A much shorter version of this appeared here in March 2013, but I recently revisited this piece and gave it a complete makeover: longer, meatier, and whitens your teeth. Check it out, and thanks for dropping by!
Back in December, I first read about a browser game that claimed to be the first online game developed in North Korea. Koryo Tours, a company specializing in trips to North Korea, commissioned a game called Pyongyang Racer from Pyongyang-based IT company called Nosotek. It was released on December 18th and hosted by the Koryo Tours website, which billed it as “a bit of retro fun…the chance to drive around Pyongyang all by yourself.”
As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to play it. Sure, I knew that “retro fun” was probably just another way of saying “shoddy crap,” but it was from North Korea, and I share the curiosity many people feel whenever the smallest bit of any sort of cultural information trickles out from the most isolated country in the world. I had rushed to see Pulgasari, A North Korean monster film, when it opened in Busan a decade or so ago; to my knowledge, it was the first (and only) North Korean feature film to ever hit the big screens in South Korea. It was pretty crappy, but it was crappy in the beautiful and massively entertaining way that only overly earnest North Korean propaganda can be. I loved it.
I clicked the Pyongyang Racer link and was disappointed, though not totally surprised, when the game failed to load (I was later to find out that the Koryo Tours website (which hosted the game initially) was hacked within a couple days of the game’s debut). A couple of repeat visits a few days later similarly failed. After a couple more failed tries I gave up and forgot about it.
Lately North Korea has been in the news again, which brought Pyongyang Racer to mind. I checked the link and was thrilled to see that it’s up and running and I finally got a chance to play.
In Pyongyang Racer, you drive a Pyonghwa Motors sedan through the streets of Pyongyang to an unrelenting soundtrack of bouncy North Korean music, which is oddly reminiscent of the faux North Korean music in Team America: World Police. There are two main challenges: to avoid hitting other cars (hitting three cars ends the game) and to avoid running out of fuel, which I imagine would be an actual concern in any drive around North Korea, real or virtual.
Despite this unintentional dose of realism, technologically the game is a throwback to the 32-bit era of the early 90’s, though you’re free to think of it as “retro fun” if you prefer. The “About” link on the game site itself explains that Pyongyang Racer “is not intended to be a high-end techological [sic] wonder hit game of the 21st century,” and my first play confirmed that it certainly lives down to its billing in that regard. The controls are clunky and unresponsive, the buildings along the road are drab and repetitive, and the game contains more than a few glitches, but what it lacks in technical competence it more than makes up for in delightful ironies and inadvertent social realism.
As you drive around, your fuel gauge depletes rapidly, so you try to run over fuel barrels, which lie in the middle of the road, sometimes in the oncoming lane. Lest that sound like a risky move, fear not, there is very little traffic, and the few cars that do appear don’t move at all (maybe they’ve run out of fuel?). The first time I played, I ran out of fuel and the game ended. The second time I played, I wanted to see what happened if you hit three cars, but there is so little traffic that I ran out of fuel while looking for cars to hit. I finally succeeded in hitting three cars on my fourth game. Each time you hit one, one of the fabled Pyongyang traffic girls warns you to drive better, or else. Forced labor, I wondered? Nope. After the hitting the third car, the game abruptly and unceremoniously ends. Forgive the spoiler, but it was so lame I didn’t think you’d mind.
The only other challenge in the game – and the main point of playing it according to its makers – is to collect little icons that appear in the road next to famous landmarks around the city. Running them over opens a little blurb about that location. For example, the Arch of Triumph icon proudly states, “Without the traffic jams of Paris.”
To that, one might add, or the people. Throughout the entire map, there is not a single human being to be seen anywhere, apart from the traffic cop who obtrusively appears from time to time to remind you to not stare at her. The game makers seem to assume that the thing to do in Pyongyang is to be whisked around gawking at monuments with as little human contact as possible, which actually jibes with nearly all of the anecdotal descriptions of Pyongyang tourism that I’ve ever heard.
Despite its failings, the game is actually pretty hard. In ten or so plays, I’ve yet to make a full circuit. The main page has a “Top Ten Champions list”. If you get a high score, you are instructed to take a screenshot to prove it, and e-mail it to Koryo Tours, along with your time, the number of fuel barrels and tourist sites collected, and the number of cars you hit. The current high score is held by the improbably named Shinmai McBurrobit, who finished the track in 7 minutes, 17 seconds, while collecting all fuel drums and tourist sites and not hitting a single car – in other words, a perfect game. Move over, Billy Mitchell. There’s a new kid in town.
Pyongyang Racer isn’t going to set the online gaming world on fire, but for anyone desperate for even a heavily pixilated peek into the Hermit Kingdom, be sure and check it out.
Editor’s note: I finally finished the damn thing. Time: 8 minutes 10 seconds, 10/11 sights, 17/23 petrol drums, and 2/3 warnings from the coppers. If you don’t believe me, I have the screenshot to prove it.