The Dreamcast was SEGA’s final foray into the console hardware race after being on top for almost three decades prior, yet today the company remains just as successful as one of the leading Japanese developers and publishers for all gaming platforms. Following the end of Dreamcast and SEGA’s subsequent departure from the console wars, it was Microsoft and Xbox that would carry the mantle as a serious contender to Sony and Nintendo. In many ways the Xbox brand did carry the torch for SEGA, as this was especially the case with the original Xbox which became a haven for cancelled Dreamcast projects.
In 2019 a game rising from the ashes of SEGA’s past has landed on Xbox One in what is perhaps the most experimental exclusive the system has ever scored. This game is the kind of adventurous Japanese-style video game one would never dream of seeing on Xbox in this day and age. This game is Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill, the debut release by freshly minted developer, overGame Studio. The publisher is based in France but the project itself was born in the heart of Japanese gaming two decades ago.
Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill began life as a Dreamcast title in 1998 by the late Yoshihiro Takahashi and was cancelled due to SEGA discontinuing the console itself. 21 years later his son Yosuke Takahashi, along with overGame Studio, have finally completed the project and released it exclusively for Xbox One via ID@Xbox. Given the way Xbox One is incorporated into the game design and narrative, this exclusivity is a pretty safe assumption to make. Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill is unlike anything Xbox One, or any console for that matter, has ever seen before and is coined by its developers with its own genre term: Punk Narrative Shoot-Them Up. Gaming has not seen experimental genre terms being coined since the Dreamcast days.
At its core Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill is a twin stick shooter where the character is controlled with the left analogue stick, and the right stick is used for shooting by pointing it in the direction you want to shoot. The right trigger is used to zoom-in on the field of play and slow things down whereas the left trigger is used to zoom-out and speed things up. Finally, the right bumper switches between the Kiss and Kill shots (more on that later). Mechanically this is a sound game, the controls work as they should and the weight/momentum of the character you control feels just right. In terms of core gameplay this is as traditional a shmup as they come, but it is the context in which these tried and tested mechanics are situated within the experimental game design that really helps the gameplay stand apart from anything else.
Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill has its most important gameplay mechanic in its title, where players have to choose between the Kiss or Kill shot (switching using the right bumper) which not only influences combat and progression, but also drastically influences the presentation and narrative. Ultimately your decision on which shot to rely on will determine your level of karma (negative/positive) with the consequences and outcome, both in gameplay and narrative, dependent upon your current karma standing. Not to mention, it also plays a role in your overall score. Even in the midst of its experimental design and intriguing mechanics, this is an arcade style video game where the ultimate goal is about chasing a high score just as much as it is about building up good karma. The scoring system and multipliers are a little vague, but basically doing good leads to a better score.
The Kiss shot has a much shorter range but it helps to build up positive karma, and by showering your opponents with love, the outcome is also just as joyous for the player. Furthermore, if you build up a decent Kiss combo you’re treated to images of scantily clad anime women (tastefully done, if you will). The Kill shot has a much longer range and can vanquish foes easily once you build up a decent chain combo of kills. The consequences of this are felt not just in the disturbing imagery you’re presented with, but also in the manner in which the level design evolves to punish the player. Ultimately these are mechanically distinct shots with a profound impact on the level design and presentation, and at a more metaphysical level it’s about choosing between war and peace.
Achieving peace with the Kiss shot takes a little more work due to the shorter range and slower fire rate, but the rewards are worthwhile to forego the short-term convenience of a more aggressive fire rate and longer range that comes with the Kill shot. It’s an absolutely genius and intuitive trade-off, which functions well both as a gameplay mechanic and as a moral dilemma. In fact, Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill would serve as an insightful and compelling case study in the ongoing academic research on what is known as The Gamer’s Dilemma.
