Breaking the fourth wall: A review of Contact (DS)

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Have you ever wondered whether the characters on the other side of the screen knew you were there, controlling them, fighting with them? Have you ever played a game in which one or more of the characters knew they were being controlled by “the player”?

Well, chances are you haven’t, because Contact was a commercial failure. Published by Atlus and developed by Grasshopper Manufacture under the direction of famous weirdo game maker Suda51, Contact was released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS, which was still a new and fresh system at the time. This game has Suda’s marks all over it: weird story, surreal scenes that don’t make a lot of sense, puzzles with strange solutions, etc. The element of Contact that really made it stand out, however, was the fourth-wall-breaking part. The game opens with the Professor, a really professorial-looking man with white hair and a lab coat, who is amazed to see you and starts asking you questions directly. He even addresses you by name (which the game presumably gets from the DS profile.) The Professor, and only the Professor, knows that you exist, and he talks to you throughout the game. Your participation in the game is pretty cleverly woven into the story and mechanics. The game even uses the unique (in 2006) split-screen DS in an interesting way, putting the Professor and Mochi in their lab on the top screen and the main part of the game in the bottom screen.

Oh yeah, and the Professor also has a cat named Mochi. Mochi also knows you exist because you can play with him (i.e. poke him with the stylus) in the save screen.

Above: the Professor and Mochi.  Below: the primary game field.

Above: the Professor and Mochi. Below: the primary game field.

The player-controlled character throughout the game is “Terry”, a silent kid protagonist who has to help the Professor recover fuel cells to get his spaceship running again. There’s also a plot about evil astronauts, and Terry chases around a girl who may or may not be a villain, but she keeps disappearing for some reason. Despite having played Contact, I don’t really know what the game is about, although this is standard as far as Suda51 games go. Also, since Suda wrote the game, there are a few creepy and vaguely sexual parts in the game despite its E 10+ rating. For example, at one point Terry decides to caress a set of nightwear folded on a female NPC’s bed while he is alone in her house.

You didn't believe me?

You didn’t believe me?

The game itself is pretty simple. It’s a basic adventure game: you move your character around on the field, hit enemies with swords and axes, talk to NPCs, run through dungeons, and find things. Contact also features a set of jobs Terry can take on, such as chef and thief, which modify his abilities. Combat is the weakest aspect of Contact, actually – it’s pretty much “run up again enemies and hit A until they die.” Special abilities and recipes for potions and dishes that modify your stats add something to this combat system, but not much.

Even so, Contact is a good game. It feels like a very “small” game – it’s short (for an adventure/RPG game), the characters are bare sketches, and the combat is as simple as it could possibly be. These qualities might have been the reasons for Contact‘s failure to sell well. However, the game is also bizarre and weirdly fascinating, with a nice soundtrack, an interesting gimmick that doesn’t feel too out of place, and a plot that keeps you at least wondering what the hell is going on. It’s a strange trip into a different world and a pleasant break from my own. I’m happy I played it. Contact takes your morning coffee and puts a drop of fairy juice in it and messes around with your brain-wires a bit, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

So if you like Suda51 and you don’t mind a kind of crappy combat system, I’d highly recommend Contact. It’s not the greatest game of all time by any means, but it also didn’t deserve to be almost totally ignored. If you find a copy for ten dollars (probably without the manual and box, but such is life) give it a try.

Why I’m not excited about the Final Fantasy VII remake

I’m sure all this has been posted before by other, more recognized/successful/better people, but I’ll also say it: I don’t think the Final Fantasy VII remake is a great idea. It’s being hyped like crazy, but let’s examine just two reasons why the next FF7 might not be very good (except for Square-Enix’s bottom line, maybe, because they could sell a box of dog shit with the Final Fantasy name on it and it would still fly off of the shelves and get a 9/10 from IGN.)

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1) Final Fantasy VII is kind of a goofy game

Final Fantasy VII is goofy as fuck. Yeah, it has a serious theme – the end of the world. And yes, Cloud gets both his brood and his ellipses on the whole time, and he’s a super-serious protagonist.

