Challenge Stage, Start
You know, it occurs to me that we don’t cover nearly enough classically-recognized kusogē on this website. Obviously, this is something I should be working on remedying. But if we’re gonna dive deep into the world of Japan’s “shit games” scene, we should probably start somewhere around the beginning; with the game largely recognized as being the one which inspired the very term itself.
For slang that gets tossed around so frequently (especially on the Japanese side of the web), it’s kind of astonishing that there isn’t really a concrete source on where the term kusogē originated? Best guesstimates seem to point to an unspecified 2002 issue of Famitsu magazine, in which illustrator and author Jun Miura seemed to coin the term while writing a retrospective essay on 1985’s Ikki for the Nintendo Famicom. A conversion of an arcade game released earlier that same year, the major complaints would seem to stem from the fact it’s not necessarily a great conversion of that existing game. Then again, I can’t be entirely sure of this, since nobody seems to be able to actually provide a scan of that original Famitsu article. But hey, if noted kusogē historian Heidi Kemps seems to sign off on this being the point of origin, that’s good enough for me.**
In any case, Ikki seems like as good a place as any to begin our descent into the wild world of Japan’s worst video games: It serves as a fairly early title in the Famicom library, predating other such titles as Takeshi’s Challenge and The Transformers: Mystery of Convoy by as much as a full year. It has an arcade counterpart that we can directly compare it against, so we have ourselves a nice little point of reference there. And above all else, it most certainly has the reputation for being one of the original kusogē titles, which more than makes it worthy of review here. So, get your homing sickles ready, folks: The rebellion begins now!
** Heidi, by the way, is also a wealth of information on other aspects of Japanese games history, as well as being super cool in general. You should probably follow her on Twitter and watch her PAX panel dedicated entirely to the subject of kusogē — appropriately titled “Kusoge! Japan’s Awesomely Awful Videogames.”
Sunsoft oversaw the publishing and release of Ikki to arcades in July of 1985. The title translates to something like “Insurrection,” referring to the central plot of the game: The farmer Gonbe (plus his pal Tago in multiplayer) single-handedly initiates a revolt against his feudal overlord, pitting himself against a veritable army of ninja assassins, firing squads, and meddling spirits. This certainly justifies one of the localized titles for the game, Farmer’s Rebellion — though a supposed alternate title in “Boomerang” is slightly more puzzling? Presumably, this title in reference to Gonbe’s weapon of choice; an infinite supply of sickles he tosses in a similar fashion to a boomerang, even though they don’t actually return to him after being flung.
This arcade version of the game features an attract mode animation setting up the story of the game, seeming to document the very moment the farmers begin their rebellion in the lord’s court. This brief cutscene – as well as level transitions in the game itself – includes dialogue and other messages written in vertically-oriented Japanese text,** which helps give the game something like the feel of a classic silent film. In addition, the unique character sprites for Gonbe and Tago give them a distinct sense of personality, even if they don’t necessarily get any chance to develop them over the course of the story. What I’m trying to get at here is, the game has very strong presentation behind it, even if it’s not necessarily the most graphically impressive arcade game of the era.
The core gameplay is quite simple: Run around a given level trying to find eight gold coins, while avoiding / defeating enemies who may get in your way. Levels end immediately upon collection of the final coin, or if you happen to stumble upon and capture the feudal lord who may be wandering around the stage. The alternate option for capturing the lords might come in handy if you’re struggling to find the final gold coin, but this honestly isn’t much of an issue in the arcade game, as a sort of radar on the right-hand side of the screen tells you where you are relative to all of the coins scattered across the map. And with a total of eight stages to master, it’s handy to have something that helps point you in the right direction.
I mentioned that your primary means of attack are throwing sickles. Now, as Ikki was developed in a time before twin-stick shooters were in vogue, you may expect aiming your projectiles to be something of a challenge — possibly having to orient your character in the direction you’d like to throw before quickly getting back to your intended path. But luckily, the developers at Namco decided to take pity on players, and make your sickles something of a homing weapon, automatically targeting the nearest enemy and traveling in a straight line towards them. It’s not a perfect system, as there may be times you’re less worried about the enemy closest to you than others, but it’s functional enough and generally works the way you want it to. Alternatively, if you pick up a green scroll located somewhere within a given level, you’ll briefly attack with a bamboo spear. Unfortunately, this attack only points forward, leaving you vulnerable from your sides and behind, but it will reward you additional points per kill.
