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Japan’s strangest videogames and the person who finds them

All images taken from FM Towns Marty

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We just had a watershed victory with the passing of net neutrality. If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had brought in laws that allowed companies to regulate and restrict the internet, the entire online landscape would have changed. That this didn’t happen means the internet is open, ostensibly favored towards the user, and should mean the endless creativity of the web continues to thrive, for better or worse. So, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to sling your degenerating mind through endless psychedelic videos and weird online paraphernalia. 

This landmark moment, when the officials step up with cane in hand, arrives with the introduction of all new technology as it infiltrates society. Having been a Film Studies student, the comparison I’m wont to make is to the 1934 Hays Code (also known as The Motion Picture Production Code). It was drawn up by Will H. Hays to introduce a number of moral guidelines to the practice of film making. None of which had existed before; anything could go. And I mean anything. The period before the Hays Code was when film creators were arguably at their most inventive, but also at their most insouciant. Prostitution, violence, profanity, illegal drug use, full-frontal nudity, bestiality, and abortion were all featured in pre-Code cinema, as well as other topics considered taboo at the time including miscegenation, adultery, and homosexuality.

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Videogames also underwent an era of unadulterated investigation by its early explorers. The classic example is Custer’s Revenge, which was released for the Atari 2600 back in 1983, and involved a cowboy forcing himself on a Native American woman with an erect three-pixel penis. It’s the kind of game that probably wouldn’t be made today. That’s probably for the best. But there are plenty of other outlandish videogames made around the same time that could be hoisted in support of a more experimental, carefree attitude towards videogame development. The British Commodore 64 scene is a good one as it was considerably eccentric, largely due to the games being created by hobbyists who took equally from offbeat TV shows they enjoyed, and odd characters that they may have saw around town (and many other unusual sources). However, if we’re looking into the benefits of having a vibrant, uncensored type of videogame scene (which we are now), then we must turn to Japan’s corner of the world during the ’80s and ’90s. If you push Nintendo and Capcom to the side, you can find a huge swath of hobbyist PC game makers, making up what is easily the weirdest part of videogame history so far. Unfortunately, it’s also the most obscure due to the language barrier and accessibility issues inherent with the computers these games were made on.

a beguiling stream of unsullied strangeness 

The Japanese game-making scene in the ’80s and ’90s was encouraged by consumer PCs such as the NEC PC-88 and PC-98, the FM Towns Marty (a PC-console hybrid that failed terribly), the MSX, and the Sharp X68000. As we’ve written previously, this was before Windows was the universal standard, and so there were many PC manufacturers competing for dominance. In Japan, there were so many that underground subcultures of programmers gathered around the more niche hardware. This is where the profoundly weirder videogames came from as these people transferred the delightful and sometimes perverted fantasies of their minds into software.

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The only reason we know about these games now is due to the work of people like fmtownsmarty, who patiently unearths these neglected titles, and shares them as screenshot galleries and animated scenes turned into gifs. This is why fmtownsmarty’s Tumblr compares in its transgression to the discovery of pre-Code films. It’s a beguiling stream of unsullied strangeness. There’s furry porn, reanimated corpse stories, and cyborg dating sims. And these are only the ones that can be described so succinctly. How do you sum up an image featuring a woman with big fuschia lips wearing a turd on her head, and a bird tonguing her skull, all while bearing down on you wearing a t-shirt with a frog on it? Or a naked doctor kneeling adjacent to a baseball player lining up a camera shot next to a box of tissues on a field? These were videogames created without the boundaries and limits we might place on them today. And they are gloriously zany for it.

I’ve been trying to track down fmtownsmarty for an interview for a while now. To my own dismay, he has never replied to me. But I’m not the only one. It seems that he prefers to live an existence similar to the subject of his fascination; unknown, mysterious, and utterly captivating. So it was very unexpected that he actually did accept an interview with Wired Germany recently. He’s been kept anonymous outside of being a 26-year-old guy from New York, of course, but having fmtownsmarty discuss his findings and giving insight upon them is a treasure.

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First off, the roots of his obsession are revealed. It all started when he discovered the graphic adventure “Dead of the Brain,” which bears a number of resemblances to Lucio Fulci’s 1990 horror film Nightmare Concert (A Cat in the Brain). “The game was derivative of American horror films,” fmtownsmarty told Wired. Return Of The Living Dead meets TerminatorVery scary and very brutal,” he added. After utilizing Google Translate to poke further into the origins of Dead of the Brain he discovered that it was actually a censored remake of an older game. “I realized that there had to be thousands of such games in Japan,” he said. And that’s when his fascination began.

Further on, fmtownsmarty confirms what can be substantiated from browsing his blog, saying that “these games had no substantive or formal standards enforced upon them as is often the case today.” But he also notes that “adult games make up a very large proportion” of the selection, which his blog makes less obvious. The reason for that comes next as he talks about the criteria he uses when deciding which parts of his game-playing excursions to share. “I like the idea, the fugitive, surreal, sometimes poetic and sometimes disturbing moments that I encounter in these games, detached from their context,” he said. 

These games iconized the country’s cultural climate 

Later in the interview, he says that the value of these games is also their biggest problem: irreverence. Often, these games combine the disgusting and the beautiful. Cute characters are dissected in gory displays or take hard drugs, romance becomes explicit or turns violent, and murder scenes spare no detail. Some of the content is highly questionable to say the least, and it’s something that fmtownsmarty has to work around, explaining that he tries to “emphasize the interesting thing about [the games], without ignoring the problematic [elements].”

The edgier scenes aside, what fmtownsmarty reveals about the characteristics of these videogame coteries is something to be admired, something pure, something that may struggle to appear in the medium once again. That’s not only due to the freedom the developers experienced but also due to the restrictions of the hardware. In Japan, in the 1980s, computers needed to render three types of written Japanese, and this extensive language led to machines that had uncharacteristically high resolutions (for the time) but slow processors. This made the underground games of ’80s Japan very text-heavy (contributing to their obscurity due to the cost of localization), and so when images were used they were for impact and tended to be very rich.

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Exquisite detail is given to snarling beasts and the darkened brick walls of psychedelic mazes, each oozing doom and terror. Even the mundane is punctuated with an attention to detail; the bathrooms and bedrooms of the domestic household, empty back alleys where no one goes. One recurring image in these games reflects Japan’s technological state in the 1980s. Here, it’s reflected in these games as future visions of the urban commercial; industrial megacities viewed from the streets as neon-glow labyrinths, or from up high on balconies stretching out forever into the sunset.

These games iconized the country’s cultural climate: the rise of the commercialized tech kingdom of the ’80s, and the antithetical slump that followed with the “Lost Decade” in the ’90s, leaving people detached, confused, unemployed, and suicidal. It was present in the country’s cyberpunk fictions at the time—the recurring themes of mutation, modernity, dehumanization, sexual abnormalities, and social unrest that Mark Player writes about—and it’s here, too, found inside these bizarre, disturbing, and deviant videogames. 

We can only gaze at all this from afar, divorced from the context at present, yet fascinated by the striking images they present. And this is only a fraction of what fmtownsmarty has found so far. There’s much more: from crazed high school girls and gored faces, to alien fetus investigations and flirty geisha dances. It’s a lost treasure trove of Japanese videogames’ past, one that could so easily be lost. And yet, its continued excavation reiterates how precious the beautiful weirdness that crystallizes when the artist is able to freely channel their inner thoughts (for better or worse).