But consider all the bizarre parts of FF7 that don’t fit the story. There are plenty of weird little bits of dialogue that read like jokes, and even during tense situations, like when the whole party is on the ship heading out from Junon and everyone has to disguise themselves like sailors, even Red XIII, who’s awkwardly trying to stand on his hind legs. There’s even a joke character in the form of Barrett, a/k/a Mr. T. Finally, there’s the whole Wall Market sequence, where Cloud famously crossdresses and also gets gangbanged by several burly men in a bathhouse, all of course to save Tifa from creepy fuck Don Corneo. (Well, it’s possible that such a scene could be some kind of take on gender fluidity and sexual identity, but the original FF7 played the whole thing off as a weird joke.)

I guess my question is whether Square plans on including all that stuff in the remake. If they do, the new FF7 is going to have serious tone problems. All the goofiness kind of worked when I was playing this game at 10 years old because the graphics were blocky and Cloud and co. were running around with their pipe cleaner arms and big heads and it all seemed to work in a strange way. With the realistic style of newer FF games, I feel like it wouldn’t work so well.

Of course, Square might go the other direction and change a lot of FF7 for the remake. Which brings me to problem #2:

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2) The latest Final Fantasy games haven’t been very good

FF7 was released in 1997. That was 18 years ago. The FF series (and JRPGs as a whole) have changed a lot in that time. Looking at the series’ recent history, the last main numbered non-sequel game in the line was Final Fantasy XIII, released in 2010. I mostly hated that game because of its linearity. It was a pretty game and the music was great, but the actual experience of playing it was lousy. And yeah, the game world does open up after a while, but having to grind through hours and hours of the same characters saying the same things and fighting the same fights over and over again really wears you down. Who looks forward to a bowl of ice cream after being forced to eat a gallon of creamed corn?

I know a lot of people will disagree on this point, but if the new FF7 ends up anything like FF13, it’s going to 1) suck and 2) not be much of anything like the original FF7. Tetsuya Nomura is directing it apparently, and he hasn’t directed an FF game before as far as I know, so that could be interesting, but I’m still bothered by it. Then again, maybe it will be more like the soon-to-come Final Fantasy XV? Who knows if that would be a good thing.

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So that’s all I have to say about that. The new FF7 could be great, and it’s definitely a good move for Square-Enix as far as accumulating money goes, but it could easily be a big fuck disappointment as well.

A review of Robot Volume 2 by Range Murata et al.

Some days ago, I ordered a reduced-price, extremely secondhand out-of-print comic/artbook thing called Robot Vol. 2 that was released in 2006.

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This series of publications is well known for its great art, and it wasn’t a disappointment in that regard. The first thing that struck me about this, and the other issues in the Robot line, are the covers. They’re all done by Range Murata, an artist who created character designs for the anime series Blue Submarine No. 6 and Last Exile. I really like his art. The characters look interesting and both character and setting often have a futuristic feel to them. Though I should mention that a few of the covers might get looked at sideways by some people, like the one to the fourth volume in the series (not strictly NSFW, but in a practical sense it definitely is.) Visitors to your house who see it might have some uncharitable thoughts about you, even though there’s nothing really objectionable like that inside the book itself. Well, there are some sexual themes in one or two of the featured works, hence the PARENTAL ADVISORY – EXPLICIT CONTENT sticker on the front, but nothing like that.

Anyway, the covers are nice, but what about the contents? These books are collections of stories created by various manga artists from Japan. The pieces range wildly in tone from weird comedy (a robotic sparrow comes from the future to help a girl avoid being assaulted by a giant hamster) to serious drama (see the piece done by Yoshitoshi Abe, the artist famous for the weird, haunting cult series Serial Experiments Lain.)

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Above, an example of one of the kinds of pieces you’ll find in the book. This one seems to be about a colorless world where certain characters can create color. It’s a really nice concept and works very well visually, with the artist adding color to the comic as the story progresses and then taking it away when the characters “wash” the colors off of themselves. A lot of the other stories in Robot have interesting art styles.

If there’s one place where Robot is lacking, however, it is in the story department. A lot of the pieces in this volume either have no story at all or have stories that make no sense. Some of the pieces seem to be scenes from existing works that were ripped completely out of their surrounding contexts. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something, because some of the pieces in Volume 2 seem to be continuations of works started in Volume 1, but online reviews I read before buying this agree with me on the story front. And a piece near the back of the book does involve some sort of sexual theme as the warning on the cover promises, though as usual I can’t understand what the piece is about or if it’s about anything at all.

