First published at NK News on the 15th of February, 2019.
By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
From getting directions around town to playing music, here’s what to buy at a Pyongyang app store
After introducing the North Korean app store in my last post, I’d like to now examine some of the apps I’ve purchased from it for my local tablet computer.
The tablet came pre-installed with a range of apps, and I purchased about ten additional ones from one of the app stores near the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory.
Here I take a look at four of the more interesting, locally developed ones that I purchased from the app store.
“Kiltongmu”—North Korea’s Google Maps
Kiltongmu (길동무; traveling companion) allows users to browse a map of Pyongyang.
The map is extremely detailed, and when zoomed in to the maximum setting, one can see that everything from Pyongyang’s biggest and most iconic monuments to all its little neighborhood stores and restaurants are marked.
Distinct icons are used for locations on the map in addition to road and neighborhood/district names.
A look at the legend reveals that there are dozens of different ones, grouped into broader categories such as “Commercial and Service Facilities”, “Education, Science, and Cultural Facilities”, “Health Facilities”, “Sporting Facilities”, “Road Facilities”, “Institutions and Enterprises”, “Information and Telecommunications Facilities”, “Historical and Heritage Sites” and more.
“Commercial and Service Facilities”, for example, is the most diverse category and covers distinct map icons for flower shops, tailors, butchers, barbers, banks, and over a dozen more.
“Education, Science, and Cultural Facilities”, includes all kinds of schools from childcare facilities and kindergartens through to middle schools and universities, as well as museums, theaters, cinemas, libraries, parks, fun parks, cinemas, publishing houses, dolphinariums (of which there is only one in Pyongyang, the Rungra Island Dolphinarium) and more.
Meanwhile, “Institutions and Enterprises” only contains two icons, one for factories and another for enterprises.
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and the Mangyongdae Native House have their own distinct map marker consisting of a red star in a circle, while some of Pyongyang’s other monuments such as the Juche Tower, the Chollima Statue, and the Party Founding Monument, are represented by graphic icons containing a unique picture of the monument itself.
Users navigate the map by swiping the touchscreen and can zoom in and out either by pressing the magnifying glass buttons on screen or using the standard touchscreen pinch motion. In the bottom right corner is a map of Pyongyang, and at any time one can press there to jump to a different area.
Zooming in, one can really see a lot of detail. I’ve looked around and found most of the shops and restaurants I’ve enjoyed visiting, such as Yonggwang Restaurant and Chesong Restaurant with their excellent Chinese food, or the Naegohyang Sports Goods Shop, which sells the local sportswear brand Naegohyang.
There’s also a search function. It even has auto-complete, so that when I searched “Chesong” for instance, “Chesong Restaurant” came up automatically. Upon pressing “Chesong Restaurant”, the map centered on the restaurant and a red circle flashed over the restaurant for a few seconds.
The app also has a lot of other functions, like the ability to add your own markers, and display tram, trolleybus and bus routes.
It has a road route function that shows you a route by car between two points on the map (you must select from pre-set points on the map, but there are many).
It also has a function like Google Maps where you select a point of departure and a destination, after which the app suggests some optimal public transportation routes between the two points, giving several different options (for different public transportation options, and subway routes are included here), and even displaying the approximate time each will take.
The app has an in-built manual, with pictures, and you can even send feedback to the makers from within the app (requires intranet connection).
The graphics are nice. The map is colorful–everything on it is clearly arranged, and the icons are eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing. This is a very well-made app. It will certainly come in handy for us foreign students when we’re trying to scout out new restaurants to try, that’s for sure.
The only point of criticism I have would be that it’s a few years out of date—the newly constructed parts of Ryomyong Street from 2017 are not yet displayed, and the Foreign Student Dormitory is displayed at its old location near the Kim Il Sung University west gate (which was demolished over three years ago).
In Guitar Enthusiast (기타애호가의 벗), colored circles representing the notes to a song on the guitar move down the on-screen fretboard, and players press the strings at the bottom the moment they come past, paying close attention to timing.
This is easy when it’s individual notes, but when several come at once as a chord, I found it very hard to hit them all at once, especially when there were four.
At first, I used four fingers, but after a while figured out that sliding one finger down the strings worked too.
Songs appear in instrumental guitar version, and rhythm guitar accompaniment plays in the background and when you hit the right note that plays the melody. From the list of songs, I can see a reasonable selection of the popular songs in North Korea, many of which praise the party and the leadership, others which sing of values such as comradeship, in addition to a love song or two.
They include “Nothing to Envy”, “The Swift Steed Girl”, “Arirang”, “A Handsome Person”, “My Wife”, “A Song of the Famous Sites of the East Sea”, “Mother’s Birthday”, “Mother’s Voice”, “Prosper, Era of the Worker’s Party”, “The Brocade Girl of Nyongbyon”, “Let the New Year’s Snow Fall”, “Love, Love, My Love”, “Sea of Apples Under Chol Pass”, “The Love of A Comrade”, “At the Spring”, and “Thoughts on Love”.
