By Tim Gruver
Northwest Asian Weekly
Most gamers have played at least one bad game in their life. But in Japan, even the worst games, commonly known as “kusoge,” can hold a place in people’s hearts.
Heidi Kemps, writer, interviewer, and connoisseur of Japanese games and game history, hosted “Kusoge! Japan’s Awesomely Awful Crap Videogames” at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, also known as PAX West, showing off a collection of “crap” games.
The term “kusoge” is derived from two words: “kuso,” meaning shit, and “ge,” meaning game. Thought to be coined in 2002 by Jun Miura, an illustrator and writer for the Japanese video game magazine Famitsu, kusoge has come to be associated with mediocre games known for their overall poor quality and often unintentional humor.
“Sometimes there is stuff that’s just bad, but there’s something inherently charming about it,” Kemps said. “You know it’s terrible, but there’s still a thing in it that speaks to you on some level, what you would call a guilty pleasure.”
Some of the genre’s earliest examples is the Japanese side-scrolling adventure game for the Nintendo famicom system, “Takeshi’s Challenge,” developed by Japanese comedian, actor, and screenwriter Takeshi Kitano. As a nonsensical series of events, from fighting yakuza gangsters to performing in karaoke clubs, “Takeshi’s Challenge” embodies the offbeat entertainment that kusoge represents.
Some kusoge, like “Last Rebellion” for the Playstation 3, may have comically bad characters, while others may prove impossibly difficult, like “Lost Word of Jenny.” Today, many kusoge have found a cult following for their peculiar mediocrity.
A personal favorite of Kemps’ is “Wakusei Woodstalk: Funky Horror Band,” a role-playing game for the Sega Mega-CD. The game followed a group of six extraterrestrial musicians who preach peace and love through ‘80s pop music. After being chased off their home planet of Horahora, their ship crash lands on another planet, where a young boy from the nearby village of Funky helps repair the band’s ship and their instruments.
“[Wakusei Woodstalk: Funky Horror Band] is a role-playing game that looked like it could have been done on the original NES,” Kemps said. “It looks like crap, it plays like garbage, you can run from almost every fight, and if you know what you’re doing, you can blow through it in about five hours.”
Like many kusoge, “Funky Horror Band” has some charming points, such as its enemies being named after various music puns. More importantly, it was a bad game that still tried to be fun in spite of its own flaws.
Some kusoge have come to embrace their mediocre reputation. “Death Crimson,” a light gun shooting game, debuted in 2000 for arcade machines and the Sega Dreamcast. Its confusing plot, poor visuals, and tedious gameplay made the game a critical failure, but one of its enemies, a squirrel, has since become a mascot for its developer, Ecole.
To that end, Kemps believed that many kusoge still represent engaging artistic efforts on the part of their creators that many game developers don’t share today.
“I’m almost worried that kusoge as we know it is dying off a little, because a lot of these games are made by fly-by-night entrepreneurs that think they can hop on to the latest console or portable gaming trend,” Kemps said. “They think they can make some quick money off of it and don’t have the talent or the means to make a really good product.”
Kemps believed that kusoge are largely being replaced by shallower experiences developers are treating as commodities, rather than experiments.
“A lot of these companies are just going to the mobile market,” Kemps said. “You just see awful reskins of the same gameplay concepts. “If some kusoge are low effort, these games are zero effort to the point where there is nothing interesting or charming about them and that’s kind of depressing.”
In the meantime, there are still plenty of past and present kusoge for gamers to enjoy.
“The good news is that there are a lot of good retro games out there and there are a lot of bad retro games out there,” Kemps said. “So there’s still plenty of things to look at.”
Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.