Game Review: Retro Game Challenge

Pseudo-retro games are still in fashion as of this writing, but it’s clear that they’re a passing fad since the only ones that sell are downloadable games for the major consoles that either receive extensive coverage from major gaming sites and publications or were highly regarded classics that everybody played as a kid. If these games were selling based on genuine appeal rather than hype, word-of-mouth would’ve spread Retro Game Challenge like the clap. Unfortunately, the Japan-only sequel will never see a release in the States.

Retro Game Challenge is based on the Japanese television program “Game Center CX,” which never aired in the United States. It’s developed something of a cult following through fansubbing, and it actually is a fun little show. Comedian Shinya Arino is challenged to complete various Famicom games, which usually frustrate, annoy, and inevitably kick Arino’s ass. In between are segments on retro arcades and pachinko machines and weird romantic visual-novels aimed at pubescent girls -- things of that nature. But the program’s real meat comes from the Famicom game challenges, which is the focus of the game.

Retro Game Challenge has the player playing as himself as a grown man whom Arino, depicted as a mad-scientist/wizard or some-such, has sent back in time to beat challenges in Famicom games as they are released, promising to send the player back after he completes all the challenges. It’s silly, and since the game shows only adult Arino’s almighty disembodied head it’s a bit creepy looking too, at times. It’s meant as a framing device, and the game keeps it up pretty well. Young Arino hangs out with the player’s younger-self avatar while they play games, usually offering some annoying commentary.

And the games in the collection are excellent 8-bit titles. Only here’s the thing: none of them ever appeared on an 8-bit console. Like Mega Man 9, these are new games developed to look like old games, and they’re all surprisingly good, if derivative. The first available game, Cosmic Gate, is a blatant Galaga knock-off. Guadia Quest is obviously Dragon Quest. Rally King plays like any number of NES/Famicom era racing games. Haggleman is surely based on something I’m not familiar with (Ninja Jajamru-kun?). Haggleman 3 is Ninja Gaiden with a weapon/customization system.

The benefit of hindsight allows the developers at Namco-Bandai to avoid some of the more annoying aspects of 20-year-old game design. Guadia Quest is interesting, in this respect, because aside from the option to save anywhere, it really doesn’t. The menu system still requires three or so buttons to speak to somebody, which is one of the things about which people who dislike 8-bit role playing games usually complain.

So why exactly would somebody want to play intentionally antiquated video games? Nostalgia is the main factor. The game goes to great lengths to evoke such feelings, not only through the games themselves (which are fairly short, except Guadia Quest, naturally, which can take up to fifteen or twenty hours, depending on how you play it) but the meta-game/framing device. In the main hub, the player can view a fake gaming magazine based (I think) on “Famitsu,” which contains hints on beating the game, and Arino will offer hints and rumors that he hears at school. The bottom DS screen is used to show Arino and the player’s gaming space, which is a very Japanese looking living room.

One of the problems with XSeed’s localization is said living room. It’s hard to think of myself as a young Japanese boy. The images of the cartridges look like Famicom cartridges rather than the generally larger NES carts. I do like that they changed “Famitsu” to “GameFan,” and the editors in said magazine are usually well known figures from game journalism. Seeing Dave Halverson (who originally started GameFan, as well as founding Gamer’s Republic, and most recently Play) and Dan “Shoe” Hsu (long time editor for the late Electronic Gaming Monthly, billed as Dan Sock) actually amused me, and not just a little. I get the impression that the localization team ran out of resources and couldn’t actually localize as much as they wanted. The “GameFan” issues are really pretty fantastic -- better, definitely, than their attempts at imitating NES era Engrish.

But besides nostalgia, these games offer something in short supply from modern games. They are simple, unpretentious fun. It’s unintuitive to describe fake-retro games as unpretentious, but they are. The interesting thing about 8-bit graphics is that, more than any other era, they represent something iconic about the whole “video game” thing. Developers now make games that are virtually indistinguishable from films that consciously appeal to video gamers (Transformers 2, Gamer, and G. I. Joe come to mind most readily). It’s not just nostalgia at work when a game accurately replicates the look of NES and Master System games. Convincing 8-bit graphics and design are just quintessentially video game, and that is appealing in and of itself.

It should also be mentioned that unlike the show -- which draws entertainment from Arino’s tormented attempts at beating old, difficult games -- Retro Game Challenge doesn’t try to torture its players. Even Rally King, the racing game that nobody likes (except me) utilizes mechanics that are far more nuanced than anything in similar 8-bit racing games. But still, I wouldn’t recommend this game to anybody who doesn’t actually like old NES games. There’s nothing here to the order of Legacy of the Wizard or Battle of Olympus, but these games, for all their concessions and adjustments for the current audience, will frustrate those who don’t actually like this style of game design.

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