Obscure Pixels – Kusoge

Humankind has, for a long time, found a sort of endearing quality about things that are kind of awful. It’s the reason cult classic films exist, it’s the reason we put goofy kids drawings on the fridge, it’s not absolutely perfect but it’s still very endearing and warms our heart. Or it’s just absolutely hilarious because it’s not very good. Video games have their own version of this, using a Japanese term, ‘kusoge’, to define terrible games that have wormed their way into peoples hearts.

So, what’s kusoge?

Kusoge is derived from the Japanese word ‘kuso’, meaning shit, with kuso a popular term to describe things that are absolutely awful, and ‘gemu’, or, ‘ge’, meaning video games. So. Shitty games, essentially. The term was widely popularised in Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu, and there was and still is a specific way to define exactly what a ‘kusoge’ is, though it can come in many forms.

For example, the most common kind of kusoge is just a genuinely absolutely terrible game. Full of bugs, broken controls, awful graphics and sound, just an entire package neatly wrapped up of something that’s utterly abysmal, Cheetahmen II or Bubsy 3D are good examples of this. It’s an absolutely broken, hard to play mess, and yet there’s something so oddly endearing about how terrible it is that we still talk about it today. On the other hand, you might have a very well programmed game that’s just ridiculously hard and has no interest in satisfying its players.

Unlike a game like Dark Souls, which is designed to be frustrating but beatable and rewards its players for taking the time and effort to learn, a kusoge would give players absolutely no sense of reward for learning the mechanics and in fact would probably insult them for wasting that much time trying to play a really bad game.

Western developers can also make kusoge, because awful games have no barriers. In fact, some of the best (worst?) kusoge of all time are by Western developers, such as the two examples above. Other developers, even today, still try to emulate the style of kusoge though it’s more parody than just making something bad.

An important point to remember is, at the end of the day, there has to be something oddly charming about just how bad a game is. If you think a game is incredibly mediocre or glitchy in an unfun and infuriating way, that’s not a kusoge. That’s just a really bad game. Though at times, this can be a very fine line.

Where to start with kusoge?

So, now you know the definition, let’s take a look at some good kusoge to get you started on the genre.

Image: https://www.gonintendo.com (image taken from a fan translation)

Takeshi’s Challenge (1986)

Perhaps the most quintessential of kusoge, Takeshi’s Challenge (or Takeshi no Chōsenjō) for the Famicom was devised by popular Japanese comedian and director, Takeshi Kitano. It’s a side-scrolling adventure game where players take the role of the man himself who is, at the beginning, a Japanese salaryman. The player can then quit their job, and from here there’s a huge range of fun things to do. Beat up yakuza and use their money to buy prizes at an arcade, divorce your wife and pay a full settlement, sing kareoke into the microphone of the Japanese only second controller that for some reason has a microphone in it.

There’s also plenty of ways to die, from crashing into a mountain while hang gliding and dying, right the way through to punching an old man and getting a game over on the password screen before you’ve even started. Essentially, Takeshi created this game to be absolutely terrible to play, only getting more tedious and frustrating as it progresses. It’s notorious for topping lists regularly as one of the worst games of all time, which is exactly what it was created to be.

Akira (1994)

Akira is a classic in film circles, whether you’re an anime fan or not, it’s pretty well agreed upon that this film is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Akira on the Amiga. At first glance, it doesn’t seem too bad. The graphics are actually pretty cool looking, and players can take the role of either Tetsuo or Kaneda in an action side-scroller that has motorbike riding and enemy killing. Standard stuff. However, the game was noted by reviewers of the time, and even today, to be almost impossible to actually complete in a ‘really badly programmed’ kind of way, rather than a ‘git gud’ kind of way.
It was so notorious in fact that the developers actually had to send cheat codes out to reviewers so they could progress past the first level. Level 4 is even impossible to complete through conventional means due to a platform being out of the players jump range. The game is full of design ‘quirks’ like this, such as overpowered enemies and bad control schemes, ensuring players will pull their hair out and possibly set their Amiga’s on fire.
Interestingly, despite being an iconic Japanese piece of media, the game was developed entirely in the UK by ICE Software, with a lot of the developers having moved on to bigger and better things.

Image: https://replayers.org/ The image is honestly just as good at the title. Look at it. Amazing.

Revengers of Vengeance (1994)

That’s its Western title, by the way. It was called the far more sensible ‘Battle Fantasy‘ in Japan but I’m ignoring that because Revengers of Vengeance is an amazing name that immediately screams ‘kusoge’. The game itself is a Street Fighter II clone released for the Sega CD, one of many that came out around this time, though it’s simplified and nowhere near as good. The game plays like molasses with bad controls, and interestingly, features shadows that can be turned off at any point which substantially improves the games performance.

As if that weren’t enough, the developers added an RPG/shoot-’em-up to the single player mode that was just as broken and nonsensical as the rest of the game. Even the story, which involves choosing from one of ten characters, requires some real mental gymnastics to finish involving a fortune teller, a palette swapped version of yourself, and a lot of gold which is hard to get.

Of course, this all becomes a little more impressive once you realise each mode and the entire game itself was programmed by one person, despite having a bigger art team.

Super 3D Noah’s Ark (1994)

Did you find yourself playing Wolfenstein 3D and think, “Hey. This is good. But I think the Nazi killing isn’t for me, this is a lot of violence. What if, instead, it was a wholesome Christian game where you play as Noah getting animals onto the ark, but it was also still literally a reskin of Wolfenstein 3D?” This is a thought I had on a daily basis before discovering Super 3D Noah’s Ark, an unlicensed SNES game from renowned terrible developers, Wisdom Tree.

Though, interestingly enough, id sold Wisdom Tree a copy of their Wolfenstein 3D engine, meaning the company got it through entirely legitimate means despite their illegitimate but commercial release of the game. So. How do you turn a Nazi killing violence fest into a wholesome, death-free bible game?

You give Noah a slingshot full of fruit to shoot at angry animals until they fall asleep as you progress through the levels, that’s how. The animals are perfectly capable of ending your life though. I don’t know anything about the bible so I can only assume this game is completely factual.