So, the verdict: don’t buy this expecting to read a compelling story. If, however, you want a fantastically produced artbook-sized set of surreal comics that don’t make sense, Robot is for you. These books seem to be mostly out of print, but I got this and a couple of other volumes used for around 10 dollars each – a pretty good deal, especially considering the fact that they seem to have retailed for around 25 dollars. There are 10 volumes of Robot out, but unfortunately only 1 through 5 have been translated into English and released in the US, so if you’re the kind of obsessive collector who must have every volume in a series on your bookshelf you’ll have to import the rest. I’d say these were well worth the money, even though I had to buy them used because the new copies cost like 600% more and Volume 2 came to my mailbox a little beat up, scratched and torn.

That’s the US Postal Service for you, though. Really, I don’t even know if they were the ones responsible for the ultimate condition of the book when I got it, but I’m going to assume they were. You mysteriously “lose” the item I shipped to the next state over, and then you won’t spare two lousy strips of tape for a printed shipping label for the replacement item? Fuck the Post Office. I’m happy they’re failing, and I hope they collapse. Maybe then I wouldn’t get so much god damn junk mail.

Five interesting and bizarre things about Persona 3 Portable

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Note: I just realized that none of this post makes any sense unless you’ve played Persona 3 already. So maybe don’t bother reading this unless you have. And you should, because Persona 3 is a good game (albeit incredibly long. I hope you have free time.)

Persona 3 Portable is a title I’ve been interested in for a while. In 2006/7, I ran through Persona 3, and about a year later I played the expanded “director’s cut” Persona 3 FES, and then I was sick of anything Persona-related (until Persona 4 came out, of course.) It’s 2015 now, though, Persona 5 is finally on its way, and there was recently a sale on P3P in the Playstation store, so what better time to look back at the series’ past? Also, it was on sale for five dollars.

If you’ve played either console version of P3, P3P does offer some new material. The most striking aspect of P3P is the choice it offers between the original male protagonist and a new female protagonist, opening up most of the main male cast to P3’s dating game. It also throws in a few completely new characters for the lady protagonist to interact with. A few things about P3P strike me as interesting, in fact. Here they are.

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1) The female protagonist’s hairclip

The female player character’s hairclip (hairbands? whatever) isn’t something most people would look at twice. I certainly didn’t think about it at first. But there is something significant about it: it’s a mark of her identity. It takes the form of two X’s and two straight lines. Unless I’m crazy, I would say it looks just like the Roman numeral XXII.

The reason this jumped out at me was the tarot. Anyone who knows even two sentences of information about the Persona series knows that the tarot is one of its key themes, even going back as far as the old Persona games on the Playstation. And as Igor tells you near the beginning of P3, you, the player character, are 0, “The Fool”, the card that represents infinite possibilities (or something.) If you take a closer look at the tarot, however, you’ll find that The Fool is categorized both as Arcana 0 and Arcana XXII. Thus, the female protagonist’s XXII hairclip/band thing. There’s no way in hell it’s a coincidence, and it’s just one of the subtle details the artist/character designer quietly slipped into the game. I think this is pretty cool.

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2) Interlocking social link routes

If you played P3 vanilla or P3 FES, you should absolutely play as the girl first. Not just to fulfill your inner dream of pretending to be a schoolgirl (as was the case for me, obviously) but because the female protagonist’s social links are in part different from the male protagonist’s. Most of the links seem to be with the same characters, but much of the contents of the links are different because of the player character’s opposite sex. Yukari’s link is a good example of this: while she’s initially a little removed from the hero, she’s much more open towards the heroine from the very beginning.

P3P does feature a few brand new links, though, and they dovetail nicely with the existing ones. Rio, for example, is the captain of the tennis/volleyball team (the only female sports teams at the school, apparently) with a longing for one of the male protagonist’s social link friends. Even characters who were talked about but never had lines in the old P3 make an appearance in the course of these new social links. And, of course, you can now date the dudes. (Unfortunately, you can’t really date the girls as a girl – no same-sex relations in the world of Persona.) These new social links, and the additions to the old ones, help make P3P feel like a fresh experience. They also make me remember how unlikeable some of those characters were, like creepy fuck Kenji shown above, or like main cast character Yukari, who honestly is annoying (but entirely realistic!) in parts.

