In the seventies, two friends, Takeshi Kitano and Nirō Kaneko (also known as Kiyoshi Kaneko), formed a comedy duo known as Two Beat. Taking on the stage names Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi, their manzai routines, a sketch which involves back-and-forth banter between a funny man (boke) and a straight man (tsukkomi), became a massive success when they performed on television for the first time in 1976. Mr. Kitano’s risqué material was the true source of their popularity. As far as he was concerned, there were no unacceptable targets, as the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, children, and women among others found themselves the punch line of his humor. Despite being one of the most successful acts of its kind during the late seventies and early eighties, Mr. Kitano decided to go solo, dissolving the duo.
In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros., taking the entire world by storm and forever changing how artists went about creating 2D platformers. Mr. Kitano observed the game’s overwhelming popularity and decided to create a live-action version – the result being Takeshi’s Castle in 1986. Each show involved anywhere between 100 and 142 contestants undergoing a series of grueling physical challenges with the goal of reaching Mr. Kitano in his castle. This proved to be easier said than done, for the difficulty in accomplishing this task was such that only nine people ever won. It was a beloved show in its native homeland, and it would become a cult classic when it began broadcasting overseas, reaching an unexpected level of popularity in Spain.
In the same year Takeshi’s Castle debuted, Taito Corporation, the company behind the 1978 arcade sensation, Space Invaders, planned an adaption for Nintendo’s Famicom console. When he learned of this, Mr. Kitano himself contacted the designers about ideas for an entirely original game. Inserting his trademark brand of black comedy, the fruit of this endeavor was released in December of that year under the name Takeshi’s Challenge. Other video games bearing the name of a celebrity had been developed prior to this one, but Mr. Kitano was the first to actively contribute to the development process. Partly because of his fame, Takeshi’s Challenge ended up moving 800,000 units, and it left a profound impact on all who played it.
Analyzing the Experience
Takeshi’s Challenge is a 2D side-scrolling game, though it becomes clear within seconds of playing that it’s far from a typical example of one.
Rather than casting the player as a portly plumber who can jump over twenty feet in the air or a blue robot capable of using the powers of those he defeats, Takeshi’s Challenge has you assume the role of a despondent salaryman. One might suppose that the mundane setting has an effect on how the game is played, and they would be right. Although the protagonist can indeed jump unusually high like his peers, there’s less of an emphasis on platforming and more of one placed on exploration and solving puzzles.
It may seem as though what I described would be an adventure game, and that’s certainly what Takeshi’s Challenge entails on the surface, but it’s something of a disingenuous account. This is because even the most cryptic adventure games have the courtesy to include an overarching goal whereas Takeshi’s Challenge goes entirely against this notion by leaving players to wander around looking for something to do.
As it would turn out, there’s quite a lot one can do; you are able to sing karaoke by utilizing the second controller’s microphone, play pachinko, and even get a drink at the bar. Surprisingly, most of these random actions are required to complete the game. By singing well at the karaoke bar, you get in a large brawl, beating up the hostesses and the yakuza members who show up. Shortly after that, an old man will appear and present you with a blank piece of paper. You have various options on what to do with it, but you can either soak it in water for five to ten minutes or expose it to sunlight for an hour in real time. Any other choice will result in it being destroyed, and there is no onscreen counter to tell you how long you’ve been waiting. Once the right conditions have been met, you’re at last given a clear objective, for the paper is in fact a treasure map leading to somewhere in the South Pacific. Most players would take cues from this by purchasing a ticket to the region only to be taken aback when the plane explodes for no apparent reason.
In the confines of the game universe, it’s random, but there is a reason why it happened. It occurs in the event that you fail to divorce your wife, quit your job, or find the treasure map. Resigning is self-explanatory, but divorcing your wife involves drinking at a bar until you lose consciousness and paying alimony. Because doing so involves losing a sizeable portion of your money, it’s best to do this when you have none on your person. This involves a set of transactions you would otherwise have no reason to execute.
This is where the true frustration sets in; absolutely nothing in the game hints at what you need to do in order to progress. The actions one must take to win defy any kind of Earthly logic. Although the same could be said of countless classic adventure games such as the 1984 adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this case is notable in that it was completely intentional on Mr. Kitano’s part. It’s stated in the introductory text that this is a game made by a man who hates the medium, and it’s exactly what the design choices entail. The blurb on the front cover even warns would-be buyers that “common sense is dangerous.” The joke is that the experience demonstrates an intentional lack of polish.
