The year is 1997 and Hong Kong is the setting for what is generally regarded as the worst video game of all time.
As Britain transfers sovereignty over the territory to China and the tanks roll in, so do Chinese in huge numbers, causing the crime rate to soar. Former British governor Chris Patten engages undercover operative Chin, a long-lost relative of Bruce Lee with a striking resemblance to Jackie Chan. His mission: to kill all one billion of those “ugly reds”.
Released for the Super Nintendo system in 1995, Hong Kong 1997 is awful – a crude, ridiculously broken 16-bit shooter made in a couple of days and utilising over-the-top unlicensed visuals and music.
“My goal was to make the worst game possible,” Hong Kong 1997 developer Yoshihisa Kurosawa told the South China Morning Post in his first interview since making the game.
“When I was young, I harboured a dream of working in the games industry, [but] I disliked Nintendo games. The settings and the characters all felt stale. In those days, all games were manufactured by [Japanese game giants] Nintendo and Sega, so it was impossible to put out your own indie game. You were subject to rules and ethical standards, and you had to pay steep royalties just to make a game.”
I had an idea to create a cheap, vulgar game that would make fun of the industry
It was a chance trip to Hong Kong, from his home country of Japan, that set in motion the appalling game that would forever be associated with his name. Low on money and staying in Chungking Mansions, Kurosawa spent his days wandering around the computer malls of Sham Shui Po and found devices that could copy Super Nintendo games onto floppy disks. These bootleg devices were generally used to duplicate games – but they could also be used to play home-made games on the Super Nintendo.
“I was sick and tired of consumer game systems and the way Nintendo were at the top of the pyramid.
I was also really influenced by the extreme games coming out of Europe,” he says. “I had an idea to create a cheap, vulgar game that would make fun of the industry. The emergence of game copiers finally gave me that opportunity. With one of them, you could make games and distribute them without needing Nintendo’s permission.”
With the seed planted, Kurosawa needed a setting – and where better than the city that inspired him in the first place? “The Hong Kong I encountered in the early 1990s was rough around the edges and filthy, but its society was more advanced than Japan’s in some ways,” he says.
It was like trying to sell something to a thief. So only a few people were willing to wire money to my shady PO box in Tokyo
“I had an interest in what would unfold in 1997, and there was a sense of anticipation but also anxiety. China still seemed like a world of savages. I thought: what would happen if the two intermingled?”
Lacking the skills to program the game himself, Kurosawa asked a contact who worked at Japanese game company Enix (now Square Enix) to help – but his friend’s busy schedule meant he could only devote two days to Kurosawa’s project.
“The game turned out that way because that was all the time we had. What you see represents a 10th of what I intended to do,” he says. “There was no time. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have permission. We just sort of took a slapdash approach to giving it a Hong Kong-esque style, and that’s the result.”
This meant piecing together the parts wherever they could. “We scrambled to find images of Deng Xiaoping and Jackie Chan, and the main character was taken from a movie poster. We couldn’t make the music ourselves, so I sampled a track from a second-hand laserdisc I picked up on Shanghai Street,” he says. “I gave all that to my friend and explained the flow of the game. We had some drinks while we programmed, and by the next day, Hong Kong 97 was more or less finished.”
After the insane introduction that sets the scene for the game, the player simply moves Chin around the screen as he shoots PLA soldiers and attempts to dodge communist leader Deng’s giant disembodied head for as long as possible. And that’s pretty much it.
The game completed, it was now a matter of distribution. But these were times when brick-and-mortar stores ruled, and marketing and selling an unlicensed game wasn’t going to be easy. Kurosawa built anticipation through articles written under pseudonyms for underground gaming magazines, and set up a mail-order service to sell the game.
“The types of people who bought Super Famicom game copiers weren’t the type to spend money on games, so it was like trying to sell something to a thief. So only a few people were willing to wire money to my shady PO box in Tokyo,” says Kurosawa. “I sold the game on floppy disks for a few months, and then forgot about it entirely.”
It was only much later, with the advent of the internet and its many virtual console emulators, that the game started gaining cult status – much to Kurosawa’s chagrin. “Over a decade later, I learned [Hong Kong 97] had been attracting attention – in the worst way,” he says. “I thought it was just a fad, but the interest seems to be growing every year.
“Every day I get questions on Facebook from all around the world, from people I’ve never heard of, asking things like, ‘Who does the corpse [at the end of the game] belong to?’ People have started to read too much into the game, and they have made up their own new mysteries surrounding it. The entire setting and context was just stuff I made up as I went along. The questions are endless, so I just ignore them all.”
Hong Kong 1997 represented the peak of Kurosawa’s involvement in the video game world. He worked briefly as part of a team on a first-person shooter for the Playstation 2, but he won’t say which one, apart from admitting it was a “run-of-the-mill” game. These days, Kurosawa spends his time producing an underground travel magazine titled Six Samana (www.sixsamana.com) and working on niche documentaries (including War in the Mirror, about writer Masata Kimizuka).
However, it seems he has an albatross around his neck. “The goal was simply to create a vulgar game and I thought it would be more fun for the gameplay to be a failure,” he says. “But honestly, I just wish people would forget about the game once and for all.”
Play Hong Kong 97 in your web browser here