But wait, there’s more! Additional pick-ups appear in the form of speed boosts, temporary invincibility, a screen-clearing effect, treasure chests, and keys which can be used to free prisoners from their cells / award extra lives. The variety seen in the games’ items also extends to the variety of enemies as well: You’ll be constantly chased by ninjas, the color of whoms garment indicates how tough they are to deal with and what their method of attack may be. Wild boars chase you around the stage, riflemen sit in trenches waiting for you to cross their line of sight, and various forms of ghosts / yōkai will trouble you by attaching themselves to you and preventing you from being able to attack. The latter can be dispelled by touching holy statues (appearing as either “jizō or komainu,” according to Wikipedia), freeing you of the entity and allowing you to attack again. Finally, you may find yourself assaulted by handsy handmaidens who stop you in your tracks for a period of time while they appear to grab at you and lay kisses on you.
I have to compliment just how much variety there is on display here. I reckon most games of the era would’ve been content to populate their game entirely with one or two recurring types of enemy, and certainly not bothering to produce multiple cosmetic variations on the same enemy type (as seen with the ghosts). Naturally, this all has a additionally “quirky” quality for me as someone who isn’t inherently familiar with Japanese culture and legend. But I get the feeling it’s all intended to be very ridiculous and cartoony from the start; beginning with the core premise of a one-man revolution, pitting you against an army of ninja assassins [rather than more traditional samurai or foot soldiers] and turning even the undead against you. Altogether, it adds up to a really fun game… aesthetically speaking, at the very least.
You see, the problem is that Ikki is actually a very unfair game. Granted, we’re dealing with an arcade title here, where the goal of the developers is to milk players of their coins, so a high degree of difficulty shouldn’t come completely unexpected. But the issue lies in how exactly the game is made challenging. It comes down to two things: Inadequate recovery time after respawning, and the game’s awful camera. In order to scroll the screen, you have to practically be on the very edge of it, giving you absolutely no space to see or time to prepare for incoming enemies or objects in the direction you’re traveling. It’s a frankly major design flaw, and one which nearly single-handedly ruins the whole game for me.
Ikki reminds me of another similar game, and one I’m actually quite fond of: Taito’s The Legend of Kage. They share a setting in almost-folkloric versions of feudal-era Japan, repeat a relatively short gameplay loop (eight stages in the arcade version of Ikki versus Kage’s five stages), primarily deal in throwing weapons as your means of defense; and perhaps most importantly for the purpose of my comparison here, feature levels which scroll both vertically and horizontally. The key difference between them is, The Legend of Kage mostly centers its camera on the player character, giving you plenty of time and space to react to the ninja baddies. As such, despite it’s lacking much of the variety and flavor of Ikki, Kage is an infinitely more fun game to actually play, based simply on the fact that it feels more fair to players.
But so far, we’ve been referring to the arcade version of Ikki — the one that’s not even necessarily considered to be a kusogē. By November 27th of 1985, the game had made its way to Famicom home consoles, with conversion duties seemingly handled by mythical ghost developer Tose (though Sunsoft staffer Atsushi Sakai claims credit for taking charge of the game’s graphics, at the very least). And though the arcade version may have been meant to serve as the fully-featured, prettier-looking, definitive version of the game, it would be the Famicom release that seemed to define Ikki and its legacy.
** I have tried and failed multiple times to learn how to read / write Japanese in the past. I’m honestly not sure I have the mental acuity to take on any sort of second language, truth be told. And so, I won’t sit here and try to guess as to whether the on-screen text is written “in hiragana or katakana,” or anything of that sort: I’d rather just admit ignorance than try to pretend like I know at all what I’m talking about.