The level design is as experimental as the gameplay mechanics, as the core twin stick shooting is situated in very diverse levels and situations. One moment you’re in a 2-bit maze akin to Atari 2600 games, the next you’re in a 16-bit Dragon Quest style RPG, and you’re even placed in a Space Invaders inspired shooter complete with vibrant vector graphics. If that wasn’t diverse enough, you also find yourself inside a Game Boy shmup, monochrome graphics and all. It’s a fascinating trip into the heart and soul of retro gaming for sure, with each level experimenting with different objectives whether its navigating mazes filled with obstacles, scrolling through vertical shmup levels, or even exploring a RPG style town, the level design constantly throws unexpected curve balls.
Unlike the retro games Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill is inspired by, there is no real system of limited lives in the progression system, as it’s really just a race against the clock to complete as many levels as possible to rack up a high score. Performing well with combo attacks add to the timer, but even when the timer runs out the game will still save your progress at the last level you were on. This helps make the game approachable to players of all skill types, whether they’re interested in chasing a high score or simply want to take a crazy trip into a highly experimental video game.
Boss battles are an integral part of the game, although there aren’t too many of them and they don’t really standout or differ too much in their attack patterns; their visual design is rife with striking symbolism that would count as a spoiler if mentioned. These bosses are homages to the video game industry and its history for the most part, but there is one unexpected boss battle that will most certainly shock and confront. That’s the most striking thing about Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill – more than its experimental gameplay and design – it is the intense and symbolic imagery that will both delight and horrify a player.
The graphics may be simple sprites, but they are put to great use in the visual presentation and can be surprisingly disturbing if the player chooses to rely on the Kill shot on their adventure. FMV cutscenes are used extensively throughout the game to drive the narrative and also interrupt the gameplay in clever ways. These FMV videos are shot in old VHS style and generally are quite creepy and surrealist, for the most part featuring the mysterious masked developer who reacts to your play style. There are other very strange FMV sequences too, and most of them break the fourth wall in unnerving ways (think the final sequence of Metal Gear Solid 2 but twice as bizarre). These videos are rife with symbolism and subliminal messages which can create a rabbit hole of interpretation and speculation, practically a fuel for urban myths and horror stories. Fair advice: don’t play this game extensively right before bed.
Those of us who grew up in the pre-HD era have a strange nostalgia for cathode-tube powered CRT televisions which still remains the best way to experience video games from yesteryear. The nostalgia for this is so strong that most retro game compilations come with a range of filters such as scanlines, borders, and flickers to somehow capture an authentic CRT look. Truth be told, most, if not all, of these filters have not even come close to recreating an authentic CRT output, but Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill pulls of an incredible feat by genuinely transforming your 4K Ultra HD television into a CRT from an era gone by. I can honestly say that I truly believed my modern television went back in time with me, because the output is as authentic as it can possibly be, complete with believable scanlines, flicker, and static which was commonplace during the CRT days.
Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill is a game which can be completed in one sitting, but this is something worth playing over and over to chase the high score, to discover its hidden secrets, and to dive deeper into its hidden meaning and symbolism. A survival mode can be unlocked once the main story is completed, but even the main game has replay value as you get to experiment with different karma levels. It certainly helps that the core gameplay is so fun and instinctively engaging that you can’t help but want to jump in for short bursts of viscerally stimulating gameplay.
The other thing which helps so much with the player immersion is the music. Granted, the soundtrack has less than a handful of tracks but the style is consistent and strong. The music is hard-hitting and energetic Asian techno music very similar to a style of artists like she. The music fits the mood of the game perfectly, and what’s cool is that it changes depending on whether you are equipped with a Kiss or Kill shot.
Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill is a forgotten Dreamcast game finally brought to life on Xbox One, and the journey it has gone through to reach players is poetic and beautiful. Gaijin Charenji 1: Kiss or Kill is perhaps the most absurdly metaphysical experience in gaming, but even when it dives so deep into abstract art and symbolism, it never forgets to be an addictive video game first and foremost. This is a unique video game experience which invigorates the gamer at their most base instinct, and yet it also creeps into their consciousnesses just as profoundly.