I have a few attachments to Retro Game Challenge. I first experienced it during the formative years in my interest in retro games. While I was beginning to stack up a collection of grey plastic cartridges, having a game that attempted to emulate the experience as it was back in the 1980’s was enthralling.
Since then, however, I’ve become a fan of the Japanese show, Game Center CX. That may sound unrelated, but Retro Game Challenge is actually a localization of the first game based on that show. This is the first time I’ve actually gone back to Retro Game Challenge aware of some of the references it makes.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it’s pretty similar to a lot of YouTube Let’s Plays, but condensed into a 1 hour-ish program. The Kachou, comedian Shinya Arino, plays old video games for several hours straight, often descending into despair as he’s beaten by the unforgiving mechanics of older titles. All this is voiced over by an announcer who makes everything sound like a life-or-death situation.
Gameplay is broken up with segments where Arino goes and visits old arcades, tests out obscure hardware, or brings attention to lesser-known games of the era. It’s a fantastic premise that helped draw me into Japanese culture years ago when I first experienced it. To this day, I continue to discover buried games because of this show. It’s a treasure.
It’s also been on the air since 2003, predating the Angry Video Game Nerd and, indeed, most of Let’s Play culture. I could go on and on about the show, but we’re not here to talk about that, let’s look at the game.
So, how does the show translate into the game? It’s actually rather genius.
The story revolves around you getting transported back to the 1980s by a malicious version of Arino to play video games with the pre-teen version of Arino. You start off against one game and have to complete 4 challenges before moving onto the next. There are 8 games in total and they’re all more-or-less accurate representations of games from their given time period. Part of this is because they take obvious inspiration from specific games from that time, but the fact that they seem to stick so closely to the Famicom’s hardware limitations as well brings a tear to my eye.
There are only 8 games, so let’s take a look at them all:
Cosmic Gate: Essentially, this is Galaga. You move across the bottom of the screen hurling lasers at oncoming enemies. One big new feature is intermission sequences where you shoot at asteroids, but otherwise, it’s a lot like Galaga. It’s a basic arcade game, but it’s reasonably fun.
Robot Ninja Haggle Man: Did you ever play Ninja Jajamaru-kun? Only a scant few titles in the series ever made it to North America, but they are something of a classic in their home country of Japan. Haggleman is very reminiscent of that. You have to eliminate all enemies on the board in an effort to save a princess. You can also eliminate enemies by entering and exiting colour-coded doors, which makes an interesting wrinkle. The biggest downside to the game is it makes you play through twice with remixed levels. Even still, it’s not very long, but the whole “beat the game twice for the true ending” wasn’t funny back when Ghosts n’ Ghouls did it.
Rally King: This is a single-direction racing game, which I don’t think we got too many of in North America. The closest that comes to mind is Road Fighter. I actually had a reasonably good time with this one, but it’s kind of easy and only consists of 4 levels.
Star Prince: Here’s your typical shoot-em-up, similar to Star Soldier, although it’s more advanced than that. It’s closer to Crisis Force in terms of graphics. It’s pretty satisfying as far as shooters go, but it’s only 4 levels, then once again pulls out the balogna “beat the game twice for the true ending” trick. Thanks, game.
Rally King SP: This is based off a marketing phenomenon that occurred in Japan, but never really happened over here. It’s where already released games were rejiggered to include mascots. Sort of like how Kyorochan Land was adapted from Nebulus to include the Chocoball mascot. It’s a bit of a cop-out, considering it’s just a slightly harder version of Rally King with some palette swapping going on. It’s hard to swallow, especially when you consider that it’s a reference that not many North American gamers are really going to get.
Robot Ninja Haggle Man 2: On the surface, this looks like a redux of the first Robot Ninja Haggle Man, but it comes with a few new bells and whistles. It’s a more dynamic game, featuring 4-way scrolling (a rarity on the Famicom/NES hardware), bigger levels, more enemies, and harder bosses. It’s actually a pretty difficult game, and I don’t think I would have finished it without the code to continue from the stage you died on. And, yeah, you have to beat the game twice again.
Gaudia Quest: A Japanese retro game collection wouldn’t be complete without a rip-off of Dragon Quest, and that’s what you get here. It’s a little more comfortable than your average 8-bit JRPG, allowing you to save anywhere and carry as much gear as you want. However, while it’s a capable game in its own right, it’s no Dragon Quest, and you’d have to really love JRPGs to see the end of this one.
Robot Ninja Haggle Man 3: Completely revamping the old gameplay into something more akin to Ninja Gaiden with Metroid–style exploration elements. It makes me sad, but although this is probably the most ambitious game in the bunch, it’s sort of my least favourite. It’s kind of repetitive, the level design is a bit dry, and all the bosses are the same. I appreciate that they sewed in the extra exploration to try and improve the formula, but I can’t help but feel this is still a pale imitation of the games it’s based on.
ARINO NO CHOUSENJOU
The progression of completing four challenges to proceed to the next game seems like a smart design choice. It means you can’t just skip the games that you don’t like, but at the same time you can’t… well, you’re stuck playing the games you don’t like. I hope you like JRPG’s, because Gaudia Quest is the longest one.
Still, it’s a fun way to represent the passage of time as you work your way through the ages and games become more advanced. Though, I often wonder where you’re sleeping between games. Do you live at young Arino’s house? Do you go to your own home and have to avoid causing time paradoxes?
There’s a strong focus on emulating the experience of gaming in the ‘80s. Every two challenges or so, a magazine gets added to your collection that contains cheat codes for the games as well as short previews and commentary about what’s coming next. You can also chat with young Arino, who will share with you what all the school kids are saying about the latest games. It’s maybe a bit more geared to the Japanese experience, right down to the appearance of the living room, but it’s not entirely lost over here.
If there’s one thing about the experience that I’m not entirely sold on, it’s that young Arino constantly shouts over the gameplay. Stuff like, “You’re kidding me,” and “Oh, maaaan.” I never found it terribly annoying, but it would have been nice to have an option to turn it off.
HIS SMILE AND OPTIMISM: GONE
They could have gone in a lot of directions to adapt Game Center CX into a video game, but I feel this one is the best way to capture the spirit of the show. It’s a celebration of retro gaming. A love letter to an era past.
Retro Game Challenge is a nicely wrapped gift of retro games that are familiar, but you haven’t played yet. They’re presented with an appropriate amount of depth, and while some of them are rather brief, Retro Game Challenge as a whole will take a decent chunk of time to topple, especially if you go to the effort of completing each one of the games.
In a world of mini consoles, retro gaming isn’t what it used to be. However, while our memories are being packaged and re-sold to us time and time again, there’s no way to claw your way back there and re-experience them for the first time. Retro Game Challenge gives us back a bit of that experience. It’s not perfect, but its heart is in the right place: the ‘80s.
To end on a sad note, there were two sequels to Retro Game Challenge, but due to a lack of sales, neither of them were localized. It’s too bad, since the second one is extremely good.
This review was conducted on a DS Lite using a cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.