Secret Letters: E, R, A, W, T, F, O, S
The plot of Ikki on the Famicom remains the same, even as the game loses its introductory cutscene and interstitial title cards: Gonbe stages his one man war against the overlord, assisted by Tago only in multiplayer. The core gameplay remains largely the same as well, as you hope would be the case in a conversion such as this. But obviously, the step down from arcade hardware to the Famicom is gonna have to result in at least some number of downgrades. The question is, does the game lose too much in translation?
Remember, we’re talking about the state of the Famicom in 1985 here: Still some months before the Disk System would launch in ‘86, and bring with it massive improvements in game storage capacity. The most notable precedent for an arcade-to-Famicom conversion was still 1983’s Donkey Kong, which could only manage to squeeze three of the four levels from the original game into the cartridge due to space constraints (as well as having to omit the beginning cutscene and end-of-level animations). That’s not even mentioning that the Famicom lacked in some other technical departments as well — color palette limitations, difficulty with smooth omnidirectional scrolling, and a general lack of available memory and processing power, compared to what a dedicated arcade board could afford.
So, let’s get the biggest cut out of the way first: The game is halved from eight stages to a scant four. The levels that remain aren’t 1:1 conversions of any of the arcade levels, either; serving instead as loose interpretations of some of the old stomping grounds. Much as in the original game, this gameplay loop will repeat ad infinitum until you eventually run out of lives or patience. I have to wonder if there was other content that could potentially be cut in order to maybe eke out just one or two more stages, even if that meant they would have to rely entirely on existing tilesets from the other maps. At the very least, each of the four stages present are visually distinct from one another: Covering a farm, a small village, something like a garden maze, all before landing on what appear to be the front steps of the lord’s castle.
There’s also the matter of some enemies who have not made the cut. Gone for one are the vicious boars, whose speed and resilience in the original arcade game were actually a pretty major pain in the butt. Also gone are the bomb-dropping ninjas, leaving only the basic shuriken-tossers and speedier red ninjas to pick up that pace. Surprisingly, you’ll still find seemingly all the different variations on the meddling ghosts, despite all of them causing the same exact disarming effect on your character. This is certainly one of those instances where the developers could’ve afforded to cut a corner, and recouped some of that precious little space for some other assets.
What would seem to be a minor omission actually detracts more from my enjoyment of the game than some of the others mentioned: Tago is now a simple palette swap of Gonbe, rather than having his own unique set of sprites. The scrawny, reluctant-looking Tago clad in light blue served a perfect contrast to the portlier, more gung-ho Gonbe dressed in green. Now with Tago being similarly proportioned and sporting a Mario-esque red-and-blue ensemble, you lose that little element of storytelling. Like, I completely understand why this change was made and how it could potentially save a fair amount of cartridge space, but it’s still strangely disappointing to see?
But perhaps the most glaring / visually obvious loss is that of the side-of-screen display, which previously housed the coin radar (as well as your score and and progress information, which is now overlaid on the left side of the screen). This leaves you without an idea of where the coins may be hidden in a stage, and forces you to be more thorough in your own investigation and exploration. Granted, this really isn’t a huge issue, given that the maps aren’t particularly large to begin with, and that the large bulk of coins are in plain sight. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to contend that this is a change for the better, as it declutters the screen and gives you a larger view of the play area. To me this is a great example of how, sometimes, being forced to cut content can actually result in a cleaner, more streamlined game.**
Of course, conversions aren’t all about loss, y’know: There are actually a handful of other changes made for the better, plus a couple of additions worth highlighting! For starters, new graphics help to distinguish the different pick-ups and power-ups from one another — an issue only barely addressed in the original game by recoloring the same scroll object to indicate different effects. Now, the bamboo spears are represented by an actual bamboo spear, a turnip serves as your speed-up, and magic leaves grant you the power of temporary invincibility. The scrolls still make an appearance, only now they serve as an instant 1-Up, in place of having to find the keys and free the prisoners. Also missing here are the point-awarding treasure chests and screen-clearing scroll, neither of which are particularly missed.
There’s also the matter of one additional pick-up: An odd plume of smoke emanating from the ground, that disappears once its collected. It isn’t really properly conveyed to you in-game, but these are actually the method for unlocking the game’s new bonus minigame, made playable after completing the current level. In this little diversion, you run side to side at the bottom of a very basic-looking screen, attempting to catch ten pieces of onigiri being tossed by a man atop a cliff (?) and earning points in the process. Collecting all ten can either go pretty easily, or end up being literally impossible if the rice balls are thrown too far apart from one another. This is actually slightly easier to accomplish in two player co-op, assuming you have a real-life Tago to subject to this game on short order..
