I Just Played North Korea’s First Computer Game: Pyongyang Racer

C. Custer
4:18 am on Dec 21, 2012


We don’t get to write an awful lot about North Korea here on Tech in Asia because, well, they don’t produce a lot of tech. So you can imagine how excited I was when I came across this post on Beijing Cream about what is apparently North Korea’s first-ever domestically developed game.

Now, before I go any further, you should click here and play the game yourself. It’s free and runs in your web browser, and it’s amazing (though only in that so-bad-it’s-good kind of way). Or just watch this video of me playing a little bit of the game (apologies for the hideous “demo mode” watermark; my usual screencapture software is broken but this should do until I can fix it):

The game — called Pyongyang Racer — was commissioned by North Korean travel agency Koryo to highlight some of Pyongyang’s most famous tourist sites, and evidently developed in-country by a company called NOSOTEK. The game tasks players with driving on a closed course of Pyongyang’s roads past several touristy landmarks while avoiding accidents and collecting oil barrels to ensure their car stays fueled up. Despite the title, there is no actual racing in the game, you just drive a black town car through the deserted streets of Pyongyang at whatever pace you wish, occasionally being admonished for your poor driving by a pretty-but-stern-looking policewoman. When you drive past landmarks, you can hit little tiles in the road that give you a brief popup window with some trivia about the location, which is presumably how the game ties into Koryo’s business.

The game looks pretty awful — like a poorly-coded Playstation 1 game — and at least on my computer, it also ran at a shockingly low framerate. The graphics are full of glitches and artifacts, and you’ll pass the same few buildings over and over again while generically cheery music plays in the background. The gameplay is also terrible; there’s literally no challenge (except for that bit when you have to make a right turn), the car drives like a bear on a unicycle that has gotten stuck in the mud, and it’s unclear why your car runs out of gas after 30 seconds of driving.

But yet there is some fun to be had in the ridiculousness of it all. The music is hard not to laugh at. The game includes a honk button for — as far as I can tell — literally no reason whatsoever. And since there’s no actual race and no challenge, the fact that the car handles terribly doesn’t matter that much because there is nothing at stake anyway. The whole thing feels almost like a parody, even though it appears not to be. The virtually empty roads, for example, are probably just a limitation based on how much memory the game can use, but at the same time, doesn’t it seem like sort of a sarcastic commentary on Pyongyang itself, which really is pretty devoid of cars?

Intentional parody or no, we hope to see more games coming out of North Korea in the future. Pyongyang Racer isn’t terribly compelling, but it’s enough to keep your attention for a few minutes, and games could be a good way for people to learn about the Hermit Kingdom without visiting (or contributing any money to its government, as long as the games are, like Pyongyang Racer, ad free).

  • Tim

    I liked the music…

  • Phil

    “The game looks pretty awful — like a poorly-coded Playstation 1 game — and at least on my computer, it also ran at a shockingly low framerate.”

    Umm which in all fairness has probably a *lot* more to do with it being a *browser* game (and/or your machine) than the fact that it’s from North Korea (or Beijing or elsewhere…)

    Whether you do it in Flash, Unity or WebGL — as soon as you’re going 3D there are still major tech limits on browser games compared to your average C++-based AAA game.

  • Igor

    Phil, take a look at threejs examples, especially the race game.

  • Phil

    I’m aware of those, guess you mean Trigger Rally? Sure, they’ve used prettier textures and it’s definitely looking more polished overall. But still *technologically* speaking at a level that the PS1 (or N64) *could* have handled as well — which seemed to be an issue for C. Custer.

    I agree that they could have used a better road texture, a less crappy sky box, gamma correction and a cheap-and-simple blob-shadow under the car. Such tweaks go a long way to make a browser game look “better than late 1990s tech” even though it mostly still is if you’re going to run on mobile, netbooks and crappy old notebooks.

    But one way or the other … AAA cannot be expected in a browser game, and while there are prettier-designed browser games, C. Custer’s slightly smug writing style in here somehow kinda pushed me to clarify that a little bit. True, they could have done a fair bit better artistically within the current tech limits… but not *that* much better. Dunno…

  • Nick

    I guess you have to give them a bit of slack if it is the country’s first ever video game?

  • http://www.plus8star.com Benjamin Joffe

    Nice catch!

    Yet, I know both Koryo Group and Nosotek (i met both founders) and your article have a few element that makes it sound like some Korean official organ is developing a gaming center and churning out propaganda games. I don’t think it projects the right image.

    Koryo is a Beijing-based travel agency focused on North Korea trips. I have been on one of their tours. It is foreign run and has relationships in North Korea to get licenses and approvals, etc.

    Nosotek is a company based in North Korea- arguably the first ever FOREIGN IT company in DPRK. It’s even on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nosotek) and here (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9177972/The_world_s_most_unusual_outsourcing_destination) and here (http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2009/09/02/nosotek/). If you read those pieces you will realize that while this might be the first DPRK-developed game YOU played, plenty of others have been sold elsewhere. I would add to this that if you read the PYONGYANG graphic novel by Guy Delisle you will also learn that several animation studios in the West outsourced work to studios in DPRK.

    So a more accurate title would be “DPRK-focused travel agency hires DPRK-based outsourcing foreign firm to develop DPRK-themed virtual tourist game”.

    Having visited Pyongyang myself, I wanted to check if the game was accurate (which it probably is, except from the rundown buildings, lack of functioning streetlights and half-broken streetcars and buses which are surely beautified in the game) but it unfortunately did not load.

    Maybe it will later…

    In the meantime, enjoy the tour!

    PS: if you want to see what a browser game can do these days, try out UberStrike, the largest FPS on Facebook at
    http://www.facebook.com/uberstrike (disclosure: I am an investor in the company).

  • http://beijingcream.com Tao

    So what was your time?

  • Taneli Lampela

    Nick, why though? It’s not like they couldn’t have learned something from for example open-source software that already exists, the world is full of them – ones that are way better coded than this one :) Not taking the time to at least try to learn some basics is not an excuse, country’s first game or not.

  • http://gametize.com Keith

    love this post, thanks for covering! im inspired to create north korea-themed games powered by gamemaki platform!

Read More