Osomatsu-kun: The Bizarre Story of the Mega Drive’s Most Infamous Game

On December 24, 1988, Sega released its fourth title for the Mega Drive: Osomatsu-kun: Hachamecha Gekijō (“Osomatsu-kun: Nonsense Theater”). This was Sega’s first exclusive game for the Mega Drive (the previous three were arcade ports), and it would prove to be a disastrous release for the young console in Japan. To this day, Osomatsu-kun is remembered by many as the Mega Drive’s most infamous title. Let’s delve into the background of this game to figure out exactly what went wrong and also explore the legacy and mythos that have built up over the years.

Osomatsu-kun was licensed from the popular 1960s manga created by Fujio Akatsuka, which was, at the time, enjoying a revival through a new TV anime series. The series, popular with elementary school-aged children, was a gag comedy focused on the misadventures of a group of sextuplet brothers and their rivals Iyami and Chibita. The name of the eldest brother and titular character, Osomatsu (おそ松), was a play-on-words of the Japanese osomatsu (お粗末) “shabby, rough,” which came to be a frequent joke leveled at the Mega Drive adaptation.

The plot of the game is that Iyami and Chibita have kidnapped Osomatsu-kun’s five brothers and taken them to alternate worlds. The first world is based on the classic Japanese story of Momotarō, the second is based on Snow White, and the third is a prehistoric dinosaur world. Osomatsu-kun must travel to each world to rescue his brothers, but along the way he encounters a variety of bizarre enemies that have been possessed by Iyami and Chibita.

The following is a translation of the prologue manga from the game manual:

Osomatsu-kun was first previewed in the December 1988 issue of the magazine Beep! The short preview featured a few screenshots of the game and noted that it would be released on a 4 Mb cartridge. The screenshots looked promising: the bizarre characters seemed to reflect the wacky humor of the source material, and the different worlds appeared detailed and colorful.

Osomatsu-kun was released just in time for the holiday season on December 24, 1988 at a price of ¥5,500. However, word quickly spread that it was not quite up to par. The January 1989 issue of Beep! featured an in-depth look at the game, including a walkthrough of each of its levels. This turned out to not be much since the final product contained only three levels. It was also noted that the game shipped on a 2 Mb cartridge, rather than the previously reported 4 Mb. The article ended with the following comment:

To be honest, this game doesn’t quite have the same power as Sega’s previous releases. Since they went to the effort of releasing it on the Mega Drive, I would have liked to see a bit more put into it. It’s probably better for beginners. Let’s hold out hope for the next release![1]

That is certainly a polite way of putting it. Users, however, were not as polite:

I bought Osomatsu-kun just to see what all the fuss was about, and I can’t even get past the second level. With its confusing level design and awful controls, there’s no doubt that it’s the worst of the worst![2]

One of the common complaints focused on the poor, floaty controls. When the jump button is pushed, Osomatsu-kun floats up into the air without any sense of gravity. The longer the jump button is held, the higher he floats.

More of an issue, however, was the length of the game and the layout of its levels. With just three levels, it can be completed from start to finish in under seven minutes. That is assuming, however, that you know the correct route through the levels. Likely in an effort to prolong the limited gameplay, the designers made each level into a maze of sorts. Falling into a hole or hopping onto a cloud take Osomatsu-kun to different areas, only a few of which lead to the boss. The others loop back to the beginning of the level or of a particular section. This leads to a system of trial and error as the user tries to find the correct route.

The layout of each level was provided in the first supplementary issue of Beep! Mega Drive (April, 1989). The maze-like quality of the game is apparent:

The first level.

The second level.

The third and final level.

There were also complaints from users that the game was prone to software bugs:

When I finally manage to make it to the final level, the game always crashes. My friend said his copy has the same problem.[2]

I bought it for ¥580, and I thought it was quite easy and fun. However, I haven’t beaten it yet because it always freezes on the second or third level.[3]

In the August 1989 issue of Beep! Mega Drive, Osomatsu-kun was voted by readers as the worst Mega Drive game yet released. This animosity from users was likely the result of not only the poor design of the game itself, but also that it was one of the Mega Drive’s first releases and the only new release during the 1988 holiday season, and that it appeared to be much better in screenshots than it turned out to be.

