In my first hour of Nippon Marathon I fell off a cliff, was beaten up by a monk, and got savagely attacked by a bunch of shiba inus.
The chaotic Early Access multiplayer game draws inspiration from Japanese game shows, giving its fraught obstacle courses cute visual presentation borrowed from series like Takeshi's Castle, Brain Wall, and Ultraman Dash—the one where contestants have to guess whether ordinary-looking household objects are actually made of chocolate or not and then bite into them.
Nippon Marathon nails this aesthetic, though the developer, Andy Madin, has never even been to Japan. His studio, Onion Soup Interactive, is based in Birmingham in the UK.
"The game started almost as like a prototype in Unity," he tells me, "really just messing around with this idea of an assault course. Like an on-foot assault course, with lots of obstacles, physics-based, with a heavy ragdoll element to it, so it is kind of amusing and reactive. It was fun and I was messing around with it, and I had people coming around so I thought I'd try and spin this out into four characters on screen at the same time and see how it goes."
Immediately he saw similarities between how the game played and the Japanese game shows he loved. He added some kanji and some set dressing and then tried to pass it off to his friends as something he'd discovered online.
"They totally believed that it was just some random obscure thing that I'd found on a Japanese website somewhere, so I thought, 'Right, that's it, this is it now. I'm going to go down this route and try and nail that as a theme.'"
One of the most interesting features he's added since then is a popularity mechanic, meaning that mid-race players can perform tasks to earn additional points from the crowd. This may include accepting a piece of fruit from a geisha, aggravating a pack of shiba inus, or skilfully jumping an oncoming car. It works the other way too, with players able to upset the audience by pushing people over or destroying the interiors of restaurants.
This idea came about because of Madin's concern about offending people with his lack of knowledge about the culture. "I was thinking about whether or not I'd accidentally managed to offend people, because I don't have first-hand experience of Japanese culture. All of the game is through the eyes of someone who has never actually been there."
He uses an example from the second level, which takes place in a shiba inu temple (all the game's temples use fictional religious iconography, like Takeshi's Castle does). "I was like, 'Surely you're supposed to take your shoes off first.' I don't want to upset anybody. I thought about this idea of, maybe that would actually upset people in the game too and that's how you get away with it. So, I started writing down different things that would count for or against you in terms of popularity."
Refusing gifts, pushing over retail employees, and failing to return a bow will all be judged harshly by the audience who determine your popularity rank. Another reason for this feature is to give a bit of extra feedback at the end of each marathon. On finishing, players obtain badges based on certain actions they performed, being rewarded for things like popularity, bravery, and smell. He hoped this would foster camaraderie between players, as they reflect on the round.
Nippon Marathon's style isn't limited to its visuals and design though. It also has an eclectic soundtrack, which aims to inject even more energy into proceedings. Every race has its own song, with numerous artists contributing to the soundtrack.
"I was quite adamant right from the beginning that I would like to have quite a strong soundtrack to the game, because you remember a game just as much from the sound design and its music as the visuals or anything else. So I put out an ad on Reddit, and I got something like 200 responses in four hours. I've listened to like every single portfolio of every single artist and I was trying really hard to whittle it down to two or three people. I ended up with a shortlist of 20 and then, after talking to them on Skype, down to eight or so."
For guidance he made the musicians listen to some of his favourite soundtracks from games like Persona 5, Katamari Damacy, and Jet Set Radio. So far this approach has worked, with several bouncy and colourful tracks accompanying the madness unfolding on screen.
Nippon Marathon has been getting a lot of feedback in Early Access, and Madin has plenty more planned for it. This includes a story mode, where players control a newcomer to the marathon who has to beat the returning champion, and party modes based on ideas from the community. There will also be four more maps introduced during Early Access.
"I would love to do tons and tons of costumes and more customization and stuff like that, but it's all going to be driven by the amount of time we have and the amount of resources that we have. I mean, the game is literally being made on a shoestring budget by one person. Onion Soup Interactive is me, my partner Amy who looks after the website and the social media stuff, and my dog—who does nothing but wind me up. There is not a lot of spare time to do things."
Nevertheless, Madin sees potential in the project. Nippon Marathon presents itself as being a real event across its social media, with Madin having created an original character named Wedy Jones, a reporter for a fictional Japanese broadcasting company, to handle all of the promotion.
I ask why he decided to hide behind a fictional persona to promote the game, rather than using his own name and image. "I feel like if everything goes well, it would be nice if the whole thing were a universe in and of itself," he says. "I almost feel like I can see spin-off games with certain characters, going into completely different genres and things like that. I want it to be about the game and the world that they live in and how serious they take this thing that is obviously ridiculous."