“I Love Beijing Tiananmen.”
There’s not really a sense of mystery as to “how games get made” any more. On the AAA level, it’s all pretty straightforward: A developer is tasked with producing a game, said developer develops said game, and a publisher makes sure it lands on store shelves. On the independent level nowadays, you probably picture smaller teams pouring their hearts into their passion projects, before selling and marketing their own wares online via itch.io or Steam or wherever else have you. Of course, it isn’t always quite that simple. And back in the days before modern distribution methods? It was never that simple.
For years, the origins of the infamous Super Famicom title Hong Kong 97 seemed to be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. There are some who believe that it never actually existed in any sort of purchasable form — that it only ever existed as a download on ROM repositories and whatnot. Others might actually believe that it was somehow stocked alongside the likes of Super Mario World on store shelves, left wondering how the hell it could have wound up there? Naturally, neither of these theories are quite right, as we’ll discover together over the course of this article.
This is the story of one of the crudest, most amateur video games ever sold. But it’s more than just that: It’s also a story about the spirit of the indie developer, a history lesson on video game bootleggery, and a parable on how there are some bells that can’t be unrung. It’s a story I’m actually almost hesitant to write, given that the man most closely associated with the game has recently been quoting as saying that he would prefer that it fade into obscurity once again (and for good reason). But it’s also a game that mined shock value and racism for comedy, so I’m plenty content to say “heck it, let’s rake it over the coals.” This is the story of Hong Kong 97.
“Wǒ ài Běijīng Tiān’ānmén.”
Once upon a time, Noah paired off two of every animal on his ark and set about surviving the great flood with slingshot in hand and a biblical fury. These historical events were chronicled in 1994s Super 3D Noah’s Ark, as originally released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Unfortunately for developer / publisher Wisdom Tree, Nintendo were not keen to put their seal of quality on any of the company’s products, meaning the creators were forced to release their game through other channels on shady-looking cartridges. We’ve actually told the story of Super 3D Noah’s Ark on this website before, but I didn’t really spend much time detailing the game’s copy protection-bypassing cartridge. So, let’s talk about that now.
As I like to mention wherever I can, Nintendo liked to control all the means of production and distribution for games released on their hardware. On the original NES, this resulted in the inclusion of the 10NES lockout chip in official consoles, which would scan cartridges for an additional “CIC (Checking Integrated Circuit)” chip installed inside the game cartridge, before permitting games to load. This effectively prevented bootleg games on the system… for a short while, at least. Different companies eventually found different ways to thwart this measure: Color Dreams’ Dan Lawton pioneered a method which involved cartridges sending a voltage spike to the 10NES chip on load, thus bypassing the key check. Tengen, in the production of their unofficial cartridges, referenced Nintendo’s own patent on the 10NES chip in order to produce their own “Rabbit” chip for cartridges, serving to mimic Nintendo’s own CIC. Nintendo were certainly not oblivious to these circumventions, and resolved to make the prospect of playing pirate games more difficult in the next hardware generation.
The SNES beefed up the console’s onboard security checks, as well as preventing against measures that would try to bypass the checks entirely (you couldn’t just try and temporarily shock the chip, for example). So, in order to effectively trick the SNES into allowing a non-licensed game to play, your options as a developer were initially more limited. Color Dreams – now transformed into Wisdom Tree – employed a “pass-through” method for their Super 3D Noah’s Ark cartridge: Requiring a licensed title to plug into a port on the top of the Noah’s Ark cartridge, thus sending the key to the SNES that the attached game was “legitimate,” and allowing their own game to effectively sneak through and play on the console instead. And while later pirate games for the hardware would eventually utilize cloned / mimic CIC chips in order to trick the console into playing their games, this more obtuse pass-through technology is what we’re going to focus on right now.
Unlicensed games weren’t the only illicit utilities that consumers were plugging into their consoles: Cheat and game backup devices were also hot items among enthusiast communities, allowing respectively for the use of rule-altering codes and for saving cartridge ROM files to an external memory. Naturally, these devices would still require a cartridge to plug into them in order to tell the SNES to load them, not to mention them being designed with altering / backing up your own game collection in mind to begin with. At least, that’s the more “innocent” use case for them.
