A cheerful-looking man with a bulbous head rises from Mount Fuji and waves his fans about patriotically. He doesn't look sorry. He looks excited, dynamic, ready for anything. It's the face of a man who's about to star in a videogame that may look like a simple rehash of Pac-Man... because that's what it is.
It's a maze game. You know how maze games work - run your character around the maze, collecting items and avoiding the bad guys. Get all the items, move to the next maze, repeat until the bones in your wrist have crumbled to the consistency of wholemeal flour. That's you at the top of the screen, near the building with "IN" on the door. The guys in shades are your enemies, and the yellow squares are the items you need to collect. The barrel is a barrel - it will kill you upon contact, but because it lacks a will of its own it feels harsh to label it an "enemy".
That's all well and good, but I'm not writing about I'm Sorry because it raises the bar for maze games to dizzying new heights or anything. No, I'm interested in your character. You're not playing as a merciless yellow mouth-demon devouring the spirits of the dead, or a morose blob with no head and eyes for nipples, or even a sports car fuelled by the blood of young women - it's more interesting than that. You're playing as former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.
Well, a caricature of him, at least. Unless his head really is that size, in which case the Japanese people must be commended for looking past this bizarre deformity and electing him to the highest office in the land.
But why choose P.M. Tanaka? That's because he was so corrupt he'd make Silvio Berlusconi look above board... oh, who am I kidding, no-one can make Berlusconi look good. His fake tan and hair-plugs are proof of that. But Tanaka was a shady character, to say the least, with the most famous of his scandals being that he was paid almost $2 million in bribes from aerospace company Lockheed to buy their planes for use in the national airlines.
With that knowledge, you'll realise that you're collecting gold bars and this is a game about Tanaka's bottomless greed. Yes, Tanaka is essentially Wario. The aim of the game is to collect all the gold bars on the stage and take them to the house at the top to deposit them, presumably into an untraceable Swiss bank account. It's political satire! Not particularly timely satire, given that this game was released two years after Tanaka was found guilty, but it's the thought that counts. Someone at Coreland was so angry about Tanaka's dodgy dealings that they developed, coded and released an entire arcade game just to make him look stupid, and that's the kind of motivation that I can get behind.
Tanaka has a lot of enemies, but unlike Pac-Man he knows how to defend himself. He can jump, useful for avoiding the packs of roaming barrels that lurk in every stage. Tanaka can also take the direct, no-nonsense approach beloved by the voting public and just punch the shit out of anything that gets in his way. Well, except barrels - they're immune to both punches and bribery, making them the natural enemy of Tanaka and his ilk.
The first set of enemies is simple enough to deal with: just jump over the barrels and either avoid or clobber the shades-wearing hoodlums. Really, make sure you avoid those guys. They're weird. If they catch you...
It seems strange that Japan, a country noted for its values of politeness and honour, would produce a videogame in which a former Prime Minister is stripped to his underwear and whipped by a man in a leather bikini. Of course, then you remember about Japan's eroge market and suddenly it doesn't seem strange at all, but it's still not something I expected to see happening to a caricature of a former world leader in a simple, colorful arcade title published by Sega.
There are only four maps, but each time you progress they get more difficult with the addition of various new enemies, obstacles and traps. The big fellas you can see above are based on famous Japanese wrestler Giant Baba who, if his billed height of 6' 10" is correct, definitely qualifies for the title "giant". With his tight blue trunks and oddly-pointed shoes, he looks much more likely than the other guys to punish you in a disturbingly sexual manner when he catches you, but he just throws you around a bit. You can beat him by punching him, but he takes about six-to ten hits to defeat, probably because he is a giant and you're an elderly politician.
There are other, less human obstacles too - literal fire hydrants that occasionally shoot flames, gates and roadblocks that must be punched out of the way and safes that hold the gold you need and can only be opened with repeated application of the Prime Ministerial knuckles. Athletes arrive to put a stop to your criminal ways, hopping around the stages and being a right nuisance because their bounding movements mean it's difficult to punch them or jump over them. Oh, and Michael Jackson.
That's no surprise - we all know about Jacko's hatred of corrupt government officials. Why, if it wasn't for his music and his bizarre personal life it'd be the thing he's best remembered for. Sega have quite the relationship with the late King of Pop, appearing as he does in Moonwalker, Space Channel 5 Part 2 and this game, as well as his possible involvement in the Sonic 3 soundtrack. In I'm Sorry, he moonwalks around the levels, trying to stop you from reaching all that delicious gold, making no attempt to save and vulnerable children or dance with a space-reporter.
When he grabs you, he turns into a green-eyed vampire who rubs up and down behind you while blood sprays from Tanaka's face. I'm sure this is supposed to be a reference to the Thriller video, but given the allegations about Jackson's sexual proclivities it sure does come off as creepy.
