STAFF REVIEW of Nippon Marathon (Xbox One)

Saturday, January 12, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

Nippon Marathon Box art I absolutely loved watching MXC (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) on TV when it used to play. This show had contestants tackling a variety of events, though usually falling, slipping and getting hurt; think Wipeout or American Ninja Warrior for the newer generations. There’s always something funny about seeting people falling and failing, right? Don’t tell me I’m the only one.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A girl dressed as a Narwhal (NOT a unicorn), a man dressed as a lobster, an old man dressed as a school girl and a dog with a human body are all participating in a yearly marathon obstacle race... No? Me either, but that’s the general narative behind Nippon Marathon. If you find that weird, that’s just the beginning.

There’s always a handful of party games I’ll load up whenever I have company over, and to get into that rotation of titles, it takes something special to stand out amongst the crowded genre. Nippon Marathon certainly stands out, but there’s no way it’s going to get played when I have friends over, unless I want to show them something for a quick laugh.

I really don’t like to be negative in my reviews, and always look for what a game does well or unique, but there’s some games, like this, where that’s a struggle. Developers Onion Soup Interactive has released a party racing (on foot) game that absolutely is unique in its own right, but it’s extremely rough around the edges. You’ll be not only running down the streets of Japan, aiming for a first place finish and influence of fans, but you’ll be dodging flying fruit, dogs, vehicles, businessmen and a whole slew of other oddities that I can’t even begin to describe. San! Ni! Ichi! Hajime!!! It’s time to see what Nippon Marathon is all about.

Party games aren’t generally known for their narrative, as the general point is to have you and a few friends simply participating in whatever activities the game want to you. This is where Nippon Marathon is different, instead focusing on a very narrative heavy experience, which kills the multiplayer vibe if friends are over.

You begin by choosing one of four very oddly designed characters; Elizabeth Nishibori, a girl obsessed with saving marine life and dresses in a Narwhal (NOT a unicorn) onesie, Xen Bae, an old man that dresses in a school girl uniform, lobster suited J Darwin and finally, Snugaru, a dog with a man’s body. I can’t even make this up. Each have their own lengthy, and arguably unnecessary, plot, explaining their motives for wanting to participate in this year’s Nippon Marathon.

Handsome Hazuki is the longtime reining undefeated champion of the Nippon Marathon, someone that looks like Freddy Mercury’s half-brother, but as you progress through the ranks in each stage of the marathon, you’ll uncover secrets about it and its organizers plans. I won’t spoil it, but it’s nothing terribly exciting, and quite frankly, silly and completely over the top.

This is one of my biggest problems though, as the story is so thick and long winded, which normally isn’t a problem, but you’re unable to skip the lengthy cutscenes between races, forcing you to sit through each terribly written dialogue sequence. I eventually forced myself to finish the game with two of the characters, but simply couldn’t muster up the enjoyment to do it another time or two with the other characters. I get that it’s supposed to be light hearted and humorous, but it doesn’t come across that way for the most part at all, and would have enjoyed being able to skip these sections and focus on the races themselves.

Nippon Marathon is a footrace separated into different sections and rankings. As you win a leg, you move up the rankings and race against more challenging adversaries; in theory. I didn’t notice any difficulty increases along the way aside from having to deal with glitches and unfairness, which I’ll get to shortly. You’ll be racing the busy streets of Japan, the snowy mountain hilltops and even on top of a speeding bullet train. The general controls are simple to grasp, as you can jump, duck or dive, which you’ll need to do often.

The Nippon Marathon is all about craziness though, and you might be restarting a section of race, but be interrupted with an impromptu interview or a mini-game to partake in. Why? I have no idea, but just roll with it. The general hook about the gameplay is that it utilizes ragdoll physics, so when you get bit by a dog, run into a wall or trip, your body will flail around, you know, like a rag doll. It was funny in the first race or two, but then you start to see issues arise. You don’t instantly get back up sometimes, and I’ve even become stuck in a ‘falling’ loop until I was eliminated in that section of the race.