The backup devices – which came to be known as “magicoms” in Japan – would operate by dumping game data off the cartridge onto floppy disks, which could be easily interchanged and inserted back into the backup device. This had the benefit of allowing you to play games saved on the disk without having to have the original cartridge on hand. Naturally, this opened up a black market for floppy disks containing numerous game ROM files, allowing games to be played without the original cartridge (so long as you had at least one legit cartridge on-hand to plug in). Not only that: It also allowed a method for homebrew games to operate on the SNES hardware, by releasing them straight-to-floppy and bypassing the cartridge manufacture process entirely.
Enter Yoshihisa “Kowloon” Kurosawa. As a young man, he ran a Japanese BBS apparently dedicated to the subject of Amiga computers, maintained archives of obscure games and books, and fancied himself as a journalist. He also had aspirations of working in the games industry within his native Japan, but was confronted with a fairly major issue: It was hard to so much as get your foot in the door without already having development experience, and it was hard to get that experience without already having associated with an established developer — something like a catch-22 situation. In the case of Nintendo, who were so controlling of their brand and the games associated with it, they were reluctant to even discuss terms with developers operating on an independent level; not trusting them to develop products deemed worthy of mass manufacture and retail. Furthering this exclusionary business practice were the matter of royalties a potential developer would have to pay (if they were even granted the “privilege” of doing so), making the whole prospect of trying to break into the industry that much more daunting.
Seeming to resent the mainstream games industry at this point – especially Nintendo – Kurosawa steeped in his frustration over his being unable to produce his own games. That is, until a trip to Hong Kong that would serve as a turning point in his life; where he stumbled upon some unspecified magicom device while wandering about a computer mall. He was suddenly struck by the idea that he could release a game for a Nintendo console without having to deal with Nintendo at all! But this wouldn’t be just any game: It would be a game specifically designed to undermine what the company stood for, and to subvert the corporate system altogether. Kurosawa sought to produce – as he called it – “the worst game possible.”
“I was sick and tired of consumer game systems and the way Nintendo were at the top of the pyramid. I was also really influenced by the extreme games coming out of Europe. I had an idea to create a cheap, vulgar game that would make fun of the industry. The emergence of game copiers finally gave me that opportunity.” ~ Yoshihisa Kurosawa
Only one more small hurdle stood in his way: Kurosawa had absolutely no idea how to set about programming an SNES game. So, rather than invest the time in teaching himself, he called upon a friend who already had some amount of technical know-how. Apparently, this friend was employed at Enix Corporation — then-publisher of the popular Dragon Quest series, eventual merger partner with Squaresoft, and previously responsible for a number of disgusting pornographic games available for Japanese computers.** He convinced his friend to dedicate two days of his time to helping program his game, which would ultimately serve as the full development cycle for the title. Again, in his own words: “What you see represents a 10th of what I intended to do. There was no time. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have permission. We just sort of took a slapdash approach to giving it a Hong Kong-esque style, and that’s the result.”
Not afforded the time needed to design assets from scratch, the game would rely largely on the unlicensed use of outside graphics: Crudely cropping characters from movie posters, downloaded images likely shared on BBS / Usenet groups, and compressing scans of seemingly random Chinese advertisements for use as backgrounds. Back in 1995, getting your hands on decent digital images wasn’t quite as accessible as a quick Google search; but for someone as clearly tech-savvy and resourceful as Kurosawa, I can’t imagine that sourcing these images was too much of an issue for him. His craftiness also extended to providing the game’s soundtrack; recording a brief audio sample off of a laserdisc he had picked up on Shanghai Street, and looping it in order to serve as background music.
