in the levels of Nippon Marathon where you’ll find that either the camera wanders away from the action in an unhelpful way or where unseen obstacles can send you flying. Too often, these moments distract from what’s supposed to be happening and hammer home a serious lack of polish on the part of the developers.
Nippon Marathon’s graphics are functional at a glance, but a highly variable frame rate and scarily low detail models and textures let the game down. Characters just about hit the standards expected of a PS2 era game in terms of model and texture detail, but the NPCs are truly ugly echoes of 3D graphics’ past. Compounding this issue, even with the incredibly low detail character models and scenery on offer, the game struggles to maintain a steady thirty frames per second and feels very rough at times as a result.
Frames are dropped more and more as the pack of players separates and the camera zooms out, as the game struggles to animate the crowds of disco dancers, dogs and construction workers scattered around its levels. It gets to the point where the game completely freezes for moments at a time, sometimes with no visible cause on-screen, and that’s really unacceptable considering the low-quality visuals on offer here.
All this said, there is brief fun to be had for a particularly forgiving audience and there’s certainly a fun concept lurking behind the lack of optimization and confused collision detection. The music and gameplay are appealing enough to redeem the game somewhat as short-lived game night fuel at least. Playing alone, Nippon Marathon is a one-note joke, stretched too thin and without enough artifice to challenge or grip a player, but as a party game it works just about well enough to amuse those who can look past its various rough edges, have money enough to spare for frivolous purchases and enjoy a silly, wonky mess from time to time.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Onion Soup Interactive