The more curious addition appears on the stage clear screens, where you are given a new “Secret Letter” after every level. The letters, in the order they appear, are E, R, A, W, T, F, O, and S — repeating again from E as you continue the gameplay loop past the eighth stage. Obviously, looking at all the letters placed neatly in a row, you can see that the secret word here is “SOFTWARE” spelled backwards. But where do you input this mysterious code? There’s no password system in the game, and no secret sandcastle where you can ground-pound letters on the floor to spell it out, so it doesn’t seem to have any in-game application. As it turns out, this feature apparently ran as part of a “gift campaign” held in Japan during the game’s initial release period.
Though I couldn’t even figure out how long the event ran for (I’m currently unable to translate this page from the Famicom instruction manual, which is handily available in full on Sunsoft’s own website), my best guess as to how a player was meant to enter was to mail a letter containing the secret word and some other pertinent information to a specified address, in the hopes of having their name drawn as part of a prize giveaway. Of course, featuring this short-run contest so prominently in the game has the unfortunate effect of making the game feel as if it was only ever intended to be played in a short window of time — almost acknowledging its own impending obsolescence due shortly after its release. It reminds me of the tacked-on Time Attack mode in Sonic Labyrinth, which also existed for the sole purpose of promoting a briefly-held contest around the time of the game’s launch.
Dated gift campaign aside, the Famicom conversion of Ikki really isn’t all that bad a take on the arcade game! I mean honestly, it’s pretty much comparable, taking away and adding content in nearly equal measure. If I had any minor complaint, one little suggestion I’d have made — and you know, I’m just nitpicking here: Why the hell do you still have to touch the edges of the screen to scroll it!? No, for real though: This shit is still entirely unacceptable. Like, come on now! The developers were clearly willing to make plenty of other concessions. But this is the hill they chose to die on? This was the one tweak they didn’t dare to implement? The one that single-handedly could have taken the game from a somewhat decent conversion to a far and away superior product than the arcade original?
You know, come to think of it, it’s actually an even more egregious issue in the Famicom version! With all the extra screen space afforded by ditching the side-of-screen display and given the smaller character sprites, you have to travel that much further in order to get to the points where you can move the camera. So, if for example you scroll the frame north before realizing you’ve scrolled past a coin or pick-up due south on the map, you need to walk all the way from the top of the screen back to the bottom, walk blindly along the edge facing down, until finally getting the item you want back in view and being able to collect it. There’s also the matter of trying to navigate the maze in the third stage, where you’ll struggle to keep it in frame as you’re left having to run into the corners of the screen, hoping to find the next gap you can walk through and advance the screen. All the while, you know you’re gonna be dealing with constantly spawning enemies from any given direction, making any unnecessary travel even more of a risk.
The scrolling also does a swell job of ruining what may have well been the game’s best feature; the simultaneous co-op multiplayer. Now, Ikki came out in a time where split-screen multiplayer was too difficult for most consoles to process; so naturally, players are made to inhabit the same screen together. This also means that either player can initiate the screen scrolling, which seems like the way you’d want to handle this sort of thing in order to ensure that both players feel like they are contributing in equal measure. Unfortunately, in actual effect, this means that players can lock the screen from moving completely if they attempt to travel in two different directions at once, leading to instances where one or both players might be left unable to dodge an incoming attack. As much as it may be nobody’s favorite multiplayer mechanic, Ikki’s co-op absolutely called for the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 treatment, where player one is given scrolling priority and player two is relegated to more of a “sidekick” role.
And so, it winds up that the most frustrating thing about Ikki on the Famicom is the wasted potential for change. This was the opportunity to fix the most glaring error of the original game, and yet here it remains broken. Putting the scrolling aside, there was absolutely the opportunity for a solid little 80s top-down shooter title here; something colorful and goofy that provided a simpler shooting mechanic versus some of its more challenging contemporaries. You know, I really wanted to root for Ikki: I love pretty much everything about its premise and presentation, and there were fleeting moments of fun to be had with it (localized mostly within the center of the screen). But man, if that camera didn’t absolutely kill almost all the enthusiasm I can muster for the game.