There was another piece to the puzzle: Translating it for three different languages (English, Japanese, and Chinese). Yes, in spite of the game’s crudeness and cruelness, we still have to remember that Kurosawa had the intent of selling copies, even to the Chinese market which the game seems to take so much pride in insulting. To this end, a Chinese exchange student was [hopefully] paid for their work in translating the game’s text from its original Japanese — a process they were apparently very uncomfortable with given the nature of the game. Also, given the fact that Kurosawa seems to still refer to China as “a world of savages,” we can pretty safely assume that he was not the most pleasant taskmaster to work for.***
All the game needed now was a name. Most folk seem to assume the game borrows its name from the identically-titled 1994 film Hong Kong 97 — a straight-to-video release starring Robert Patrick. While this is possible, I’d argue as to whether or not this movie would even appear as a blip on Kurosawa’s radar, considering it never even saw distribution in Japan (or in Hong Kong, for that matter). Rather, both titles would seem to reference the same event set to occur in 1997: The transfer of power over the territory from the British Empire to the People’s Republic of China. To an anti-communist / seemingly-unabashed racist like Kurosawa,**** this was probably seen as something like a catastrophic fate for the region; as the transfer of power meant a change in how Hong Kong would be governed, and likely meant an influx of citizens emigrating from the Chinese mainland.
At some point, Kurosawa had to call the project “finished,” and set about actually releasing his product to the world. Naturally, Nintendo certainly weren’t going to distribute for him, and it was unlikely he’d find many (if any) stores even willing to stock it on their shelves. As such, the game would have to be distributed largely via mail order, with Kurosawa writing the floppy disks and assembling the packaging himself before shipping copies off to customers. To build “hype” for the title, he used his connections to various underground gaming magazines and wrote online posts under pseudonyms to raise awareness of the game — encouraging readers to send away for their very own copy.
The crude packaging for the game is true to the crude nature of the game itself: A cover featuring a sloppily edited photo of Bruce Lee, superimposed over a crowd of PLA soldiers and the face of Chairman Deng Xiaoping. Above the title (written as “HONGKONG1997”), the game acknowledges it is intended for play on a “SuperNES + Disk Drive;” and below, the name of the fake publisher Kurosawa established for the game in “HappySoft.” Though no images have seemed to surface of the back of the case, a transcription of the game’s features apparently written on it does exist online, sourced from an archaic Japanese Geocities fanpage [and roughly translated here]:
• Players must control the relative of Bruce Lee, Mr. Chin, to kill the Chinese people.
• Chin is addicted to heroin. Take the syringe and power up! Survive the ordeal with the power of drugs!
• Special bonus for destroying cars carrying Chinese VIPs.
• Be careful of landmines. They can also prove a valuable ally if used correctly.
• Will you be rewarded with an inspiring ending for murdering 1.2 billion people?
Well, those selling points are certainly… “unique,” to say the least. And I must admit; they’d have gotten my attention back in the day. So, let’s see how Hong Kong 97 executes on its very particular premise.
** If you hate yourself / want to learn more about the more sordid history of Enix, check out the likes of Guest Mariko Hashimoto and Lolita Syndrome for the PC-88 and FM-7 computers. But only do so if you are of legal age to look at pornographic material, won’t be haunted by the pedophilia it blatantly caters to, and have a strong stomach for gore. In other words: Please, for the love of god, spare yourself and don’t actually check out this atrocious garbage.
*** This information is apparently sourced from one of Kurosawa’s self-published books, “Microcomputer Shonen Sawayaka Taisho (マイコン少年さわやか太閤記).” Naturally, I haven’t actually read the book myself, and an English translation of it doesn’t seem to exist, so I cannot authenticate whether or not this matches up with the story of the game’s development Kurosawa tells in his book.
**** It’s also worth mentioning that Kurosawa seems to have something of an obsession with Nazism. For years, he sold a CD titled “Mad Nazis,” maintained a list of web links that reference Holocaust denial conspiracies, and generally seemed to enjoy crudely drawing Adolf Hitler. It’s very possible that his interest in the Nazis is purely historical, but given his anti-communist sentiment and general dirtbag nature… well, let’s just say that I don’t expect this guy to be on “the right side of history” here.