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3) Your teachers are still incompetent

One of the common threads running through P3 and P4 (and P5?) are the goofy teachers. Who can forget the extremely crabby Japanese-with-a-New-York-accent Mr. Morooka, or the slutty mature lady teacher Ms. Kashiwagi, who came pretty close to showing her cooch to the entire class on her very first day? Even the less central teachers get weird personalities, though, and P3P continues that trend. The greatest standouts here have to be the math teacher who can’t seem to do math problems without getting three wildly different answers, and the Japanese history teacher who can’t shut up about the Sengoku era and breezes over whole centuries-long time periods in a couple of minutes because he only wants to talk about samurai and bushido and all that stuff. I’ve worked as a history teacher, and I can tell you that if I had skipped over 3000 years of world history just to spend three weeks on the Mongol conquests, I’d have been kicked out of my teaching position on my ass. It’s a wonder that P3’s Gekkoukan High and P4’s Yasoinaba High keep hiring these dipshit teachers – only a few stand out as competent. Oh well, they’re good comic relief.

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4) There’s a Ken Amada social link now, and it gets weird

If you played either P3 on the PS2, you probably remember Ken Amada. He’s the little kid of the P3 team. There are spoilerish reasons for why an elementary school student is on your high school shadow monster battle squad, so I won’t go into them. The important point here is that Ken is a little kid. Mature for his age, sure, but he’s still 10 according to Atlus.

So it’s kind of weird that you, as the female protagonist, can date Ken in your social link with him. You could argue that’s not quite what you’re doing, but you totally are. Nothing illegal is suggested, but the real litmus test in my opinion is whether the same scenario presented in this social link would have worked if the characters’ sexes had been reversed. My guess is that Atlus would have removed that social link the fuck out of the game as quickly as possible.

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5) Fanservice and more fanservice

The Persona games seem to be unique among the Shin Megami Tensei family for featuring a small degree of fanservice. These bits of fanservice usually sit out of the way of the normal course of the game (i.e. you need to do a sidequest or fulfill a certain condition to get the fanservice in question) and they aren’t featured in the plain vanilla versions of P3 and P4. In P3P, though, the fanservice is compounded by the fact that you can now play as a girl and run around Tartarus in a bikini, the same one you wear on the summer vacation part of the game. FES let you do this with Yukari and Mitsuru, and their beach outfits remain in this version of the game. You can also dress up all three in fantasy-style bikini armor, which is prominently featured in Tartarus early on in glowing yellow chests. Of course, I had to use this armor, because it was the best around at the time. That extra 12 DEF is vital, you know.

Okay, so maybe the fanservice isn’t all that surprising, but I wonder about the point of it. If you want the beachwear, you have to pay out the ass for it, like 300K each. It is fun to listen to Yukari complain about being forced to wear a bikini in battle when you talk to her, I guess, but that’s about it. To P3P’s credit, it also offers bathing suits for the male characters to wear in battle, so you can’t accuse Atlus of being misogynist. Though I’m sure the multitudes of Tumblr users somehow found a way to do so.

Anyway, P3P is worth playing, even if you’ve played P3 already. You’ll have to find some way to spend the time until Persona 5 comes out, after all.

Online book translation review: Ura Hello Work by Shinya Kusaka

In the course of my internet searches, a few years ago I found the blog Tokyo Damage Report. Written by a guy who I’m pretty sure is an American, who is (was?) living in Japan. Tokyo Damage Report is a fascinating read for anyone interested in some of the more extreme and more serious sides of Japanese life – for example, the author writes about the clashes between the left and right wings in Japan, the infamous right-wing uyoku groups and their flag and patriotic motto-covered black vans that spew out propaganda through loudspeakers, stuff about the more underground Japanese music scene, and a lot about language.

