Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Imaginary Childhood: A Review of Retro Game Challenge for Nintendo DS

I know, I know. I just promised updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and here we are, Saturday, with no Friday update. Well, there's a very good reason for this. I was finishing Retro Game Challenge so I could write this entry.

First things first, reviews found on this blog will not contain any score of any kind. If you're looking for reviews that attempt to encapsulate things into an arbitrary metric, there are plenty of places here in the tubes where you can find them. If you want to know what I think about a piece of media, you'll have to actually read what I write.

Now that that's out of the way, onto the task at hand.

Retro Game Challenge, for those who don't know, is a collection of eight NES games that never existed for your Nintendo DS. In Japan, the game is based off of Game Center CX, a popular TV show which sees comedian Shinya Arino (a.k.a. The Kacho) try to beat various old videogames. The tragedy here is that he's not very good at videogames. It regularly takes him hours, if not days, to finish the games, and we, the audience, laugh at his misfortune as he fails again and again.

Well, in Retro Game Challenge, he has his revenge. He turns you into your childhood self to go back to the '80s and hang out with his childhood self and help him with eight games. Of course, simply beating the games would be too easy, so he subjects you to a series of challenges in each game. They typically include things like beating certain stages, or using certain techniques. By doing this, the game avoids the pitfall of "play a game for two minutes and move on to the next one" that often befalls collections titles.

Now, as I said, these games are all fake. They never existed, but they certainly could have. Six of the eight titles are unique experiences (the other two are a sequel and a "special edition" of an earlier game that feature the same basic gameplay) and they all play wonderfully. They all draw on many influences, and represent a snapshot of a given genre that harkens back to the 8-bit days. Truly, the folks at Namco-Bandai took great care in creating each game, and it shows.

Each game is a might-have-been classic, but with modern design sensabilities. Cosmic Gate is like Galaga, but includes things like score multipliers. Star Prince features much less slowdown than an actual NES shooter would've had. Guadia Quest allows you to save anywhere, which, as anyone who played NES RPGs could tell you, would've been welcome back in the day.

But the games are only part of what makes this title so great. They are great homages to a bygone era, but they are not where said homage ends. No, because you see, when you play these games, you are given a virtual instruction book (which you should read before playing each game), as well as a shelf full of relevant gaming magazines. You also carry on conversations with young Arino (and, occasionally, his mom) about the games coming out.

These elements really make this game what it is. If you lived through the NES days, this game will trigger a nostalgia for those days. In the parallel universe of Retro Game Challenge's 1980s, all the things that happened to you as a kid will happen again, only slightly differently. Gamefan magazine will tell you all about the new releases. The kids on the playground will start rumors, which young Arino will tell you about while you play. You will begin to actually anticipate the release of games that aren't real. Retro Game Challenge is a totally immersive experience for those of us who lived through that time. The team at XSeed that localized this game should really pat themselves on the back, they did a tremendous job.

That isn't to say that the game is without shortcomings. First of all, it includes eight games, as I've said, but Rally King SP and Robot Ninja Haggleman 2 are both extremely similar to their predecessors. Moreover, if you don't much care for '80s style RPGs, Guadia Quest will test your patience with required level grinding and tons of random battles. Finally, Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 could've dealt with at least a basic map system.

My biggest gripe, however, is that most of the games simply aren't long enough. The only exceptions to this are Cosmic Gate, which is 64 stages of not-quite-Galaga action. Star Prince is only four stages, Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 is only three and so on. Most of the non-Guadia Quest games require you to play through a second time with a higher difficulty, but that doesn't change the stages themselves, just adds more enemies. Even Guadia Quest itself is only a 6-12 hour RPG, which isn't much, when it comes to RPGs.

These are minor points though. I mean, after all, if they sated us in the first game, why would we buy the sequel? Yes, there is a sequel. It comes out in Japan this week, and we can only hope it will make its way here soon. The simple bottom line on Retro Game Challenge is this; if you lived and gamed in the '80s, you should own it. If you didn't? You should still give it a try, the games have a slightly primative feel, but they're still rock solid games.

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