The Weirdest 9/11 Exploitation Game

✏️ Sam Derboo | 📅 2024-01-19T03:25:00Z | ⏱ 15 minute read


Tereobeom Bin Laden-eul Jabara (테러범 빈라덴을 잡아라 / Catch the Terrorist Bin Laden)

  • Release: 2001/12
  • Platform: Windows
  • Genre: Arcade
  • Developer: unknown
  • Publisher: Starmax
  • Distributor: DS Game

You might think that games dealing with hot geopolitical topics would be a recent phenomenon of the modern indie scene, but Korean developers already did it decades ago, and they didn’t even file off real names in the process of fictionalizing the setting. The game I'm going to talk about here in a bit wasn't even the first one by a large margin. Already in 1991 – less than a year after Operation Desert Storm ended – arcade game manufacturer and bootlegger Comad developed Gulf War-II, which opens with the player’s jet flying over a map of the region around Iraq, to make extra sure no one could misinterpret the reference.

But the first major political event to be extensively processed through video games immediately after it happened was no doubt 9/11. The utter democratization of the medium thanks to Flash game platforms such as Newgrounds ensured the months following the World Trade Center attacks saw a ton of small homemade games inspired by them, usually focused on quick shock value or gruesome revenge fantasies, only very rarely trying to deal with the trauma in any kind of serious manner.

Perhaps the weirdest of all contemporary 9/11 exploitation games once again hailed from the Republic of Korea, though. The company Starmax, until then chiefly a publisher of movies on VHS and DVD, was looking for ways to counter the decline of the home video sector in the early 2000s by diversifying its business - and they set their eyes on computer games.

The Korean games industry just then was in a phase of transition as well. Piracy and economic instability had left the traditional big box games industry in a weakened state. While productions targeted to the core gaming demographic largely pivoted to multiplayer online games, some publishers found another niche: Short and simple 2D platforming games aimed at kids, mostly rip-offs of popular IPs of the moment, produced and sold on the cheap so parents would buy them as gifts. To keep costs as low as possible, these were usually sold in simple CD jewel cases (though often wrapped in a thin cardboard sleeve), gaining them the somewhat ironic-sounding nickname "jewel games".

This had the side effect of lowering the bar of entry for industry newcomers like Starmax. Not to form any proper in-house development studios, mind you. Their games division rather outsourced the actual work of creation to independent contractors. One such team produced a cute little platformer called Hamster Capchang for them, which tried to cash in on the popularity of the Hamtaro manga and TV series and proved a decent hit for Starmax, so they called on them again soon.

This time, though, Starmax craved even more attention, and so they asked the developers to tie in their next kid-friendly cartoon game with a certain recent event. And they did not waste any time to get in on the controversy - a version of the game was submitted to the Korean media rating board on October 25, 2001 - no more than 44 days after the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center in New York. Even as the uncredited shadow developer behind the game was a little shovelware machine that specialized in churning out games on a monthly rate in order to stay afloat, the quick succession of events means someone at Starmax must have heard the horrible news, and the first thing they thought was: “We have to capitalize on this with a video game - a game for the entire family to enjoy together!” The second part is not a joke, by the way: “A game for the entire family to enjoy together” is precisely what it says on the cover above the title.

“A game for the entire family to enjoy together”

The oddest part of the story is that Tereobeom Bin Laden-eul Jabara, which translates to Catch the Terrorist Bin Laden, truly is a game aimed at children. The setting couldn’t be a more awkwardly cutesy retelling of such grim real world events: All the terrorists are goofy cartoon characters (albeit pretty racist caricatures), the building attacked is the World Peace Tower, and to provide a chance to actually fight the villains, they are holed up inside the building, threatening to blow it up with bombs instead of flying airplanes into it (never mind the looming airplane in the background of the cover and in the intro). The Intelligence and Investigation Bureau sends its two best elite agents to stop them, equipped with the state of the art in counterterrorist weapon technology: the Ice Storm Laser.

“One of the friends I worked with borrowed some crayons from a kid next door to draw the title logo and scan it”

Confronted with the weird task to translate real terrorist attacks into a casual game for kids, the programmer’s mind wandered towards... Snow Bros.? Huh! Catch the Terrorist Bin Laden is almost a carbon copy of the Toaplan arcade classic from 1990, except that the heroes don’t roll their opponents into snow balls by mashing the attack button, but instead slowly freeze them with their lasers. The giant ice globes can then be picked up and thrown at the remaining enemies, which is the only way to take out both the projectile and the target permanently.

What the not-CIA didn’t tell you: Your fancy Ice Storm Laser is one of the wimpiest weapons ever devised. It takes at least ten shots to completely freeze an enemy - and that’s when you’re not disturbed in the meantime, as the terrorists start breaking out of the ice again if left alone for just a few seconds. The ice bubbles also have a laughable range that’s no match for your opponents’ assault rifles. Most of the time, they attack in groups, forcing you to slowly freeze them one by one. But while you can only ever attack the nearest enemy, the others keep shooting at you freely through their half-frozen companions. When you finally get to throw a frozen terrorist, it crushes as soon as it hits the nearest, often already frozen target, while everyone else keeps attacking you. Playing this with a second player to balance the scales a little is dearly recommended.