Another service the author provides (free of charge!) is the translation of controversial books from Japanese to English. Some of the more “dangerous”, more or less banned material, is political in nature. Today we’ll be looking at something a little less risky, though – just a series of interviews with various Japanese grey/black market guys talking about the rackets they run. This is Ura Hello Work by Shinya Kusaka, an author I couldn’t find much info on. In fact, I’m betting “Shinya Kusaka” is a pen name, the reason for which will probably be clear as we take a look at his book.

Kusaka’s book contains interviews with 20 people, all of whom work in some kind of shady profession. Some are entirely legal, but have a hint of mob connections (the tuna boat fisher, who admits that a few guys on each long fishing voyage are there to pay off huge debts to the yakuza.) Some are legal but inherently dangerous (the medical test subject, who left behind testing for a “real” job after a friend who received an experimental shot went permanently numb in his right arm.) Some are just depressing (the cult member, who recounts working fifteen-hour days on the street selling fakey “natural” medicine for absolutely no commission.) Many are borderline or outright illegal. Kusaka speaks with a nuclear waste dumper, a drug smuggler, a forger, a loan shark, and even a black market organ dealer.

A few of the interviews take place in Kabukicho, Tokyo's famous red light district.  (Source: Japanexperterna.se, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

A few of the interviews take place in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s famous red light district. (Source: Japanexperterna.se, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Each interview goes pretty in-depth into the details of the interviewee’s operation. The interview subjects vary in how willing they are to really get explicit about their professions, often depending upon just how illegal said professions are, but Kusaka manages to ask pertinent questions and gets mostly straight answers out of them. He sometimes gets the subject to tell a deeply personal story. See, for example, the “midnight mover” (a guy who moves clients to new cities and gets them new identities to escape crazy spouses, debt collectors, etc.) talks about a yakuza guy in trouble with his particular group for stealing from the coffers, and who wants to “disappear” with the mover’s help – and how he’s physically wrenched out of the mover’s van by his pissed off colleagues. One can maybe imagine what happened to that guy. Kusaka’s book has several harrowing stories like this.

As the translator points out, a lot of these rackets probably exist in your country too, but in Japan some of them are done totally differently because of the different laws and loopholes involved in the process. One such job is that of the sokaiya, a sort of sophisticated gangster who attends shareholders’ meetings and either conduct protection work for the corporation, shouting down opposition and dangerous questions from the shareholders (if the corporation has paid the protection money); or attack the board of directors and corporate officers themselves with allegations of scandal and poor future performance (if the corporation hasn’t paid.) This isn’t a racket I’ve heard of anywhere else.

Another racket the book covers is loan sharking, as depicted here in Kaiji.

Another racket the book covers is loan sharking, as depicted here in Kaiji.

These kinds of true crime works are apparently pretty popular in Japan. The translator, in his preface, suggests that this is because these books are the only places Japanese get the real dirt on how things work – because the national institutions in place are designed to protect the rich and powerful! Doesn’t that sound familiar? I’m willing to bet this is something that isn’t unique to Japan.

Anyway, if you like books and series about the criminal underworld (like, for example, Fukumoto’s comics) or if you have an interest in the seedier sides of society, you should check out Ura Hello Work at the link above.

Takeshi’s Challenge: Shitty game yesterday, masterpiece tomorrow

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If you’re reading this, you probably already know about Takeshi’s Challenge. Never released in the West, this Famicom title is notorious in its home country for being an obtuse, ridiculous game that shits on the player every possible chance it gets. This game isn’t just hard – it’s practically impossible to play without having a walkthrough, because progression requires the player to simply know exactly what to do without any hints whatsoever, and many of the “right” choices make no sense at all. Takeshi’s Challenge is famous for its badness. Its infamy has even spread somewhat to the rest of the world thanks to Youtube let’s plays and video game shows.

That “Beat Takeshi” printed next to Taito on the title screen is not a game developer. The point of this game is that it’s a vehicle for then-and-still-famous comedian/writer/actor/director/etc. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. Kitano is best known in the States for Takeshi’s Castle, aired in America on Spike TV as Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, that Japanese game show where contestants run through silly obstacle courses, but Kitano’s real reputation seems to lie in his old comedy act, his violent cop/gangster movies, and his later, more artsy works. As it happens, understanding Kitano, a guy with a sarcastic streak and a weird sense of humor, is important to understanding just why Takeshi’s Challenge is the way it is. It’s my opinion that Takeshi’s Challenge is not a bad game. No, in fact, it’s a masterpiece that tries to teach its player valuable lessons about life. Thankfully, someone who recognized this game’s greatness did an unofficial localization of Takeshi’s Challenge into English so that we’d all be able to enjoy it.