There are actually two variations of the game’s ROM available online, and you can tell which one you’ve got your hands on as soon as the game launches: The more commonly-distributed variant provides three languages for you to select from, while the less common ROM has a fourth option curiously titled “CM.” Selecting this CM option will present two unique advertisements to you before the game begins; one for a brand of magicom device, and another for a BBS that I presume has long since gone defunct. After these ads, the game will proceed in Japanese, and play out identically to the other versions of the game. Picking a different language in either ROM will present you a text advertisement for a games trade-in service before launching into the game.
As far as I can tell, no one online has ever figured out why two variations of the game exist. Naturally, I have a theory: With CM meant to stand for “Commercial Message,” and with one of the ads showcasing one of the very devices you’d need in order to play a physical copy of the game in the first place, I’m going to guess that this variant was not the copy sold on floppy. If I had to guess, this version of the game was distributed online on old games piracy groups and the like – maybe even by Kurosawa himself – in an attempt to entice pirates to help get the word out about the game, or to possibly even purchase a physical copy of their own (if only for the novelty of it). We’ll discuss how well this strategy may have worked later.
With the ads out of the way, you’re presented with the title screen, and shortly thereafter with the game’s story. Get used to seeing these screens: You’ll have to look at them again after every time you die and restart the game. They’re worth paying attention to at least once, though, as the plot here is absolutely wild. And by “wild,” I of course mean “overtly racist” in a way that probably wasn’t particularly funny for any unfortunate Chinese players who may have put money down for the game without fully knowing what they were getting themselves into.
In the distant future of 1997, Hong Kong is formally assimilated into Chinese jurisdiction. Immediately, the “fuckin’ ugly reds” begin to wreak havoc on the region, with the entire 1.2 billion person population of China deciding to move there seemingly overnight. Clearly, there is only one solution to this dilemma: Send for Bruce Lee’s relative,
Jackie Chan “Chin.” Naturally, being ““related”” to Bruce Lee, Chin is also a master of the martial arts in his own right, and deemed capable of taking down the entire population of a country single-handedly. Little does Chin or the Hong Kong government know, though, that the dastardly commies have been working on a secret project to revive the recently deceased Deng Xiaoping Tong Shau Ping as a powerful bioweapon! Can the “killer machine” defeat the red menace?
There’s a bit of historical trivia here worth noting: At the time the game was released, the real life Deng Xiaoping was very much still alive, albeit retired from his position as an authority figure within the People’s Republic of China. However, he was soon to pass, and just so happened to die shortly before the transfer of power over Hong Kong from Britain to China — in 1997. As such, people have credited Hong Kong 97 as “predicting his death,” even though the game doesn’t actually specify a date of death / leaves you to presume that Deng Xiaoping could’ve died at any point prior to the events of the game. For an example of a game getting a prediction for a political death “on the nose,” there’s always Homefront; which correctly guessed that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il would pass in 2011, and pass power down unto his son Kim Jong-un.
Of course, none of this really matters once you get in the game: There’s no plot development or further mentions of the story to speak of. Hong Kong 97 is little more than one of the most bare-bones top-down shooters you’ll ever play in your life. Space Invaders has more depth than this trainwreck, for chrissakes. As Chin, you have the full range of the screen in which to move and shoot — though leaving the bottommost area of the screen is practically tantamount to a death wish. Enemies approach you from the top of the screen, making their way down, with some launching projectiles at you. Occasionally, a car will drive in from stage right and exit stage left. After killing a set number of enemies, the disembodied head of Tong Shau Ping will appear and attack you with an incredibly basic pattern that actually results in him being the easiest enemy in the game to deal with. You defeat him, and the loop begins anew, until you eventually die or stop playing. That’s it. That’s all there is to the game.
Remember when I mentioned that the game was programmed over the course of two days? Yeah, I reckon this is where it sort of shows, doesn’t it? What we have here is the skeleton of a shoot ‘em up — the most basic components needed to qualify a game as being such. You can imagine swapping out all the bitmap graphics with basic shapes / programmer art, and being left with something that you’d have been taught how to develop over the course of a day at a children’s computer camp. I should know: I’ve taught children the basics of how to develop a video game over the course of just a few hours!** Look, I’m obviously aware that you can only do so much with so little time spent in development, but you know what? They had the luxury of having as much time as they wanted. I don’t believe there was a hard deadline in effect here being enforced by “the publisher,” considering the publisher was just Kurosawa himself.
