You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
Looking at Nippon Marathon from the outside, I struggled to come up with any reasonable kind of expectation. It looked inexplicably fun, attracting me in a similar way to the 2010 classic Doritos Crash Course. It looked fast-paced, it looked low-budget, and for reasons beyond any kind of rational comprehension, it looked like a game I might enjoy.
The Nippon Marathon
So just what is the Nippon Marathon? On the surface, it could be considered exactly as the name describes it: a series of marathon races on-foot across Japan. With each race in the series offering an increasing prize for victory, fame and fortune await any who finish the final race in first place. That’s largely all there is to it, and yet it manages to be so much more.
Individual races are run with four players of either human or CPU origin, with the ability to tag in and out at any time. In the races, you move using analogue controls, with the ability to jump, duck, and dive, as well as pick up and use a small set of fruity items. That much is simple to explain; where it starts getting a little more interesting is in how you score points. You might jump to the rather logical assumption that, as a marathon, the person finishing first is the victor. This assumption would be wrong, at least in my experience. You see, there’s more to a marathon than where you place, and we can break it down a little. Final position does count for something, giving first place 100 points, and subsequent placing receiving 75, 50, and 25 points.
Moving on, we have a popularity bonus, adding between 0 and 100 points to your final score. Popularity is gained and lost throughout the race depending on your actions. If you push somebody in the crowd, you’ll generally not be their favourite to win; but if you find yourself being mauled by an army of dogs, the audience seem to love you. If I’m being entirely honest, it’s not a system I fully came to understand, but as you play, you gradually come to see the kind of things you should be doing. Green numbers appearing signify you’re doing something right, and red show that you should probably stop doing whatever you’re doing—it’s signposted clearly enough.
Next we have an extensive list of random bonuses, rewarding you for anything from eating the most mushrooms, to taking the most items, to being knocked down by the most dogs. If you did something that made you stand out, you’ll probably get some points for it here. These I feel are similar to the bonus stars of Mario Party in that you really have no idea what you should and shouldn’t be doing with many of them coming down to chance. They’re wacky and something to laugh at even when the race is over, fitting surprisingly well in the overall arc of events.
Finally, we have the core of the race: the running. Your goal is to stay ahead of your rivals as you might expect. With the camera following the leading player, those who are forced off-screen are eliminated from the current round and lose stars. Perhaps the most important part of scoring, each star will grant you an additional 50 points when the race is over for a maximum of 400 for eight stars. With rounds segmented depending on how long players last, it’s entirely possible for every player to remain on their starting total of three stars apiece, or for one person to be rocking a full set of eight while the rest suffer. It’s here you see the variety in races; no two are the same thanks to how this segmentation works. Though you only have eight courses, the replayability to be found in unparalelled madness and chaos is astonishing.
A Bit Extra
On top of your standard marathon races, there are a few extras to be explored. Featuring two party modes and an eccentric story for each of the four main characters, it isn’t exactly lacking in content. My favourite of the two party modes is a simple inclusion but fun nonetheless as a means of exploring the game’s physics. Go-Go-Trolly sees you dive down a bowling lane in none other than a shopping cart, avoiding miscellaneous obstacles to play what is otherwise a normal game. While the obstacles are few, the game mode justifies itself plenty in the surprising depth of strategy to be had. Should you roll down the alley in your cart? Should you push your cart to one side and rag-doll your way to the other? There are so many ways to play, and none of them feel wrong.
The second party mode is less than aptly named L.O.B.S.T.E.R. Here, you take it in turns to run through a randomly generated obstacle course with the goal of going further than the person before you in a short amount of time. If you don’t make the cut, you get a letter to your name, starting with L and going all the way to R. To win, you just have to keep staying ahead and not have the full word spelled. Another odd mode, I found myself enjoying this a lot. At the end of each round when all but one player has been given a fresh letter, the level is mixed up by either giving you more time to run, adding an item, or completely swapping out a section for a random one. It’s a great experience to make gradual progression in a group through a new stage every time you play, and with the game’s usual physics and fun at play, you’re sure to have a laugh with mayhem and mishaps.
To both the game’s merit and detriment, these modes are played one character at a time, in oppose to the four player free-for-all you have in marathon races. On one hand, you really do lose a significant degree of chaos and madness, especially when the free-for-all aspect would have fit so well in L.O.B.S.T.E.R, but there is a light to this darkness. The positive here is that both of these modes are playable with between two and eight players, and only a single controller to be passed around. As party modes, they succeed in providing an affordable and inclusive game to be pulled out for friends, regardless of your controller count.
The last part of the game that needs a brief word is the story mode. It’s only a brief word because much of this has already been discussed when talking about the marathon earlier—this is essentially all eight races packaged up in chapters of dialogue to breathe life into this odd cast of characters. It’s alright. Where I found myself in hysterics at everything else the game had to offer, the story somehow felt weak. It’s not as though the humour is particularly bad, fitting in well with the rest of the game’s general tones and themes, but it just feels lacking. All there is to it is a bit of text, and I feel the game could’ve done more. You’ll definitely enjoy them if you’re looking for something more catered to the single player, but I can’t see anybody completing each route more than once.
Making the Switch
Despite the review copy provided being for the PS4, I was excited enough about the game to purchase it from the eShop, so I wanted to provide a bit of extra detail about that version as well. In that regard, I’m happy to say it really does feel like the same game. A few minor grievances are how the menus can feel a little slow to respond, and how from time to time, you might feel a stutter as you run faster than the level can load. While sometimes noticeable, none of these are enough to detract from the fun, and can be seen on both versions of the game. My untrained eye felt no issue in framerate regardless of handheld or docked, though I can’t say it’s much of a surprise with how untaxing the game appears to be. It’s a shame about the occasional stutter in levels, but I can hope this is patchable in future.
Nippon Marathon is unquantifiably fun. Character models are basic and look off, the voice acting is cheesy with poor writing and repeated jokes, and the gameplay is raw to the degree of feeling like a student Unity project; and yet I keep coming back for more. The unspoken chaos is the game’s driving force—getting stopped in the middle of a race for a quiz, diving through windows into the street, rag-dolling down a hill as you miss the jump into a stray shopping cart. It stands as the most bizarre game I played in 2018, and it stands tall in that regard. Is it a game you should buy? That really isn’t for me to say. If you love the stupid, the wacky and fun, and the not so unreasonably priced, I’d dive right in. It’s the most beautiful mess you’re likely to play for a good while.