Osomatsu-kun’s negative reputation persisted throughout the lifetime of the Mega Drive. Beep! Mega Drive contained a detailed Reader Review aggregator, in which readers would send in ratings of Mega Drive games on a 1-10 scale. Each month, the magazine would publish the average rating for every one of the Mega Drive’s Japanese releases. For the last month that it was published (September 1995), the bottom six games were as follows (higher to lower):

6. Osomatsu-kun: Hachamecha Gekijō (3.2947)

5. Double Dragon II: The Revenge (3.0867)

4. Rastan Saga II (3.0855)

3. Nakajima Satoru Kanshuu F1 Hero MD (Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge) (3.0308)

2. XDR (3.0176)

1. Sword of Sodan (2.7715)

In addition to its reputation as one of the Mega Drive’s worst games, rumors have also arisen over exactly what happened behind the scenes during the development of Osomatsu-kun. Perhaps the most famous rumor concerns the supposed treatment of one of the game’s developers by series creator Fujio Akatsuka, who was known for his outspoken opinions. In a 1992 interview, SIMS developer Asano related the following story:

Q: What was the most difficult part of developing Shura no Mon [another title licensed from a manga]?

Asano: Well… I was afraid of the ashtray.

Q: Huh? The ashtray?

Asano: A while back, there was a certain character action game made for the Mega Drive. The legend is that because the game was too good (I’m lying!), the original creator of the character threw an ashtray at one of the developers.

Q: Re- Really… (that’s scary!). And what was the name of the game?

Asano: Please don’t ask. However, the name of the game matches its quality… (laughs).

Q: You mean Osomatsu-kun![4]

During the 2nd Game Business Archive talk (2017), former Sega staff confirmed that this ashtray-throwing incident took place, although no details were offered. Fujio Akatsuka did not play video games himself, and his views of video games in general were quite low, as illustrated by the following comment he made in a 1989 interview:

Q: There’s a similar thing going on in the game world [as in the manga world]. To a certain extent, current game developers didn’t get where they are by just playing games, but there are many children now who want to become developers simply because they enjoy playing games.

Akatsuka: You mean like the Famicom? That’s no joke. I’ve heard that it’s popular in America, but they aren’t playing so much that they go insane there. Only in Japan. Kids in Japan, they shut themselves in their rooms and play while masturbating. They don’t make any friends. They can’t make friends or get a girlfriend or anything.

Q: But those kids are playing games like Osomatsu-kun (laughs).

Akatsuka: So I’ve heard (laughs).[5]

Osomatsu-kun creator Fujio Akatsuka in 1989.

Ultimately, the reason that was offered at the 2nd Game Business Archive talk for the final state of the game is that Sega decided to reduce the ROM size to 2 Mb. There was a worldwide memory shortage at the time, although the connection is not clear. According to the talk, the finished game would have included many more stages, but due to the reduction to 2 Mb, these had to be cut down to just three stages.

Although it was stated at the 2nd Game Business Archive talk that there were no apparent negative repercussions within Sega due to the poor quality of the game, Hideki Sato, former head of R&D at Sega and designer of the Mega Drive, did express his frustration at some of Sega’s early Mega Drive titles:

Sega was thinking about what titles to release with its new 16-bit platform. They ended up losing Tetris, and the titles they did release were just no good. Altered Beast and Osomatsu-kun… the quality of that one was really “shoddy.” They were worthless titles. For Altered Beast, I wanted to use the same large amount of memory as the System 16 arcade version. In that case, it would have been much better. However, when you significantly reduce the memory, the end result is not good. This happened with three or four titles.

At the time, we held this huge promotional event. We had Seikō Itō [a Japanese celebrity] there. We announced that the 16-bit era had arrived, and we showed off several games. Everybody there was dumbfounded at how bad the games were.

When I saw this, I thought that I had made a huge mistake in the design of the Mega Drive’s architecture. I thought that the hardware was only capable of putting out games like that. A bit later, I saw the shooting game Thunder Force II, which made great use of the specific functions of the 16-bit platform, such as line scrolling. And this was from a third party developer. When I saw that game, I finally felt relieved that I hadn’t been so wrong in the design of the architecture. Up to that point, the titles Sega had put out were worthless.[6]

Over the years, some fans have come to praise Osomatsu-kun. In one blog post dedicated to the game, the author states:

I have over 400 video games in my home, and Osomatsu-kun for the Mega Drive is one of my top ten favorites. I like it so much that I have two copies.[7]

When you remove the high expectations of a full-priced holiday release on a new platform, it is not hard to see that Osomatsu-kun does have a certain charm to it. In fact, the game embodies many of the characteristics of popular retro kusoge, a genre which has recently been gaining traction among certain gaming connoisseurs.

Osomatsu-kun is worth checking out if you are interested in exploring the early history of the Mega Drive, or if you just want to have fun with a bizarre, albeit flawed, platformer.

 

References

[1] Beep!, January, 1989, p. 86

[2] Beep! Mega Drive, December, 1992, p. 33

[3] Beep! Mega Drive, April, 1991, p. 31

[4] Beep! Mega Drive, November, 1992, p. 57

[5] Beep! Mega Drive, September, 1989, p. 52

[6] Hideki Sato, Oral History 3.1. February, 2018, p.24

[7] https://ameblo.jp/ameblojpvbctv3do/entry-10124772562.html

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