If you consider "PUNCH YOUR MANAGER" a viable option while at work, I'd consider getting a new job.

If you consider “PUNCH YOUR MANAGER” a viable option while at work, I’d consider getting a new job.

You play as Nameless Salaryman and start the game at your company’s office. You might think you play as Takeshi himself because of the game’s title, and that’s possible, but the game never names the protagonist, and it’s just as likely that the true meaning of the title Takeshi’s Challenge is that Takeshi himself is challenging you, the player, to complete his game. This will become clearer as the game progresses.

Mr. Salaryman works at a loan company and his sales are down, as emphasized by his manager when you first talk to him and by a big chart in the other room that says “SALES” with a red line sloping down. Here the game presents you with your first choice: you must SIGN RESIGNATION. The manager, despite his earlier scolding, pleasantly thanks you for your service and offers you an extra bonus as a parting gift. Maybe he’s just happy to be rid of you. Whatever the case, this is the first in a series of several brash actions that you must take to win the game.

So you’ve quit your job. What’s your next destination? Obviously it’s the bar. Time to get wasted!

In America, Nintendo did its best to remove all adult themes from its releases.  In Japan, Nintendo allowed children to get black-out drunk and punch people.

In America, Nintendo did its best to remove all adult themes from its releases. In Japan, Nintendo allowed children to get black-out drunk and punch people.

Correct decision #2: leave your office and drown your worries in LIQUOR. Ignore the karaoke machine in the corner (but just for now!) Drink until you black out. Yes, really. Did I mention this game was meant for children? Back in the 80s, kids were the great majority of the video game-playing populace. Thanks for the great life lessons here, Mr. Kitano.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any better.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better.

After blacking out (quite literally: after several drinks the world goes black) you wake up in your large square house. Your wife is scolding you for being drunk yet again. At this point, you face option #3, and out of a series of choices, the correct one is “I WANT A DIVORCE”. To appease your wife, you should then “PAY ALLIMONY” (sic). Your wife seems happy enough to take most of the money on you, but she’ll still punch you for being drunk, so leave your house right after. Ignore your kid, but I’m sure the protagonist has already been ignoring him for a while now.

It’s here that the first truth of Takeshi’s Challenge emerges: to start a new life, you must destroy all links to your old one. You must quit your job and divorce your wife. Also, you should be drunk as often as possible. All I can say is that I’ve done most of these things, and I likely would have divorced my wife by now if I’d ever been married in the first place. So I don’t personally need this lesson, but it’s surely helpful to other, less enlightened players.

Since you’re now just about broke, still drunk, and without a home, you should go back to the bar. Oh yeah, at some point in this mess, you should have gone to the “Culture Club” to learn to play the shamisen (a kind of Japanese lute.) Just one of those little things you’re required to do to win the game that you’re given no idea about.

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Once you’re at the bar, have two drinks to work up enough courage to sing karaoke. There’s exactly one song out of the 20 or so listed that the customers actually want to hear, though again, the game will not tell you this. You must sing this song three times (you can tap A along with the music, though the game was designed to be sung into – the Famicom had a microphone attachment. And this was in the 80s!) Assuming the other drunk people liked your singing, a bunch of green-haired dudes enter (I think they’re meant to be yakuza guys, at least since this is a Takeshi Kitano game) who you have to beat up. Then an old man approaches you and gives you a blank map that he wants you to decipher (because you were so good at singing and beating up thugs? All right, sure.) Out of your current options, you should expose the map to the sun. Then, leave the game sitting for one whole hour. Go have lunch or something. Go outside for a while. Not in the game, in real life.

This is the game’s second lesson: good things come to those who wait. In this case, hitting any button before an hour is up “ruins” the map, and your game is over. More importantly, though, the game is teaching us that games are stupid, and that you should get your ass outside for a while. Like, right now.