You can also be attacked by these sultry women, which might come as something of a relief given the abuse Tanaka has suffered at the hands of the male enemies.
According to Wikipedia they're supposed to be Madonna, but I'm a little dubious - it could be Marilyn Monroe, or even just some pitiful non-celebrity. Madonna makes sense given the time-frame, and if Michael Jackson's in I'm Sorry then they're obviously not shy about including the top American music stars of the mid-eighties, but I'm still not completely convinced. Maybe I just don't want to accept the appearance of the gap-toothed child harvester in a game I kind of enjoyed. If it is Madonna, you can be sure she's not there for the same noble reasons as anti-corruption crusader Michael Jackson. She's just evil.
I said I kind of enjoyed I'm Sorry, but you know, that seems a little like damning with faint praise. It deserves better than that - while it might not be innovative or ground-breaking or staggeringly beautiful or involving or... wait, where was I? Oh yeah. It's a good, solid maze game. Graphically, it's not bad for a title from 1985 - it's certainly colourful enough, and Tanaka's death animations make it look as though he's really suffering. Even better is the sound, because I'm Sorry manages the trick of only having a very small number of tracks that thankfully don't instantly become insufferably repetitive. I think this is probably because they're actually quite good, and certainly very jolly.
A truly fitting soundtrack to large-scale fraud.
The gameplay doesn't break any new ground, but it's still quite good fun. You might think that being able to kill the enemies without having to first collect a power-enhancing steroid pill would make the game somewhat easier, possibly too easy, but the variety of enemy types and their relentless tracking skills mean that's not the case. You've always got to keep an eye out for those bloody barrels, for example: you might think that going toe-to-toe with Giant Baba is a good idea but you'll look like a fool if a barrel sneaks (and they do sneak, the crafty little bastards) up behind you and crushes you to death.
It's not an easy game, either. Once you've made it past the first few stages I'm Sorry never really lets up with the fiendish nature of the levels. Despite there only being four distinct areas, each time you play a new iteration of the same stage it feels very different due to the new traps placed in your way. Look at the stage pictured above, for instance: those white areas of floor are conveyor belts, and punching open the black safes can be a real challenge when you're gracefully gliding past them, Michael Jackson moonwalking onto the other end in a desperate attempt to put a stop to Tanaka's plundering ways.
Thankfully everything controls nicely, the buttons are responsive and even the collision detection is good, although I did have sometimes have a hard time telling whether Madonna's kiss attack was going to get me. The only real problem I noticed was that I occasionally got stuck on a corner when trying to disembark the conveyor belts, but that's probably more down to me playing the game while reclining in a position people tell me would be best described as "slothful".
All in all, Gonbee no I'm Sorry is an above-average maze game that sets itself apart with its unusual subject matter. Bear in mind that is a videogame where you can take control of a former Japanese leader and punch Michael Jackson right in the mouth. In the big list of "weird things I've done in a videogame" (and it is a big list, swollen by nearly two years of writing this crap) that has to come near the top. Maybe one day I'll get to play a game where John Major catches Sting in a Boston Crab.
It's fun, cheerful and willfully daft - even the title is a pun, because "sori" is the Japanese for "Prime Minister" - so give it a go if you fancy something quick and easy to play.
The weirdness doesn't end there, though. In fact, this might be the most baffling thing of all about Gonbee no I'm Sorry: despite the utterly foreign subject matter, it got released in the USA.
When I say released, I might be pushing it a little. There doesn't seem to be much hard evidence that proves that playable I'm Sorry cabinets made their way into American arcades, and if you have any evidence that it did happen then please left me know, but the game was definitely translated into English for an overseas release.
I say translated, it's not like there was much text to start with. The title was shortened to simply I'm Sorry and the title screen redrawn to incorporate an unlicensed version of the Rolling Stones' logo, Tanaka's speech-bubbles now read "YEAH" when he stashes his ill-gotten loot and some other items have been altered, but other than that it's exactly the same game. The same game, complete with S&M death animations and the unmistakable likeness of Michael Jackson, which seems like it might have been a barrier to the game being released in the States.
Gonbee no I'm Sorry, then: arcade action plus Japanese politics plus cartoony graphics equals a surprisingly playable little game.
P.S. Completely unrelated to the game, but while I was reading about Tanaka I could help noticing that Japan seems to have real trouble hanging on to Prime Ministers for more than about ten minutes. In my lifetime, Britain has had five Prime Ministers: Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and the sausage-faced posho currently residing behind the big black door. In that same period, Japan has had nineteen. They come and go faster than Chelsea managers. Maybe they should think about tagging them or something.