Takeshi’s Challenge: Shitty game yesterday, masterpiece today

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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!

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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.  And starting with Super Mario World, the colors were reversed to white spots on a red cap, which is how the mushroom has looked since.

The Super Mushroom’s new look sheds light on its identity.  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!

Anime for people who hate anime: Planetes

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Caution: there’s a spoiler in this review about a relationship between two of the characters in this series. It’s not really that much of a spoiler if you can draw real basic conclusions from character dynamics in episode 1, but still. Read on if you want.

Set in 2075, Planetes centers on the Space Debris Section of Technora Corporation. Derisively called Half Section because of its small staff and cramped, shoddy office space, this department is looked down upon by pretty much everyone. Despite the necessity of space debris cleanup, nobody really wants to do it because it’s both unglamorous and hard work – yet that’s exactly where Ai Tanabe, a recent graduate, ends up because she couldn’t get a better position elsewhere.* Tanabe is a bright-eyed, almost annoyingly optimistic young woman, and she immediately gets on the nerves of Hachirota Hoshino, a/k/a Hachimaki, a young astronaut who has a lot of talent but also a sour, sarcastic attitude. The complicated relationship between the optimist Tanabe and the realist Hachimaki is a big part of the story of Planetes.**

Tanabe (left) meeting Hachimaki (right).  Note the space diapers.  Being an astronaut is not as glamorous as Miss Tanabe thought.

Tanabe (left) meeting Hachimaki (right). Note the space diapers. Being an astronaut is not as glamorous as Miss Tanabe thought.

Planetes is a hard science fiction manga-turned-anime. There’s nothing especially fantastic about the space travel going on in the series; it’s pretty easy to imagine actually happening 60 years from now. There’s a large base on the Moon, but otherwise most activity in space occurs in near Earth orbit. The governments and corporations of Earth are planning to send a mission to Jupiter, however, and Hachimaki desperately wants get out of his dead-end job and land a spot on the elite crew to make the first trip. The mission to Jupiter sets the stage for a lot of the drama in the second half of the series.

Despite the mundaneness of their jobs, the crew of Half Section get involved in a lot of action. Several episodes feature situations in which the crew must recover runaway satellites and other such dangerous, potentially life-threatening hazards. Any fans of realistic science fiction or dramatized accounts of real space flight missions (for example, the film Apollo 13) will probably enjoy these scenes. I even read somewhere that the animators increased the number of cels used in scenes involving zero gravity (which are a lot of scenes in Planetes) to increase the realism of the movement of characters and objects.

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Points to the reader who’s already figured out that Planetes is, in part, a love story. It’s pretty obvious from the first episode that Tanabe and Hachimaki are going to end up romantically involved, because they’re about the same age and they have a weird kind of love/hate thing going on for the first half of the series.

I usually don’t go for love stories because I’m an asshole who doesn’t believe in true love. The romance aspect of Planetes works, though, because it feels realistic and Tanabe and Hachimaki have believable character traits and flaws and a relationship that the series builds upon from the first episode until they end up hitting it off. It also doesn’t overpower the larger story. The romance plot of Planetes in that sense is the opposite of the one in Titanic, which both overpowered the larger story and was fakey and unbelievable. Seriously, watch it again. Jack and Rose are perfect characters with zero flaws who “fall in love” within one or two days of meeting each other. This is okay though because Rose’s fiancé is a two-dimensional rich shithead who only cares about money. Fuck you, James Cameron. Fuck you and your billions of dollars. You rich shithead.

This is way more what an actual relationship is like: screaming at each other from the very first episode.

This is way more what an actual relationship is like: screaming at each other from the very first episode.

Tanabe and Hachimaki are the most central characters in Planetes, but the series gives a lot of screen time to the other crew members of Half Section. Also present are Fee Carmichael, a chain-smoking, eternally stressed female pilot; Yuri Mikhailkov, a pilot who lost his wife to an accident caused by space debris; and the clerks and accountants of the office, who usually stay inside during cleanup operations but also play a part in the struggles of the department. Some of these characters are more comic relief than serious figures (for example, the office-bound department chief and his assistant, a divorced accountant from India with several children who is usually seeking out a way to pay his massive child support bill.)

Planetes also doesn’t focus exclusively on the positive aspects of space exploration. There’s a subplot that runs through most of the series about a terroristic resistance to humanity’s expansion into space – because it allegedly takes resources away from and ignores the needs of the third world. Planetes doesn’t condone such acts, and it definitely seems to lean towards the “space exploration/expansion is good” viewpoint, since its protagonists subscribe to that view. But the series does ask the question, and that’s significant in itself.

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Forget the fact that Planetes is an anime series. It is simply one of the best TV shows that I’ve ever seen. I do like Akagi and Kaiji better, but Planetes is really a completely different sort of series. Despite the fact that Planetes is mostly set in space, its characters and story are far more grounded than the insane gambles and superhuman feats featured in Fukumoto’s works. (By the way, here’s just another reason why the whole “anime as a genre” idea that seems to be so common is silly and nonsensical.)

Anime or not, I’d honestly recommend Planetes to most anyone. Unless they’re into Keeping Up With The Kardashians or that kind of shit. Then they probably won’t like it, I guess.

* I know this experience all too well, because I’m going through it right now.
** Planetes manga writer and creator Makoto Yukimura apparently had some fun with his protagonists’ names. The Ai in Ai Tanabe is written as 愛, meaning “love”, and Tanabe, as an optimist, believes in the power of love. Hoshino, Hachimaki’s last name, is written 星野, which as far as I can tell means “star-field”. That name makes sense for Hachimaki considering his goals.