It’s wacky! It’s fun! It’s crazy! It’s outrageous!
Not just the lyrics to a rite-of-passage 1990’s kids TV show, it’s also exactly how I would describe Nippon Marathon on Xbox One, and that’s just the intro and title screen.
Nippon Marathon is a local-multiplayer game inspired by physical game shows such as It’s a Knockout and Total Wipeout, with a double dose of Takeshi’s Castle thrown in for good measure. Players participate in the titular Nippon Marathon: A cross-country race through Japan that takes in all the sights and sounds of Japan including sake factories, Shibuya crossing and bullet trains, then throws all manner of obstacles in with them for players to run through, on, around or under. There are eight races in total, and no two are even remotely similar.
But with this crazy concept you need a colourful cast of characters. And Nippon Marathon doesn’t disappoint. Your starting cast includes a man dressed as a lobster who has worked on a lobster farm his entire life, an anthropomorphic dog that declares his love for ‘Joe’ by wearing a scarf adorned with his name, a woman dressed as a narwhal – NOT a unicorn as she has to remind people daily – and an old man dressed as a schoolgirl suffering from split-personality. Additional characters can be bought in-game using your winnings from each race, but in essence all characters have the same stats and abilities. Namely no stats and abilities.
These starting characters can be taken one-by-one through a story mode, charting their success through the Nippon Marathon. It presents itself as a sort of visual novel, interspersed with the races. I say interspersed because the story moments in between the races seem to go on longer than necessary. It’s an irreverent plot with more than a splash of humour but the time between races in the single player mode can be too long at times. That said, the longer I stuck with the story the more invested I became and I was pleasantly surprised and satisfied with the conclusion.
For such a local multiplayer focussed title, it’s good the team at Onion Soup Interactive even bothered to include a single-player mode.
The races themselves continue this trend of irreverence and hilarity. They can be likened to old-school Micro Machines with the way the scoring is handled: The screen can only accommodate players for so long, so if you fall too far behind the leaders then you are out for that round, and your total number of stars drops. Be the last person standing and your total stars increases.
It will be instantly familiar to fans of Micro Machines, but then it throws a massive curveball by adding physics-based elements to the racers and obstacles.
This is where Nippon Marathon on Xbox One will become divisive amongst the players. For example, the best comparison to the physics is Goat Simulator; they are purposefully janky and not 100% reliable, but that’s where the fun lies for many people. If the thought of a competitive game using unreliable physics is enough to leave you retching, then Nippon Marathon is not the game for you.
Sometimes, around the time you think you are finally starting to understand what the hell is happening within the race, the game pauses for a brief interlude. You could be whisked away to a weird laboratory facility and made to run around a maze, or Nippon Marathon’s own investigative journalist Wedy Jones could travel down on her jetpack to ask the racers a mid-race question. Nothing really makes any sense in Nippon Marathon, but that’s the beauty of it.
It is also worth mentioning the soundtrack as it is as abstract as the game is, but at the same time will have you humming along long after you have turned the game off.
Away from the races there are a couple of minigames to try your hand at. The first up is bowling but rather than use a traditional bowling ball you instead jump into a shopping trolley and careen down a slope where ten oversized bowling pins are waiting for you. If the resulting concussion gets too much then there is always L.O.B.S.T.E.R.. Taking inspiration from the basketball game H.O.R.S.E., players take it in turns with player one setting the distance, and subsequent players then attempting to beat it. Fail to beat the distance and you are awarded a letter until the loser spells out the word LOBSTER – or another chosen fish-based word. Both of these can accommodate up to eight players in total using one controller.
Hidden away in the different race tracks are also collectibles, so whilst Nippon Marathon could have maybe done with a couple more tracks, there is plenty to see and do within them.
There are 12 achievements in the game: one for every character’s story mode, a couple for the minigames, and then several related to the collectibles and specific character selection. This isn’t a difficult completion overall and so if Gamerscore hunting is your bag, this is a game you should be considering.
Nippon Marathon can certainly be described as a marmite game; you will either love it or hate it. Find a group of friends that all love it and you can easily laugh away an entire evening attempting to out run each other. But it isn’t for everyone, and it is easy to understand why. What to some will look like shoddy game design is actually a very purposeful and conscientious element of the design, but that won’t necessarily sit right with those that like nothing left to chance. Throw in a surprisingly good single player component with an open-minded reviewer, and Nippon Marathon is a very good game.