Of course, I’m “missing the point” here, aren’t I? The game wasn’t meant to be good: It’s meant to shock and offend with its content and its… well, lack of content, I suppose? It’s like some crappy Flash game you’re meant to play once, laugh at / feel bad for having wasted your time with it, and promptly move on with your life. The problem here is though, Flash games don’t usually demand a fee or waiting for them to ship to your mailbox. Hong Kong 97 isn’t just a joke of a game: It’s a joke that Kurosawa intended for folk to pay actual money for. So, bearing that in mind, I’m going to review this game under the same set of standards I would any other retail software product. If that seems unfair, it’s only because charging a “”budget”” price of ¥3,000 (!) for a game you’ll barely play for 30 seconds seems pretty unfair too, by my estimation.
When the game begins, it loads one of six possible backgrounds which the game will cycle through as you die and restart. During the gameplay, the backgrounds do not move or attempt to provide any illusion of character movement: They are simply static images, all featuring heavy amounts of compression and hideous image artifacting. When Tong Shau Ping appears, the background will transition from a shade of blue to a shade of pink for as long as he is on-screen; reverting back to the original blue shortly after he is defeated. At the very least, the backgrounds don’t blend in with any of the game’s other sprites, so discerning the foreground elements isn’t as frustrating a task as it could have potentially been.
You’re limited in how many of your own projectiles you can have on-screen simultaneously. In using a bit of hackery to override the limit (set value “7E0EC500” for a good time), it becomes apparent that the reason for this limit is primarily to avoid the game slowing down to a frankly unplayable framerate: Sprite limits on the SNES hardware could apparently amount to as many as 128 on-screen, but I wanna reckon you can only actually make it to about a dozen in Hong Kong 97 before the CPU can’t really keep up. Even with the unlimited bullet cheat disabled, the default game will find ways to slow down all on its own — almost as if guaranteed when you blow up a car and get treated to the roughly dozen explosion graphics put on display. Even licensed titles in the shooter genre have never had the best reputation for running smoothly on the SNES, so it’s no surprise that leaving two drunks to their own devices in development would result in something completely unoptimized for the hardware.
Speaking of those incredible special effects, the game has a whole load of ‘em to display! There’s the animated GIF of a mushroom cloud that appears whenever you hit something / blow someone up, the image of what appears to be an actual corpse that briefly flashes after killing an enemy, and no wait I lied that’s actually all they bothered to include in the games in terms of SFX animations. Sorry. That thumbnail-sized image of a corpse, by the way, appears in larger size on the game’s “Game Over” screen (NSFW) — complete with a VHS tape timecode dated August 6th, 1992. Now, there are multiple theories as to who this poor soul might be / how Kurosawa got his hands the image in the first place. A particularly stupid creepypasta-grade conspiracy contends that Kurosawa himself committed a murder in the name of HappySoft, and filmed the whole morbid affair. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the body may be that of Polish boxer Leszek Blazynski, who reportedly committed suicide on / around that date, which may indicate that this is a still from a police crime scene recording. Whatever the origin of the image may be, it’s most likely Kurosawa downloaded it off of some BBS or obscure 90s shock site.
Be prepared to visit that morbid game over screen more than a few times as well if you should [for whatever reason] decide to subject yourself to the game: You die in only one hit from any enemy or object, and have only one life to live. Though the enemy AI is simplistic enough – with two of the three enemy types approaching you in a straight line – they can easily surround you from the sides of the screen and leave you with no escape route. The only temporary reprieve you may earn yourself is grabbing a syringe off of a fallen enemy, which gives you a brief 10 seconds of invulnerability. It gives you a breather from having to constantly weave and dodge your way through the endless enemy assault, and can make taking on the game’s laughably easy boss that much more easy. All that being said, surviving the gameplay loop is actually simple enough: It’s the monotony of it all that makes it challenging to stay actively invested in the game.