Once the hour is up, the blank map somehow turns into a crude map of an archipelago. This is your path to the treasure that is your end goal (again, the game has not really said anything at this point about finding a treasure, but finding it is indeed the winning condition.) Before you leave the bar, though, beat up the old man who gave you the map.

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What’s the meaning of this betrayal? This sequence reveals the game’s third lesson: you can’t trust anyone, especially old guys who give you treasure maps. If you don’t beat up the old man, he will pop up when you finally somehow find the treasure at the end of the game and beat you up, taking it all for himself. Of course, this is the ultimate dick move, because once again the game gives you no indication of the old man’s intentions. In Takeshi’s Challenge, the correct choice is often the most ruthless one, and only the player with the foresight to take care of his only rival for the treasure will succeed.

After this you have to buy a plane ticket and fly to the archipelago, though you must first win a shamisen by losing at pachinko and beating up the yakuza who enter the parlor to fight you for no reason (because they’re loaded with pachinko balls that you can steal and turn in to the pachinko lady for a prize.) If you fail to do any one of the required tasks before leaving your hometown for your new treasure-hunting life, the plane you’re riding blows up on the way there. Yeah, it just blows up. The game briefly wonders “WAS THAT A TERRORIST ACT?” before kicking you to the title screen.

Assuming you avoid this bizarre bad end, the game goes on like this with similarly incomprehensible island adventures and frustrations until you finally find the treasure.

The only video game in history where strangers get upset when you barge into their houses uninvited.

The only video game in history where strangers get upset when you barge into their houses uninvited.

Here you get the final screen where, if you wait long enough (say, for a credits sequence) an 8-bit Takeshi Kitano will tell you to stop taking this game so seriously and get a damn life.

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You sure told us, Mr. Kitano!

Did I mention that Kitano is on record as hating video games? This is another key to unlocking the puzzle that is Takeshi’s Challenge. Legend has it (or Gamecenter CX has it, anyway) that the development team sat down with Kitano sometime in the mid-80s at a restaurant and talked to him about the game. Meanwhile Kitano, who knew nothing about video games, gave the Taito guys all kinds of ideas for what they should put into the game. All the while, Mr. Kitano was allegedly getting drunker and drunker on sake. This may well explain some of the more ridiculous or insane aspects of Takeshi’s Challenge.

For really good grilled Mormons, you have to go to Utah.

For really good grilled Mormons, you have to go to Utah.

Still, despite Mr. Kitano’s disdain of games and his probable intent here to simply play a big practical joke on the children of Japan, I think his game has some value. It’s almost a proto-GTA: you can punch anyone and run around being a belligerent asshole, and Takeshi almost encourages you to engage in these kinds of dangerous anti-social behaviors. If it had been released this year on Steam for five dollars, people would probably think of it not as a terrible game, but as a kind of surreal exploration of the world of the aimless, alcoholic white collar worker. The game would stir up internet arguments about domestic violence and first world privilege.

All that from one drunken conversation over lunch. What an achievement!

What kinds of mushrooms are Mario and Luigi eating?

As you know if you know anything about video games, mushrooms are a common theme in the Super Mario universe. The setting for the original game was the Mushroom Kingdom, Peach was originally called Princess Toadstool, etc. And, of course, Mario and Luigi gain their powers of growth and extra life collection by eating mushrooms. But the key question is: what kind of mushrooms are they eating? This is the question all of the main scientists are now asking.

First, two assumptions: 1) they really are eating these mushrooms. When a game shows your character punching a box and absorbing the turkey leg that invariably springs out of it, it’s implied that he is eating it, and I’m going to say the same goes for the Mario games. And 2) that the mushrooms are ones that exist in real life on Earth, because otherwise the answer would be that the mushrooms are some mysterious alien species. That’s too easy of an answer and I refuse to accept it.

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First: the Super Mushroom. This is the very first powerup in the Mario series. Even your grandma got this one. This mushroom has the power to make Mario or Luigi grow in size, allowing them to take one hit from an enemy before getting killed. That’s definitely an amazing mushroom. But what sort of mushroom could have such an effect?