And this is where the scoring inconsistency comes into play as well. Obviously it’s a race and you want to finish in first place, but there’s some star gaining mechanics based on fan influence that’s never really explained. As you race, the screen scrolls, and if you lag behind in last, or fall into a pit, you’re knocked out until there’s only one racer left. Then the race restarts at the nearest checkpoint and repeats itself until you eventually reach the finish line. If you’re the sole survivor in these sections, you’ll earn a star. How this plays into your score, or if first place is more important, I still don’t know.

Much like Mario Kart, you’ll find blocks of items littered throughout the race, though only a handful of items are available. You can drop banana’s, toss a watermelon to the first place runner (even if it’s yourself), or if you’re really lucky, get a pineapple balloon that lifts you in the air, allowing you to effectively and easily skip a small section of race obstacles.

There will be random times where you’re about to start running again at a checkpoint, only to be interrupted with an interview request or a weird mini-game. Sometimes you’ll get a slot machine that will give everyone a random power-up, maybe you’ll be put into a rat-like maze, or the worst of them all, the interviews.

Here Wedy (yes, that’s how it’s spelt) will interview the contestants about some random topic, asking their thoughts and opinions. You’ll have to make a few selections of answers to create a sentence, but the problem is that you need to choose so quickly, that you’re basically unable to read the responses. Even worse, each response can only be used once across all racers, so either guess and be quick with a button press, or be left with whatever response is left over. Some responses will earn you more fan influence, others won’t. There’s no way to tell what fans will like or not, so I don’t see the point of this poorly designed mini-game and waste of time.

The biggest, and most consistent issue Nippon Marathon suffers from though, is its terrible camera. I could complain about the lack of instruction, or the poor performance when lots of things are happening on the screen at once, but the camera is its biggest offender. You’re partaking in a race, the camera will generally follow whomever is in first place, to eliminate those that lag behind. The problem though is that the camera can’t even always do this right.

Numerous times I would be in first, but the camera was unable to keep up, leaving me to either run ahead and guess what’s coming, resulting in an elimination, or slow down and let others catch up. Sometimes you’ll also run in a different direction completely after a turn, but it’s like the camera doesn’t know that until it’s too late. That being said, it seems that there’s been a recent patch on PC to fix some of my issues and complaints, but as of the time of this writing, us console players have yet to see these improvements, and must be judged so.

While you’re able to play just fine in single player, you can have drop in/out 4 players should you wish. Again, being that the story mode is way too narrative heavy for players to enjoy at length, this is where the separate mini-games come in. Would you find diving into a shopping cart and rolling down a bowling alley into some massive pins fun? Then this is for you. These extras are appreciated that they are there, but I honestly don’t see much longevity within, even if you get the hang of the awkward controls.

Now we move onto its visuals. I get that a small indie studio isn’t going to have the budget to create anything modern looking, but man, Nippon Marathon isn’t very pretty to look at in any way. Most characters and objects have very poor models, being very basic in style, but the animations are at times downright atrocious. I don’t know if this visual style was intended, but it looks like it come straight out of a PS1 era game at best. The audio isn’t much better either, as the few tracks that are present are repeated over and over. Worse yet, certain dialogue sections are accompanied with upbeat or serious tones, but changes instantly between when dialogue boxes change from character to character. It’s jarring and odd to say the least.

I’m all for wacky and silly over-the-top Japanese games and culture, and Nippon Marathon does have a few decent qualities about it, it’s just that the negatives vastly outweigh the few positives. What I will say though is that my six year old daughter had an absolute blast watching the craziness happen during races, laughing along the way, but couldn’t understand why she lost sometimes, and I wasn’t able to explain it either. I honestly would have scored this much lower if my daughter didn’t have a fun time playing it, and maybe that’s the intended audience, but then the forced weighty story makes no sense.

If this had online multiplayer, it would be a little more entertaining and exciting, but I can’t picture a time where I would load this up over the other party games I have whenever I have company over. Nippon Marathon is zany, wacky and simply odd, but it feels like a marathon trying to finish it at times. Unless you’re dying to race as a lobster-man, hold off until a really deep discounted sale before entering this marathon.

Overall: 3.5 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 2.5 / 10
Sound: 2.0 / 10


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