Nippon Marathon is a lot like that one person at a party who thinks that the only way to gain popularity is to wear clothing that offends the eye and act all ‘wacky’, because being ‘random’ is definitely not another word for being a total bore. Onion Soup Interactive’s off-the-wall multiplayer racer certainly has a lot of enthusiasm, but it’s a concept that – much like that annoying party pooper – soon starts to grate.
Not that this colourful indie offering isn’t short on content. Right out of the (digital) box you get access to a decent number of different modes, including a Story campaign that follows the athletic dreams of some strange Japanese citizens with questionable tastes in fashion. There’s J. Darwin and his obsession with lobsters, Elizabeth Nishibori and her love of narwhals and many, many more. They’ve all entered the titular race around Japan and it’s through their nonsensical plots you’ll attempt to uncover a predictably shady corporate conspiracy behind the event.
You can play only through the entire thing solo, but every other mode in Nippon Marathon supports local multiplayer so its best used as an elaborate training exercise before you race your friends and family in a two-to-eight-player match. Like every other mode in the game, each race takes place with an overhead view (think Micro Machines, only with people in garish costumes and no giant pencils to drift around) with each participant attempting to stay on their feet and cross the finish line in first place. You can hurdle barrels, duck under logs and leap forwards to gain the lead when in mid-air.
Controls are very unwieldy, but considering this is the kind of purposefully physics-driven experience along the lines of Gang Beasts or Guts and Glory, that’s clearly by design. With other players flailing beside you, it’s quite funny to watch one of your friends break away from the pack, only to have a watermelon wipe them out from above or a stray Shiba Inu dog appear from out of nowhere and knock them to the floor. Almost anything can send you stumbling, which is either going to make you laugh or send you into fits of rage (probably both).
Races are broken into sections around courses set across Japan, with each one boasting its own unique mix of channels, mountain ledges, rivers and other obstacle-filled routes. There are even special courses, such as mazes – where you need to race to find a special item before your competitors – to break up each set of events. It basically plays like a game version of the wacky Japanese TV show Takeshi’s Castle, only with the fashion sense of the even more absurd British show It’s a Knockout. It’s also quite easy to beat (the AI really isn’t very clever and makes so many poor decisions), so this really is a title best enjoyed with company.
Outside of the Story mode, there’s a Versus mode where you and up to three other players can run a short race, a Half-Marathon (slightly longer) or Marathon (much longer). There’s also a set of party games including Go-Go-Trolley and L.O.B.S.T.E.R. The former is a like a cross between ten-pin bowling and an episode of Jackass, where you’ll run and leap into a shopping trolley and try and smash some pins for a strike or spare. It’s stupid and silly, but when you add in hazards that slow you down and ramps that send you flying, it does offer the occasional moment of hilarity.
L.O.B.S.T.E.R is by far the best of the two, offering a setup not too dissimilar to Wipeout (the slapstick TV game show, not the futuristic PlayStation racer) where you’ll need to run down a course on your own and try and get as far as you can before the timer runs out or you stumble and plunge to your shameful doom. The cool thing is each course is randomly generated, so there’s a lot of mileage to be had here, with countless variations of hazards, ramps and targets (the latter granting a few precious extra seconds when you pass through them).
With only an information-based tour-guide that you can fill with collectable pages from the Story mode and an in-game store (no microtransactions, just some yen you earn from the two party games), L.O.B.S.T.E.R. is easily the best thing Nippon Marathon has going for it. It also supports up to eight players, something no other mode can offer. However, if you do want to spend an extended period of time with this game you’ll need to tolerate its awful character models and cheesy Japanese game show aesthetic. It wears thin incredibly quickly, even if one of its modes has some legs.
Nippon Marathon isn’t not going to be everyone’s tastes – those eye-wateringly janky visuals (whether by design or not) and the nature of physics-driven racing are an acquired taste that most people are going to tire of, fast. However, look past the surface and there’s a multiplayer experience here that will appeal to fans of Gang Beasts and the like, who just want a silly party game that cares not for seriousness in any form.