At the same time, I hesitate to write it off as being one of “the shittiest games” of the generation or anything along those lines. It’s an average game with an above-average aesthetic, held back by one absolutely massive / admittedly obvious design flaw. There are other Famicom / NES titles based on worse concepts that are executed far worse — games that are awful top-to-bottom with next-to-no redeeming features. But perhaps that’s what makes Ikki such a notable kusogē: The fact that it would’ve taken so little to fix it up and make it something decent, and that its biggest issue is such an incredibly obvious one. Sometimes, seeing potential being squandered can be more frustrating than playing something terrible that never stood a chance.
** Another example I’d like to point to for this: The original arcade version of Punch Out!! featured a needlessly screen-obscuring pseudo-wireframe player character, taking advantage of the larger character sprites afforded by the hardware. In “downgrading” the game for the NES, this nameless character was transformed into Little Mac, whose small stature actually helps in being able to better see your opponents tells and in dodging blows. In addition, no longer being able to move left and right across the ring may seem like a major mechanical loss at first, but you quickly realize it actually helps in further streamlining and laser-focusing the gameplay for the home console.
Incredibly – in spite of all my complaining over thirty years after the fact – Ikki was actually an arcade and home console success. I mean, can you believe that consumers in 1985 were less picky than games essayists operating in the new millenium? The nerve of them! For real, though: It’s easy for us to be nitpicking jerks decades after the fact without considering that back in the day, game development was still in a somewhat “experimental” phase, where nobody really knew what control schemes or perspectives were best suited to different genres of game. Players at the time seemed to understand that they were “along for the ride,” and had a higher tolerance for occasional wonkiness.
So instrumental to Sunsoft’s early success was Ikki, that it became something of a mascot franchise for the publisher. Gonbe would appear in a cameo role (with his same sprites from his Famicom appearance) the next year in Atlantis no Nazo: Another game now considered to be a classic kusogē, and which I just realized I’m probably gonna have to cover on this site at some point as well. Me and my big mouth. Beyond that, the Famicom version of the game has seen a number of ports: It was included in Sunsoft compilations on the PC and PS1 in the early 2000s (predating it’s kusogē infamy) – the PS1 collection further being made available on Sony’s PlayStation network – before making its way to Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii / Wii U / 3DS, and even seeing two mobile phone ports in 2003 and 2006.
Perhaps most amusingly – and likely designed with its more recent “infamy” firmly in mind – Ikki Online would serve as a downloadable release on the PlayStation 3 in 2010. With a mix of newly-rendered 3D graphics and original Famicom sprites, it’s meant to serve as a remake of / homage to the original title, while also managing to shoehorn in some more “modern” features. This includes, as you may have guessed, online multiplayer with support for up to 12 players, complete with ridiculous “Capture the Flag” and “Deathmatch” game modes. I can’t quite gather if it’s even still operational or not at the time of this writing, but it honestly seems like an amusingly goofy little game for the ¥600 it was worth as of 2012. And do you know what the best part about it is? They finally fixed the camera, some 25 years later. Better late than never, I reckon.
Honestly, I’m glad to see Ikki continue to see re-releases and remakes and all other forms of preservation and tribute. Just because I’m critical of its mistakes doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worth keeping intact and accessible for future generations. I genuinely think it’s awesome that it somehow took the form of an online shooter in 2010, alongside the original Famicom release being sold as a standalone release for digital download across both Nintendo and Sony services. And for as much as I may have rightfully complained about its failings, I can’t truthfully say I hate the game by any stretch. It’s one of those games that makes me say, “There’s just something about it, isn’t there?” As far as its being considered among the most iconic kusogē, I’d say it earns its status — and I mean that in the most positive way.
“Sometimes there is stuff that’s just bad, but there’s something inherently charming about it. You know it’s terrible, but there’s still a thing in it that speaks to you on some level, what you would call a guilty pleasure.” ~ Heidi Kemps