Game Review #084: Nippon Marathon (Nintendo Switch)
Reviewer: John B.
Developed By: Onion Soup Interactive Published By: PQube Category: Action, Multiplayer, Party, Racing Release Date: 12.17.18
Buy Nippon Marathon from the Nintendo eShop here.
About two seconds into the first character’s storyline, I furrowed my brow and muttered “What the hell…?” as I tried to figure out exactly what was happening on my TV screen. Ten seconds later I did it again. And pretty much every few seconds after that. That’s a pretty good characterization of my time spent with Nippon Marathon for the Nintendo Switch; not knowing what was happening. Sometimes it was glorious, other times it was frustrating. I get the love this game has gotten since its release, but it comes with some headaches that I just can’t ignore enough to enjoy it fully.
The Nippon Marathon! It’s Japan’s most beloved zany obstacle course – and they have plenty to choose from. You select one of four characters – a lobster guy, an old man schoolgirl, a narwhal enthusiast, and a dating agency magnate-in-the-making – and proceed through the regional qualifiers all the way through to the national championships. Along the way, you’ll face off against faceless nobodies, crazy reporters, and ten-time champion Handsome Hazuki. Along the way you’ll uncover the sinister(?) secrets(?) of the Nippon Marathon and its organizers.
The ridiculous storylines for each of the characters are where the game truly shines. The visual novel-style cutscenes between races are bizarre, interesting, and almost always hilarious. Like the best off-the-wall anime series or Japanese game shows, you’ll never really know what’s real and what’s whimsy, but you’ll be too busy laughing to care.
Nippon Gameplay Mechanics
Hoo boy. I don’t even know where to start with this. Nippon Marathon doesn’t really do much to prepare you to play it. There’s a tutorial option on the main menu, and a coach talks you through some stuff before showing you the controller layout. I guess not having an official tutorial in the story mode fits with the intentionally confusing atmosphere of the game, but it does not make for clear objectives or strategies. I had to run the first race fifteen times before I figured out anything useful about the gameplay, and by then I was so tired of the game I just quit playing for a while. When I eventually came back – because I had to finish the review – I enjoyed what was left quite a bit. But I can imagine a lot of players getting put off by the initial impenetrability of the game’s mechanics.
But it works like this; you start out with four stars and you run forward and try to dodge things. You can also pick up fruit or other items and either eat or throw it at your enemies. You run, jump over, duck under, or dive off different obstacles. If you get hit too much or fall too far, you just sort of slump over and die for one segment of the race. There’s no health bar, just a little white cloud icon over your head when you’re about to go down – most of the time. Sometimes it feels like there’s no warning at all; you’re just on the ground and out of the race. When you fall, you lose stars depending on certain conditions. If you’re the first to fall, you lose two stars. If you’re second, you lose one star. If you’re third, you don’t lose any stars, but if you’re the last man standing, you gain a star. At the end of the race, your popularity is tabulated. You get bonuses for each star you possess, stickers received based on item usage, and what place you finished overall. You receive penalties for things like pushing spectators or eating mushrooms. No one likes mushrooms, I guess.
The gameplay itself is… not smooth. Turning is often janky, you never know when you’re too close to a ledge or wall until you’ve fallen off or run into it, and collision detection with obstacles like barrels seems spotty. I swear, I’ve been out in the lead, jumped over a hurdle, not touched the damn thing, and fallen down and been knocked out of the race more times than I can count. WHAT IN THE HELL DID I DO WRONG? And that’s the biggest source of frustration in this game; most of the time, I can’t figure out why I lost. I feel like I only ever finish a race based on pure luck. It’s hard to get better at the game when the mechanics are so inscrutable. One time, I was in the lead, won a round, and while I was waiting for the race to restart, some Shiba Inu attacked the racers and knocked me into the river before the start again. I was knocked out of the race and lost two stars before it even restarted! It is objectively hilarious to see that happen to someone else, but it was just super-frustrating to watch it happen to myself.
The good news is, with the right group of people, it can be really fun to play a game this randomly punishing. It takes a lot of the contention out of the competition, so you can just relax and laugh your butt off with your friends. When things happen that are out of your control, it just gives you one more thing to chuckle about. The upbeat music and cheers of the crowds add to the raucous atmosphere, making for a great party experience… assuming you aren’t too fed up with the single player mode to want to ever play again.
You can play your friends in a regular race, the same way you race in the single player story mode, or you can choose one of two party games. L.O.B.S.T.E.R. is an endurance race where you compete to see who can go the farthest before falling off the track or running out of time. Jumping through target hoops extends your time, and there are no items to use. Go-Go Trolley is a bizarre form of human bowling. You aim a shopping cart at the pins, then run up and jump in to get it going. There are obstacles on the alley like giant fish just lying there for added challenge. The scoring works just like in regular bowling.
Nippon Marathon’s graphics are… um… not great. That’s on purpose, though; the low-budget feel of the visuals are one of the game’s charms. Watching the crudely detailed and animated character models interact with each other during cutcenes is its own kind of in-joke; kind of like the all-construction paper animation of early episodes of South Park. The music is jazzy, charming, and upbeat; in particular whenever the theme song came on I found my spirits lifting a little bit.
I like everything about this game except playing it solo. The cutscenes are bizarre and hilarious, the graphics are crudely endearing, and the music is fun and funky. The multiplayer sections – whether the straight-up races or the party games – are fun to play with a good group of friends because nobody needs to understand the game to play it – so many things are completely arbitrary. While that makes for a good time at a gathering, it’s just exhausting on your own. The four stories are entertaining all the way through, but getting there is such a crapshoot that it just doesn’t seem worth it after a while. I really, really wanted to love this game from the second I saw the trailer; I wish it had delivered something more engaging.
Final Score: 6.5/10
Buy Nippon Marathon from the Nintendo eShop here.
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*Review Code Provided By PQube