I played this probably around two decades ago on a Windows PC, I think while I was in my Freshman year of college around 1998-1999. I remember it as a point-and-click adventure game with 2D art that looked like a mix of painting and paper cutouts. The protagonist was Japanese, I think, and might have been a warrior. I don't remember a ton of the gameplay other than that it was possible to die, and when you did, you were thrown into some sort of hell with demons, and had to escape (I know I managed to do so a few times). But what made the game kind of unique at the time was that was steeped in Japanese mythology, which was still very neat and exotic to me.

I did not own a legitimate copy of it, having had a much more relaxed approach to copyright law at the time. I forget which site I downloaded it off of, probably Home of the Underdogs. Which... OK, found the right search, posting a self-answer.

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Remembering the site where I likely got this, I plugged home of the underdogs buddhist hell into Google and got an entry for Cosomology of Kyoto.

One of the most unique and thought-provoking games ever made, Cosmology of Kyoto is a fascinating tale of religion, history, and superstition that ranks among the least-known underdogs of all time. The game is set in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, during the Heian period in Japan when Kyoto was known as Heiankyo. The game includes episodes drawn from a large body of tales, legends and illustrated literature produced during or after the Heian period. These vignettes are edited into interactive, experiental forms, to allow the user to realistically sense the worldview and lifestyle of an ancient time. The game was inspired by The Tales of Genji and similar Japanese folktales.

Your character in the game is a no-name male traveler, an ordinary human being who is faced with opportunities, driven by desires, and is bound to die. Your actions determine your path through this world, and many reincarnations to come. You may meet troublemakers, and demons, enter Paradise or Hell, be reborn, and re-enact the story of a scholar who played the devil in a high-stakes game of backgammon. In addition to very well-drawn authentic backgrounds, the game includes an excellent database of over 400 screens of text and pictures that gives background information for the time and place where you are in the game.

Calling Cosmology of Kyoto a "game" is a bit misleading-- you don't get to solve any elaborate puzzles in traditional point-and-click adventure sense. Any item you carry with you will be used automatically when the time comes, so you can't really get "stuck" in the game. Cosmology of Kyoto is better described as an interactive story that lets you interact with the game world at your leisure, similar to choose-your-own-adventure books. And what a world it is. The designers spare no pretense, no illusion that this is a "politically correct" or "family" game. Heiankyo comes alive before your very eyes, with all the gory details and harrowing images that its inhabitants truly faced or believed. You will come across a dog eating a corpse's entrails, long-winded old farts, a monk leading a prayer meeting, kids playing ball in the streets, a maiden with an obscenely phallic tongue, and many more true-to-life characters. And when you get to the underworld (yes, you must die in this game. Several times, in fact), you will find hellish scenes populated with sharp-toothed demons and tormented souls that are so effective as to churn your stomach. These characters are drawn with vivid facial characteristics, a cross between the cartoons of medieval Japanese art and the exaggerations of modern Japanimation. The speaking voices are filled with personality, often taunting, teasing, or sexy. They all speak Japanese (in the ancient tongue, no less), but all speech is subtitled in English.

It was, apparently, one of the few video games reviewed by Roger Ebert.


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