Such are the lengths Mr. Kitano went to produce an unenjoyable game that even entering buildings is a task rendered exceedingly difficult. Intuitively, one accomplishes this by pressing up when in front of a doorway.
However, these passages could be nondescript to the point where no one would know they even exist. I’m sure most people looking at the above screenshot would assume the character has reached a dead-end. Instead, there’s another screen which can be accessed from that position. What makes this worse is how perfectly you need to line up perfectly in order to enter a new area; if you’re a little off-center, it doesn’t count. Moreover, the animation plays regardless of whether or not there’s an entryway, meaning you could be misled into believing it really is a dead-end if it ends up doing nothing.
Once the main character has reached the South Pacific, he will need to travel to a new island. However, no planes can reach it, so the only method of ingress involves a recreational activity. If you didn’t bother getting a corresponding certificate, you can’t win the game. Specifically, you need to use a hang glider to reach to the island on which the treasure is located. You can also attempt to get there via a boat, scuba diving, a hot-air balloon, or a Cessna, but none of these options will work. The boat and scuba gear can’t fly while the hot-air balloon is unable to ascend or descend. The Cessna would appear to be the best option, but when you reach the end of the stage, you’ll learn it cannot land.
Like everything else in the game, hang gliding is annoying. It cannot ascend by itself; the only way to do so is to hit a gust of wind. During this segment, you will be accosted by birds that fly to your exact altitude and UFOs capable of shooting you out of the air. All it takes is a single hit for your character to die, forcing you to restart the section from the beginning in such an event. To make this even more daunting, you need to have pinpoint accuracy or else the bullet will phase through the enemy, and the gusts can be destroyed as well. Furthermore, you can only fire one shot at a time; in order to attack again, you must wait for the bullet to leave the screen.
Once you land on the appropriate island, the game becomes relatively easier – provided you have everything you need, naturally. After interacting with the natives, you eventually learn of the treasure’s location. Once you find it, the old man who gave you the map will kill you, taking the bounty for himself. After doubtlessly restarting the game countless times when informed they needed an item from the starting areas, it turns out killing the old man was a requirement to win all along. Anyone who failed to do this must restart the entire game, which includes having to repeat the hang gliding stage.
In the event that you somehow managed to soldier on through to the end, the following screen is what you’re rewarded with.
Should you decide to wait five minutes, Mr. Kitano has something else to say.
What’s particularly interesting about this message is how displaced from time it manages to be. In the mid-2000s, artists catered to the propensity their fans had to play a game to absolute completion by including achievements for almost every conceivable, obscure action they could take. Consequently, Mr. Kitano’s teasing of people who completed his game could be seen as a prophetic, ahead-of-its-time deconstruction of fans for whom finishing the main story isn’t enough – they have to find every little secret, occasionally going as far as relying on hearsay to pursue fruitless endeavors. On the other hand, Takeshi’s Challenge is such a terrible game that it doesn’t really deserve a point for this.
Drawing a Conclusion
Western fans lament whenever a great game fails to leave Japan. Although there have been several provable instances of publishers electing not to localize an anticipated title, it’s easy to forget that most of the time, games never leave their home country because they’re objectively horrendous. In the case of Takeshi’s Challenge, Taito also likely realized that because the average Westerner had no idea who Mr. Kitano was at the time, they wouldn’t be nearly as receptive to the joke as their Japanese counterparts. That they ultimately chose not to export it overseas was a wise decision to be sure. If you want proof that not every Japan-exclusive game is good, this one will provide you all the evidence you need.
The situations are admittedly rather funny, but they’re not fun to experience for oneself; you’re better off watching somebody else play through it instead. Takeshi’s Challenge also represents a part of gaming I’m not sorry to have seen fall by the wayside. It’s a game that became a bestseller entirely due to its celebrity involvement, and it’s not a plausible scenario in a world where the internet exists. Had that been the case, a contingent of negative reviews would doubtlessly have sounded the game’s death knell before too many people bought it. Certainly plenty of people have bought terrible games just to experience how bad they are, but the odds of them purchasing it blindly these days are miniscule.
The funniest aspect about Takeshi’s Challenge has nothing to do with any of the jokes told in the game itself. Instead, it’s the knowledge that bigger disasters have graced the console such as Deadly Towers and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and as far as anyone can tell, they didn’t have Mr. Kitano’s excuse for why they turned out so poorly. In other words, he set out to make people hate video games by creating the worst of the worst, but in that field, his work ended up being outclassed by earnest efforts. Too bad, Mr. Kitano. Better luck next time.
Final Score: 2/10