By pauljeremiah 0 Comments
I started playing video games from a very young age, and it didn't take me long to imagine what it would be like to create my own game. I can still vividly remember two ideas I had back when I was in middle school in the late 1980s. One was an ultraviolent beat-em-up about cleaning up the streets with an assortment of weapons, both melee and ranged, because I was such a fan of Double Dragon. The other was an epic Mega Man sequel that included all the robot masters in a single adventure, one where players navigated a world map to choose their own path to reach Dr. Wily's castle.
While I spent hours doodling detailed layouts of these ideas in my Trapper Keeper, my grand plan to embark on a new career never took off. The odds were stacked against me: Everything I wanted to make was entirely derivative of established properties. Moreover, I had only a fleeting knowledge of BASIC programming, which was insufficient to create a complex consumer game, and I was 12 years old. I had the passion and enthusiasm to fantasise about designing a video game but lacked the means or opportunity to do so.
In honour of his 75th birthday this week, we shall talk about a man who was afforded such a chance despite his open hostility for the medium. A significant corporation assumed that getting a famous face on the box would justify developing a game around a celebrity, only for said celebrity to propose ideas that turned the project into an infamously obtuse puzzle few players could understand.
The man in question is Takeshi Kitano, and the game is Takeshi no Chōsenjō a.k.a. "Takeshi's Challenge."
In a pop culture landscape that is entirely celebrity-driven, Takeshi Kitano stands as one of the giants of Japanese media. He made a name for himself as part of a manzai comedy duo back in the 1970s, where he and a pal were collectively known as "Two Beat." While the pair have long since split up, to this day, Kitano is regularly credited as "Beat Takeshi" in his many, many TV appearances. We used to crack jokes about the late Bob Saget when he starred in two shows on ABC in the 1990s. Still, Kitano regularly hosts at least six programs on Japanese television as of this writing, with a list of past broadcast credits that reads more extended than most biographies.
However, Kitano did not stick to stand-up, as he quickly found acting roles in a variety of genres. One of his earliest parts that garnered worldwide attention was that of a cruel prison guard in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a beautiful but harrowing story of British POWs in World War II. Kitano delivers the final, titular line of the film in a moment I will never forget.
During this post-Lawrence period, when Kitano could not be more well-known, the comedian and Taito met to discuss creating a video game with his likeness. Accounts differ as to which party took the first step: Either Taito approached Kitano looking to license his name and image for a generic shooting game, or Kitano came to Taito and told them about a game he wanted to make. Whichever side contacted the other, everyone agrees that Kitano was not content to sign away his identity without creative input into the project.
The development process for Takeshi no Chōsenjō has a similarly contested backstory. Kitano claims that he met with the staff just once for an hour in a coffee shop and outlined his entire plan. Taito's people tell a different tale, one where they diligently recorded everything Kitano told them over drinks and pledged to include all his ideas regardless of how intoxicated he was. According to chief programmer Eiichiro Morinaga's personal blog, he recalls taking many trips to the top floor of a Shinjuku hotel to meet Kitano and coming away with an entire notebook's worth of material.
Whomever you choose to believe, the resulting game created under these disputed circumstances is a uniquely ambitious open-world adventure. In Takeshi no Chōsenjō, players control a nameless "salaryman," an icon of the Japanese bubble economy. He lives and works in Tokyo, and his in-game neighbourhood is teeming with options. Players can choose to visit his office, return to his home, go to the movies, stop by the bank, go shopping, play pachinko, sing karaoke, get drunk in the bar, plus many other potential activities. All these destinations, as well as the streets in-between, have other people milling about at all times; the salaryman can start a fistfight with any of them, and a few will attack him on sight (this includes his wife and kids).
The aptly-named "challenge" of Takeshi no Chōsenjō requires players to decipher exactly which tasks must be completed (and in what order) to advance the plot. The game offers no hints, and only wild experimentation or incredible luck will lead players to unscramble the dream-logic of this world. In short, the salaryman is unhappy with his life, and he must free himself of all his woes before undertaking a journey of self-discovery. Should he make the "right" choices, he can obtain a treasure map and embark on an international jaunt to uncover a hidden fortune. Any slip-ups or oversights lead to a Game Over screen featuring his smiling portrait on display at his funeral.
Takeshi no Chōsenjō came out in late 1985*, after Super Mario Bros but before The Legend of Zelda. The Famicom craze was in its third holiday season, and Taito's gamble paid off; with Beat Takeshi's name and face on the cover, Takeshi no Chōsenjō sold about 800,000 copies. While that's not a figure that breaks any records, it certainly ranks among the system's most popular games.
Well, "popular" might not be the right word because Kitano's elaborate video game proved to be so challenging to play that audiences were upset, so upset that they inundated the publisher with disgruntled phone calls and messages. The company that produced the strategy guide received so many complaints that they printed a second supplemental book offering more tips (They also told people that the author of the first guide died, a story that I'm not sure if it is a diversion or a genuine tragedy).
Video game history is rife with stories of failure, and in the wild west that was the 1980s, there were undoubtedly more "bad" games than "good." Nevertheless, we tend to remember the ones that kept us entertained, the ones we played over and over, the ones that brought us joy. Takeshi no Chōsenjō achieved a level of infamy that few video games do by becoming synonymous with crap. In Japanese, the term is kusoge, a portmanteau of kuso (excrement) and "game," and thanks to its extensive sales and celebrity association, Takeshi no Chōsenjō is seen as the king of the heap.
I find Takeshi no Chōsenjō a fascinating piece of work as it offers players an unheard amount of gameplay choices for its era. It is so absurdly tricky that it enrages players when viewed as a task to complete, but I cannot ignore the degree of ambition and gusto that went into its development. Taito could have slapped Kitano's mug on any generic software and turned a profit, but instead created a unique interactive experience that no one will ever replicate.
To the company's credit, Taito has never shied away from preserving Takeshi no Chōsenjō by letting it slip into the annals of abandonware. Before the service shut down, Takeshi no Chōsenjō was available for purchase on the Wii Virtual Console in Japan, and a mobile port for smartphones was released in 2017. I doubt it's any easier to play with a touchscreen, but I suspect that was never the goal of the conversion.
Many video games are ephemeral products of their time, and fame is a fleeting asset in our lives. Cutting-edge technology can become obsolete in a matter of days, and even the most prominent celebrities can fall into obscurity. Yet Takeshi Kitano endures: Thanks to his lengthy career in cinema, he is even more well known in more countries in 2022 than in 1986. His "challenge" also endures; despite over 1000 cartridges in the Famicom's library, Takeshi no Chōsenjō is still a game people talk about, struggle with, and love/hate even today. Call me a cynic, but I don't think anyone involved in its production had any idea their work would leave an imprint of this magnitude—least of all Kitano, sober or otherwise.