By this point, you may be wondering much as I did by this point: “What happens if you actually manage to kill 1.2 billion enemies?” Well, I’m here to conclusively report once for all, that… I honestly don’t know. I’ve seen folk analyze the tilemaps within the game, and they never reported finding any hidden graphics in there that you don’t see over the course of the standard gameplay loop.*** As of yet, no one has bothered to post a way to hack it so that you can immediately earn a score of 1.2 billion and see how the game responds. Perhaps most tellingly though of what the game itself presents, you can’t actually roll the score counter into the five digits range: You’ll always be stuck with a score under 10,000, rolling back to a lower score when you hit that mark. This would indicate the obvious to me: Kurosawa and his friend never intended for anyone to get a score that high, let alone reach 1.2 billion, and probably didn’t bother to program anything in for if anyone should ever manage to. It’s all a joke at the player’s expense — a description which can also be used to explain this whole game.
You know, I realize that I’ve so far neglected to discuss the cherry on top of this whole sundae: The soundtrack. As briefly alluded to earlier, Kurosawa claims he ripped a musical track off of a random laserdisc he seems to have blindly purchased. It just so happens that the song he happened to have picked is “I Love Beijing Tiananmen”: One of the most popular songs written during China’s Cultural Revolution, and one which children at primary schools would be made to sing as part of their daily routine. The original song was written by glass factory worker Jin Yueling in 1970, with vocals performed by then-12-year old Jin Guolin. Unfortunately, without a knowledge of Chinese languages, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to determine who performs the particular rendition of the song as sampled for Hong Kong 97.
What I can tell you with certainty, however, is that the roughly five-second sample is looped ad infinitum — no pause, no reprieve, no other tracks to transition to. You’ll be listening to the same song from the very moment the game loads until it is eventually closed. As if that weren’t enough, there aren’t even any sound effects to break up the auditory monotony. If there was ever a game that begged to be muted, this would certainly be it.
It’s a strange case where discussing the finer points of the gameplay feels as if they might as well be a complete after thought. But really, what is there to say about them in a game where the gameplay seems like the tertiary priority? The controls are responsive enough and the movement speed is adequate. Of course the game could benefit from option-style power-ups enabling you a wider shot spread or what have you, or the ability to trigger screen-clearing bombs, or any other number of standard shooter additions that add an extra layer of strategy to the proceedings. But again, that’s hardly the point here: I’m sure Kurosawa could have made the basic controls intentionally awful if he had wanted, and I can almost guarantee he considered doing so at some point. So, I guess we should all appreciate his “restraint” here.
When the best compliments you can pay a game all amount to “at least the developer didn’t deliberately sabotage this,” the gimmick wears thin mighty quick. I think this is the first time we’ve gone and covered an “intentionally bad” game on this website, and let me tell you: I’m not a fan of them. When you deliberately set out with the intent of putting out crap, it’s just about the easiest goalpost you can clear, and it’s not often you manage to perform any feats of note in the process. There’s nothing amusing about intentionally fumbling — pretending to fall on your face as part of some obviously rehearsed routine. There’s none of that same charm that comes with seeing a developer trying and failing to execute on an idea, or trying to implement something so uniquely stupid / completely baffling that you find yourself entertained by the very thought of it.
I could shit out a comparable game to Hong Kong 97 in an afternoon, but I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from demonstrating the common courtesy of flushing it afterwards.
** For those curious / skeptical: It was as part of an after-school program on the part of a museum I was employed at. We were given a bunch of tablets to distribute amongst the kids (aged 10-15?), with some incredibly basic “drag-and-drop”-style toolkit pre-installed, allowing them to make very standard platformer fare with pixel-art graphics. It was clearly meant to act as a sort of introduction to the concepts of programming and design, and the class all seemed to have a great time with it. I tried to impart as much additional knowledge as I could about concepts like “hit detection” and what “particles” are and whatnot, and all the children seemed to be genuinely engaged by it!