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Here’s the same mushroom in Super Mario Bros. 3. Here we can see that the mushroom has changed color from beige with red spots to white with red spots. It has also gained a face. These changes have remained to this very day.

The Super Mushroom’s new look sheds light on its identity. The colors of the mushroom’s cap are reversed, but otherwise it has to be the amanita muscaria, a/k/a fly agaric.

Amanita muscaria is known for its psychoactive properties.  (Source: Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Amanita muscaria is known for its psychoactive properties. (Source: Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Amanita muscaria is well known in popular culture for being one of those “trippy” mushrooms, the kind that make you have hallucinations. These particular mushrooms are full of muscimol, a psychoactive compound that causes “effects… from nausea and twitching to drowsiness, cholinergic crisis-like effects (low blood pressure, sweating and salivation), auditory and visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, ataxia, and loss of equilibrium.” (thanks Wikipedia.) Apparently Siberians have been eating these for centuries to have religious experiences. Eating the flesh of the amanita muscaria can also reportedly cause micropsia, a condition in which objects appear smaller than they really are, making the subject feel larger as a consequence (see also Alice in Wonderland.) hmmmm.

It should be noted that amanita muscaria is not advisable to eat, as it apparently causes a lot of unpredictable side effects and could potentially kill someone, though this is very rare. It’s also not the “shroom” of popular recreational use; that’s a totally different mushroom that I know absolutely nothing about. No, nothing at all.

So, you know, don’t eat fly agaric, unless you really know what you’re doing. You’re not Mario, you won’t grow into a giant and gain brick-breaking powers anyway.

Second, we have the amazing…

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1-Up Mushroom. This white green-spotted mushroom gives Mario or Luigi an extra life, allowing him to return from the dead. This is truly a wonderful mushroom, the closest we’ll ever get to the root of immortality that Gilgamesh found and lost all those thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, though, this mushroom doesn’t actually seem to exist. Searching for “green mushroom” either leads to info about Mario’s 1-up mushroom or to such recipes as “green bean and portobello mushroom sauté.” Which admittedly sounds delicious, but it’s not quite what we’re looking for.

The closest thing I found to an actual green mushroom is the mycena chlorophos, a bioluminescent mushroom that emits a pale green light. However, the mushroom itself is not green. Moreover, nobody seems to know if it’s edible, presumably because nobody has ever been hungry enough to try to eat a glowing mushroom.

Don't eat these.  (Source: Anonymous Powered, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Don’t eat these. (Source: Anonymous Powered, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Finally, there’s the third, too often overlooked mushroom of the Mario universe. This is the Poison Mushroom. This first appeared in the Japan-only original Super Mario Bros. 2, in keeping with that game’s reputation as way harder and cheaper than the first.

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This mushroom looks like it could be any number of types. In fact, the Poison Mushroom of the Mario universe itself has changed its look several times. This may be an acknowledgement of the sheer number and variety of poisonous mushrooms in the world. There are many species that amateurs and even experts are advised to avoid because of their similarities to poisonous species. One example is the family of white mushrooms known as the “destroying angels.”

Amanita virosa looks harmless, but if you pick and sauté this, it will kill the shit out of you.  (Source: public domain)

Amanita virosa looks harmless, but if you pick and sauté this, it will kill the shit out of you. (Source: public domain)

The poisonous amanita mushrooms seem to be the most dangerous because of their similarity to plenty of other edible, even really good-tasting, mushrooms. It’s believed the Roman Emperor Claudius was killed, probably in an assassination, by a plate of destroying angels fried in butter. Unfortunately for him, and for Mario if he ever runs into one, these mushrooms are packed full of α-amanitin, a compound that causes liver failure and death when ingested.

If there’s any lesson that the Mario series teaches us, aside from avoiding giant turtle monsters, it is that we should be careful about eating mushrooms, even the ones that might give us hallucinations or super powers. For my part, I’m going to stick with the boring regular mushrooms sold at the grocery store.

Note to the reader: if you’re a real mycologist and not just some asshole who looked at Wikipedia and Google (i.e. me) then I’m sorry about this post, because it probably looks pretty stupid to you. On the other hand, if you know a thing about mushrooms and have some useful information, please post a comment!