Each time you hit a note you get one point. But if one note gets past without being hit you lose fifty. That means this game has a very tough learning curve because if you just miss one note at the beginning to have to start the entire song again (getting a negative value means you lose).
For the first ten minutes of playing this game I was stuck on the first few seconds of a song, repeating it over and over again.
You begin with only one song unlocked, and 500 “gems”. Unlocking new songs requires gems, and the more expensive ones can need up to 2000 gems. I unlocked one of the cheaper ones for 300 gems, and made it my aim to accumulate the 3000 needed to buy “Become a Bulletproof Wall Defending the General,” theme song to the hit TV show Bulletproof Wall (방탄벽) and “Flames of Love” (사랑의 불), from another recent popular TV series Red Skies of the Northern Frontier (북방의 노을), which were 1500 gems each.
High scores are displayed as you play, so that keeps you motivated to try each song again and beat your previous record.
When I finally I completed a song, I was rewarded with a measly seven gems, and completing the second song gave me three. After that a second round with a higher difficulty was unlocked for each song, in which gems came down together with the notes. Still, it’s going to take a long time to get the 3000 I need…
Like with Guitar Hero, this game won’t actually teach you anything about playing a real guitar. I play guitar and before buying this app hoped that it might have sheet music or tablature for North Korean songs. But in the end I got a reasonably fun and addictive game, so I am not disappointed.
The Invincible Boy General
This game is by far the most complex of the apps in this piece, so please do not take this as anything more than a preliminary look at the game.
The Invincible Boy General (천하무적 소년장수) is a Street Fighter style martial arts fighting game based on the popular animated series Boy General (소년장수). Boy General is set during the Koguryo dynasty. The plot revolves around the patriotic and brave main characters who valiantly rise up to defend their country from outside invasion. The game begins with a very impressive CG animated cut scene.
The in-game animation is close to the high standard seen in the Boy General TV series (it’s well-known that North Korea has some real talent when it comes to animation, and some foreign firms have even outsourced to the country).
This game features a panoply of features and mechanics.
Combat works by pressing the two buttons for movement and attack. Each of these is a circle and performing different actions on them such as tapping, holding, swiping in different start and end points and directions determine which action your character undertakes.
This can be anything from dozens of different movements and attacks such as running and dashing to jumping, rolling, blocks, flying kicks, punches, and a ranged, throwing knife attack. There are also “magic” (도술) attacks, where your character enters a cut scene and starts to unleash a volley of deadly attacks. The game also accommodates combo attacks and critical strikes.
Fights are one versus one, and opponents’ health bars are displayed on opposite ends of the screen, as is standard in fighting games. Either get your opponent’s health down to zero and be declared winner, or the timer runs out and the computer wins.
Certain attacks, such as the throwing knife attack and the special magic attacks require “qi” energy (기합), which is a second bar displayed below the health bar.
You can regenerate your “qi” energy by holding down the attack button, during which your character will gain a blue aura and your “qi” will slowly replenish. But during this time you must remain still and be open to attack, so it’s best to do this when you’re either far from your opponent or have knocked them down.
This game has a certain fantasy martial arts feel to it, with the “qi” attacks that remind one of Dragonball Z, and characters’ ability to gracefully and effortlessly jump meters into the air, like in a scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
There are four characters. Two have to be unlocked. A third, Mira, I was able to unlock with 50,000 tokens (I started with 70,000), but Soeme, the protagonist of the animated show, was outside my budget (and requires your character to be level 20).
Speaking of the tokens, this game keeps track of three different point systems, all of which are awarded after winning a fight. There are stars, tokens, and gems.
Tokens seem to be the must fungible. They can be used (as just mentioned) to unlock new characters, and can be spent in the “shop” to upgrade your character’s stats and buy new armor to strengthen your character (there is a cosmetic difference between the different armor sets too, but it’s only a slight change in color).
Intriguingly, there is an option to use “points” to purchase more in-game tokens via the input of an authorization code. I’ve yet to do this myself, so it’s still not clear where the points or the authorization codes are obtained. However, for the point to tokens transaction, the menu lists units of 2000 points for a “bag” of 450,000 tokens, and 5,000 points for a “chest” of 1,200,000 tokens. These figures could correspond to local won, which has denominations in 2000 and 5000 (5000 being the highest).
Perhaps the money is paid at the app store, which then gets the code from the company that produces the game, which they can use to unlock the additional in-game currency for the player.
If this is indeed the case then it means that The Invincible Boy General contains a microtransactions feature that allows players to use real life money to buy in-game currency, an option which I’ve already heard is available in other North Korean Android games. Thus the “pay-to-win” phenomenon may have already encroached on gaming in North Korea too.