*** I also mounted an attempt to try and take a peek inside the game, using a couple of different HEX / tile editor utilities, but I may well have been doing something wrong as all I ever managed to get out of it was jargon code and broken images. Admittedly, I am a rank amateur when it comes to this level of programming / coding, and so I’m not surprised that I didn’t end up being the one to crack this case wide open.
“I̕҉̸͜ ̵̨͠l̶̵̡͏ò̴v̨̛͏͡é͘̕͡ ̷͘͢͝P͢͠͞e҉̡k̵̶͝i̢̛͞n͝g̶̴͢ ̢͢͢͟T̛́́͜i̴̶̡̕͞a̡͢n͜͢͞a̶͜͠͏̢ǹ̷̢m̢̛͢͢͞e̢̨̢͞n̸͝͠”
You may be surprised to hear that Hong Kong 97 did not prove to be a smash hit for the Super Famicom! In fairness, the odds were stacked against it from the start: The market for mail-order games was never on the same footing as proper retail releases, and designing with a specific peripheral in mind on top of that was only going to further restrict your potential consumers. There was another major flaw in the business model as well — aside from setting the unreasonable price point of ¥3,000, of course. And that problem was, in releasing a game for a device primarily used for software piracy, you’re gonna be dealing largely with an install base of software pirates.
“The types of people who bought Super Famicom game copiers weren’t the type to spend money on games, so it was like trying to sell something to a thief. So only a few people were willing to wire money to my shady PO box in Tokyo. I sold the game on floppy disks for a few months, and then forgot about it entirely.” ~ Yoshihisa Kurosawa
And so, the game wallowed in relative obscurity for years afterwards; maybe seeing occasional reference in Japanese corners of the web, but likely being relegated to the fringe even there. Of course, when Kurosawa says he “forgot about it entirely,” this hardly rings true: He seemed plenty committed to continuing to advertise the game on his website, posting about it on message boards, and generally trying to promote his whole brand online. By all accounts, Kurosawa was all in on trying to become a fixture of the early internet otaku culture, and dipping his toes into any sort of strange business venture might earn him some amount of infamy.
It’s also worth noting at this point that Hong Kong 97 may not have actually been Kurosawa’s first attempt at developing a video game. He is also credited on his Japanese Wikipedia entry as having previously released a title for PC-88 computers in 1990, by the charming moniker of Torture Master (拷問マスター). On an archive of a page which itself was meant to archive some pieces of software for the line of Japanese computers, a brief description accompanies the game, roughly translating to something along these lines:
“This software was also released by Mr. Kurosawa, who is now the father of a child and living happily. He laughs about the game not selling any copies, but I think that this software should be considered one of the masterpieces of PC 8801 doujin game circles. […] It’s still a bit scary.”
Let’s not mince words here: It is my belief that Kurosawa is an attention-seeker, and a habitual liar to boot. He’s changed his story on Hong Kong 97 so many times over the years, it’s impossible to determine where the lies end and the truth begins. One day, he’ll contend that the game was made in a week, and the next he’ll tell you he overnighted it. He’ll go lengths of time where he pretends he didn’t actually develop the game (he merely “supported it” or what have you), before taking the credit in one of his rare interviews. He’s reportedly very flaky when it comes to coming through on conversational commitments, though some folk will tell you that he is very diligent about contacting folk who he feels “misrepresent him” in articles or videos. At times he is boastful of his work, and at times he demonstrates a regret. He’s a man desperate to create a certain mystique around himself — “desperate” being the key word here.
I contend that Hong Kong 97 broke through into the consciousness of the outside world not thanks to Kurosawa’s continued campaigning, but rather as a naturally-occurring curiosity on the part of the emulation and games preservation communities. The file found its way onto ROM repositories, some number of folk eventually stumbled on it, and at some point folk started asking questions. Here in the West, we had to dig deeper and work harder to get our answers, leading most to simply giving up and passing the buck to someone else to figure it out. With the advent of easily accessible video uploading services and the like, and the dawning of the era of Let’s Plays, the game seemed to finally find the spotlight that Kurosawa seemed to have hoped for. And with none other than the Angry Video Game Nerd himself eventually releasing an episode on the game (covering none of its historical provenance, naturally), it’s firmly cemented its place in gaming folklore.
