What is the worst game of all time? Opinions vary. Some have pointed a trembling finger at 1999’s Superman for the Nintendo 64, which appeared to be unfinished. Others will tell you it’s the Atari 2600 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial tie-in, a game so appalling that unsold copies of it had to be buried in the desert and never spoken of again.
Still others might mention the pig-ignorant ‘adult’ title Custer’s Revenge for the same console, or perhaps the abysmal multi-format 90s brawler Rise Of The Robots, or maybe even the dreadful fighting/sport cash-in Shaq Fu.
For most, the Nintendo Famicom’s Takeshi no Chousenjou (or Takeshi’s Challenge) is a game so terrible, so utterly lacking in merit, that it’s passed into videogaming folklore. Now more than a quarter of a century old, it still tops Japanese kuso-ge (literally, shitty game) lists, and still discussed with a certain amount of bewilderment by gamers of a certain age. But is it really as bad as its detractors claim? Who made it, and why? Join us, as we journey into the past to find out.
Inspiration from a bottle
For most westerners, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano is best known as an actor, whose finest work includes the classics Violent Cop, Boiling Point or Battle Royale. At a push, you might be aware that he’s one of the presenters of Takeshi’s Castle, a bizarre physical challenge game show which may have unwittingly inspired the BBC’s Total Wipeout. In Japan, Kitano’s a superstar, and known as a comedian, singer, poet and painter as well as a writer and actor in movies.
In 1986, Kitano turned his hand to game design, with infamous results. Programming duties for Takeshi’s Challenge were handled by the highly respected Taito, the minds behind the seminal Space Invaders – ironically, the studio would release the timeless Arkanoid and Bubble Bobble in the same year as it put out Takeshi’s Challenge, a game that would prove equally timeless for its own reasons.
Legend has it that Taito’s designers met with Kitano in a bar to discuss his ideas for the game. As they eagerly took down his ideas in a notepad, Kitano proceeded to ply himself with rice wine, which might explain some of the more bizarre moments players would later encounter.
The result of that tipsy creative session was a truly strange mix of adventure game and side-scrolling platformer. Its box art contained ominous warnings about the game’s decidedly unusual content, which was still insufficient, I suspect, to prepare players for what lay within.
Won’t you sing karaoke?
Set in a peculiarly distorted version of 80s Japan, Takeshi’s Challenge put the player in the shoes of an ordinary workaday salaryman. Although the game’s specific objective isn’t obvious, it appears that the goal is to break as many social mores as possible in order to obtain true happiness – visit the right places and do all the right things, and players will find themselves in a cave full of treasure on a distant island.
The path to that island is meandering and rather strange. To get there, the salaryman has to quit his job, divorce his wife (an act that results in players losing three-quarters of the money in their supply), get drunk, beat up a few members of the Yakuza, sing karaoke, learn hang gliding, journey to the South Pacific, visit a hermit, and shoot some UFOs.
These strange activities are joined by some downright odd game design, which occasionally borders on the sadistic. In the karaoke sections, for example, the player has to sing into the console’s built-in microphone on the second joypad. In order to get to the next section of the game, the player’s performance has to be judged as ‘good’ – a tricky challenge made absolutely infuriating due to the fact that the process has to be repeated three times. If the game decides your singing was ‘lousy’, you’re forced to start again.
Complete this task, and an old man will hand the player a blank piece of paper. It is, in fact, a treasure map, but this will only appear if the player sits without touching the controller for an entire hour. Touching a button before the hour is up throws the player back into the karaoke competition mentioned above. There’s an alternative, quicker way of exposing the map, but this involves waiting between five and ten minutes before screaming into the mic – any more or less, and it’s back to the singing.
Takeshi’s Challenge, it seems, is an elaborate practical joke on Kitano’s part – a way of thumbing his nose at people who waste their time trying to accomplish futile tasks. It’s a kind of anti-game, from which it’s almost impossible to derive any enjoyment – this, along with the surprising violence (it’s possible to punch anyone, from your boss to women to old men, repeatedly in the face) seems to tally with Kitano’s surreal sense of humour, as well as the nihilistic violence in his films. This Dadaist attitude remains right up to the game’s closing screen, which we’ll come back to shortly.
Please work harder from now on
Takeshi’s Challenge’s monumental awfulness would probably have slipped by unnoticed, but Kitano’s 80s popularity hastened the game’s minor success – it eventually sold around 80,000 copies, a not unremarkable number for the time. Anyone who began playing Takeshi’s Challenge at launch in December 1986 may have been surprised to discover that, if they didn’t know precisely where to go or who to speak to next, the game wouldn’t provide any clues.
It’s no surprise, then, that Oota Publications put out a game guide a few weeks later. Here, too, there was a problem. Shortly after the guide’s publication, hundreds of irate customers began ringing up the company to complain that, even with the walkthrough, the game was impossible to complete. The guide’s author, it seemed, had missed some vital morsels of information, and a second edition was hastily compiled and published.
The first edition of the Japanese TV show GameCenter CX devoted an entire section to Takeshi’s Challenge. As part of the feature, presenter Shinya Arino not only tried to find out more about the game, but also took on the unenviable task of playing the game to completion. Ominously, Arino was told by a representative at Taito that of those who made Takeshi’s Challenge, “Very few had survived” and had “gradually disappeared”. At Oota Publications, an editor revealed that the writer of the erroneous strategy guide had died – “That was how hopeless it seemed,” he said, enigmatically. Could Takeshi’s Challenge, like an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb, carry some sort of curse?
An enduring legend
Cursed or not, the legend of Takeshi’s Challenge has endured. Although never released elsewhere in the world, its fame quickly spread across the globe. Until recently, though, anyone without a strong grasp of Japanese would have struggled to play it, but a kind Samaritan by the name of KingMike has created a translation patch, which means that western players can finally get a flavour of just how strange this game is.
The fact is, though, that Takeshi’s Challenge is a game to be marvelled at from afar rather than played firsthand. Anyone attempting to do so is likely to be repelled within minutes by its sluggish, fiddly controls, impenetrable structure and obnoxious, warbling music. It coincidentally resembles another oddity from the 80s, Frankie Goes To Hollywood for 8-bit computers in the UK. Like Takeshi's Challenge, Frankie involved wandering from place to place in a surreal side-scrolling adventure. Takeshi's Challenge, however, is much, much worse.
No, there’s only one palatable way of experiencing just how unusually terrible Takeshi’s Challenge is, and that’s to watch Shinya Arino complete it on GameCenter CX. Only then can we safely appreciate the majesty of a side-scrolling shooter minigame where the player can move left, right and down, but not up. Or the frustration of having to wait for an entire hour for a treasure map to appear. Or, worst of all, the depressing realisation that, having spent hours trudging through this infuriating game, the reward is little more than a tiny graphic of Takeshi Kitano’s smiling face, and the words, “Why are you taking this game so seriously?”
In 1986, Kitano and an anonymous, long-gone team of programmers elevated bad game design to an art form. All other pretenders to the kuso-ge crown are as nothing. It’s comparatively easy to make a mediocre game, but it takes real skill and dedication to make a truly terrible one.
This is why Takeshi’s Challenge stands proudly as the worst game ever to this day – the Devil himself, I suspect, could not have programmed a more efficiently cruel piece of psychic torture. You have been warned.