You have three different save files, each which you can use to progress one character.
Each character has different stats (but their attacks and abilities seem to be basically the same)– health (hit points), martial arts attack, martial arts defense, magic attack, magic defense, and critical hit percentage.
These can also be upgraded in the shop with tokens. Beating the computer in the single player campaign not only gives you more of each of the three points, but also levels your character up, which opens up new functions.
The ability to play against another human player via Bluetooth is another feature that can be used by spending in-game tokens. Multiplayer functionality is a feature I’ve seen in other North Korean Android games, such as a tank game one of the other foreign students obtained.
In The Invincible Boy General, the single player campaign is core. In it, your character fights a succession of bad guys, obtaining the levels and points to become stronger. Stages range from wooded clearings, “Forest in the Snow”, “Knife Precipice” consisting of rocky cliffs, to the inside of a temple (although it seems these levels are merely decorative and do not offer unique obstacles and terrain as in some games).
At the beginning and end of each fight there are short cut scenes where characters engage in dialogue. The good guys offer confident taunts, “Do not expect to remain breathing if you cross into Koguryo again”, and the bad guys speak with a cowardly vexation “I fled and hid myself here with great difficulty, yet how did you find me?”.
Another part of the game consists of “riddles”. These can be attempted in between fights to increase your point earnings, or on their own as a separate minigame. The game seems to have a pool of hundreds, maybe thousands of questions. Here are some of the ones I got asked.
Some of them test scientific general knowledge:
Which of the following elements has an oxidation number of -1?
Although I’m pretty sure they had only five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, back in the Koguryo period.
Others test one’s knowledge of (North) Korean culture:
Who is the author of the full-length novel A Tale of Fifteen Boys [the film adaptation of which contains an interesting depiction of dastardly American sailors kidnapping Korean children, who are subsequently freed by a kindly African American sailor played by a Korean actor in blackface]?
Cho Ryong Chul
Kang Hyo Sun
Ri Dong Chun
I’ve never seen such a quiz feature mixed into a fighting game. It’s probably a great idea in terms of selling the idea of kids playing such games to parents – at least they can learn a thing or two and enrich their minds in the process of showering the bad guys with punches and kicks.
I’ve only just begun to understand this game, but I’m already very impressed at its quality and complexity. The manual proudly states that the game is entirely Korean made, which marks it out in a market where many of its competitors are localized versions of foreign software.
Looking back, I’m sure this game will become a milestone in DPRK gaming. I just hope that they continue to develop it, adding more uniqueness to the characters and stages.
Also, how cool would it be if a multiplayer scene began to take off and we saw our first competitive gaming events for North Korean games. Who knows? Maybe in a few years we will.
I still haven’t finished the The Invincible Boy General’s single player campaign, and am far from understanding all of the game’s mechanics, so I’m sure there are yet lots of interesting things for me to discover about this game. I intend to continue playing, and share any interesting future findings on my Twitter page.
Hyanggi – “Fragrance” Fashion App
Hyanggi (향기) is a simple app intended to provide guidance in women’s fashion.
Entering the main menu, users can choose either to go into the chosonot (hanbok) section or look at clothing for each of the four seasons. In the chosonot section are images of different chosonotdesigns and hairstyles that suit the chosonot.
The latter sections for each of the four seasons are much more elaborate and feature images of Western clothing. Subcategories differ from season to season and include shirts, suits, dresses, coats, knitwear, padded jackets and outerwear.
Within each of these subcategories is a list of outfits. Users can select one from the menu.
The outfit is then transposed onto a background, which also vary between seasons, which the user can customize. Ryomyong Street, Sci-Tech Complex, People’s Theatre, Masik Ski Resort, and a snow-covered landscape are given as choices, and each option contains several background images from each locale. Each outfit’s color can, in turn, be customized.
The models are the same ones as featured in the fashion magazine we looked at in some of my previous blog posts. Indeed, many of the very images appear to be the exact same ones.
In the background upbeat music plays, including an instrumental version of one of my all-time favorite North Korean songs, “Overflowing Laughter” (웃음꽃이 만발했네).
The app also contains a section with short essays on fashion, divided into three sections, Chosonot, Dress, and Wearing Clothes. The “Chosonot” section includes “Unique and Elegant Chosonot Patterns”, “Chosonot Seen Through Time-Honoured History”, and “Traditional Chosonot Colours”. “Dress” contains texts such as “Dress is a Marker of a Country’s Level of Civilisation”, “Dress Which is Important in First Impressions”, and “Hats Which Make People Appear Differently”.
“Wearing Clothes” contains texts on practical issues such as “What to do When your Clothes get Mold on Them”, “The Reason that Mosquitos Bite People Wearing Black Clothes” and “Things to Note When Doing Laundry”.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Alek Sigley