It’s with an article for the South China Morning Post that folk felt they finally got their answers: In his most formally-conducted interview to date, Kurosawa once again stepped up to take responsibility for the game and give a simplistic overview of its development process. Aside from making sure to sneak in a few jabs at China – reiterating his stance that he still sees their citizens as “savages” – he also claims now that he wishes that “people would forget about the game once and for all.” Of course, he also addresses points such as the identity of the dead body featured in the game without giving any sort of answer, so it’s hard not to see all this as what I believe it is: Another opportunity to bring interest and intrigue back to the game, making sure there are still more questions than answers.
In the article, he does let slip that he had a hand in developing another video game at some point — “a ‘run-of-the-mill’ […] first-person shooter for the Playstation 2.” Though he apparently refused to say which game it was, this is actually one of the easier mysteries to solve here. The title in question, by all accounts, is 2005’s Simple 2000 Series Vol. 88: The Mini Bijo Keikan (alternatively “The Miniskirt Police”), in which his name is listed in the staff roll.** It’s appropriately trashy fare for Kurosawa to lend his “talents” to; a game where you play as a policewoman or secret agent of some sort clad in completely mission-inappropriate attire, which tears and deteriorates as you take damage until you’re clad in nothing but a bikini. The line about the game being a first-person shooter is either mistranslation or misdirection, as it’s actually a third-person stealth action title largely centered around melee combat (though you can pick up and shoot firearms).
Having given up on achieving fame through game development or selling audio recordings of the ramblings of Nazi sympathizers, Kurosawa’s latest [and longest-running] business venture is penning an underground travel guide series, as well as selling additional documentaries and eBooks on the subject of his travels and other miscellaneous subjects he finds interesting. He wrote an entire book on the subject of “dry orgasms” at some point. I’ve not felt particularly compelled to try and translate any of his more recent writings: If researching his personal history and his 1995 video game has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t particularly like this dude.
To be clear here, there’s only one thing I find particularly interesting about the whole sordid affair surrounding this game, and it comes down entirely to the story of its struggled distribution. I don’t find the game particularly amusing, the creator seems like a total try-hard, and I take umbrage with the idea that Hong Kong 97 is “the worst game ever” — by any stretch or metric. There are mechanically worse games (both deliberate and accidental), more uncomfortable games in terms of malice and shock value, and games that are overall more incompetent in either more frustrating or entertaining ways. As such, Hong Kong 97 really should just go the way of a forgotten game and fade from the public consciousness again. But of course, it’s too late for that now: It’s become a staple of bad games media, and a go-to for folk who like to showcase crude content.
I’m sure someone at some point will ask, “if you really want the game to be forgotten, why write a whole article about it?” Well, I reckon it’s on account of my Plan B scenario: If we can’t erase Hong Kong 97 from history, we should at least try our best to demystify it. Let curious folk know that it was a failed money-making scheme turned successful attention-seeking plot by an asshole, and that it’s juvenile nature comes from a place of seemingly genuine racial and political tension. Reveal that the score counter is a sham, and that there’s no reward for wiping out the population of China. Put an end to the misinformation, and provide the boring facts about this boring game. Bury the game by busting it wide open.
It’s rare that we’ll cover games on this website that I genuinely loathe or despise. It’s rarer still that I’ll take genuine umbrage with the developers, or disparage their effort. This is one of those rare games, and Yoshihisa Kurosawa is one of those rare creators. I’ll induct it into the Bad Game Hall of Fame, since it certainly warrants the distinction — even if it doesn’t necessarily earn it, if you get what I mean. It’s half-hearted, intentional trash like this that actually gets my dander up, and I’ll be happy to never have to play this game ever again once this article goes up. It’s not worth my time, and it’s not worth yours, either.