But the international mischief makers are not the only problem. Bombs are set up on each and every floor of the World Peace Tower, and of course they have to be defused, which is done by simply grabbing the floating keys and taking them to the bombs that match their color. In most stages, the enemies immediately rush to attack you on the lowest platform, so after the first big skirmish the area is devoid of threats. This turns defusing the bombs into mindless legwork, except for the few instances where the game pulls its asinine prank of hiding keys behind the extra lives display. Or placing keys and bombs in a way that requires crossing the screen back and forth multiple times, sometimes with annoying obstacles placed for the sole purpose of slowing you down further.

To add insult to injury, the default walking speed of the special agents is excruciatingly slow. They get a lot faster by picking up power cells from defeated enemies, which can also greatly upgrade their weapon’s range and power, but if they get touched even only once, they lose everything. Even the most careful agents won’t be able to prevent this for too long, as the enemies are still much faster and stronger. The hit detection is also very imprecise, and not in the player’s favor, so until you’ve mastered the game, you will be slow and weak most of the time.

The fact that you fight the same four enemies throughout the entire game doesn’t help making things more exciting, and neither does the need to look at the same background while the same five-second sound beat is on endless repeat for ten stages at a time. The only piece of audio that could rightfully be called music is a Mission Impossible theme rip-off in the intro.

The same boring procedure is repeated for 49 stages. Variety only exists on the top floor, where you fight Bin Laden himself. He’s sitting in his indoor plane throwing bombs, which need to be frozen like normal enemies and thrown back at him until he explodes. Then you’re sent off with a single image of Bin Laden getting carried away in a police car, as the two heroes who caught him give their thumbs up to the camera.

Admittedly, for a product made within a month mostly by one person, Catch the Terrorist Bin Laden is not a terrible result. Aside from a few weird glitches in relation with slanted floors, the programming is fairly competent, and the characters’ sprite art cute and lovingly detailed, even as the agents are just lazy head swaps of each other. And to be fair, it was sold at a budget price to begin with, so no one was robbed of 60 bucks for it.

But the sheer cynicism necessary to commission a product like this was probably unrivaled in the history of commercial video games of its time. What must it be like to be the first company executive to have come up with Bin Ladenxploitation, literally within days after 9/11? According to the anonymously posted memoirs of the poor chap who had to make this game, it even hit the news in Japan, where it was presented in the context of ”Korean games dealing with social and political issues”.

Apparently, there was at least a little pushback in the game’s home country. Ten years later, the programmer remembered some initial hiccups with the Korean Rating Committee for Visual Media due to the controversial topic, although the filing for the October submission ultimately labels the game as suitable for all ages. (The only two available ratings at this time were “all ages” and “18+”.) A preview was posted on the webzine GameMeca a month later, without passing judgement about the plot, but praising the absence of bloody violence from the game. The final piece of news about the game was a press release by the online shop DS Game from December 5, stating that it would finally get released in the middle of that month, which for all we know seems to have happened as prophesized.

“So we rushed as fuck to crank out one game a month... cause the publishers would never give us more than a few thousand dollars development budget... those bastards...”

By the way, that confession by the programmer, riddled with swearwords and sarcastic remarks, is pure gold. It further describes his company’s history as it developed another budget platforming game for Starmax, starring a popular Korean comedian. Then the publisher got its hands on the licensing rights for THE DOG, a successful "puppy photography franchise" from Japan. The same developer was contracted again to create not only a pet raising simulation game based on THE DOG, but also a word processor to bundle it with, for whatever reason. Since that exceeded the capacities of the small team, they forwarded the programming duties to an outside developer, who then constantly failed to deliver. The production time was delayed from a planned two months to four, and the developer came under heavy pressure by Starmax, since they had already received an advance payment in addition to the entire development budget. In the end, they were saved by the demise of their publisher. The multimedia group was restructured and integrated into a company called Gaonix on May 28th, 2002, which meant the THE DOG project - and with it the team’s obligations - just fell under the table.

It is uncertain what became of the development team in more recent days, as the games don’t contain any credits, the retelling never names the company, and cuts off shortly after these events. The programmer does mention making another budget platformer called Gung Gadin (based on a character from a Korean comic strip from the 1960s) for Samsung Electronics. Both that and Hamster Capchang are listed (while Catch the Terrorist Bin Laden is savvily omitted) for the portfolio of a company named Game Mix in a press release for casual 2D online action game Ludypang in 2006. Live updates for the game can be traced until 2009, but after that the trail goes cold.

So that concludes the story of Catch the Terrorist Bin Laden, one of the oddest results of the Korean game industry’s quick and cheap kiddie cash-in “jewel game” phase. There are no records of it being particular successful, and it certainly didn’t save its publisher Starmax from closure and oblivion. But in a little way the gambit paid off - the absolutely bonkers thematic mix still makes it stand out among all its many forgettable peers, even though the gameplay isn’t any good or remarkable.

Catch the Terrorist Bin Laden being a 23-year-old game from a long defunct publisher and developer, you can’t buy it anywhere. So I’ve submitted an ISO of my copy to My Abandonware so you can try the game if you want.

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