Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems…or, in this case, a loving tribute to an age gone by.
Over the past year, my burgeoning column in 8-Bit Chronicles has evaluated everything from legendary classics to aged relics of the ’80s arcade era. As an aspiring gaming historian, it’s brought me no end of joy — and, in the case of Gradius, teeth-gnashing rage smothered by cheap save-state temptations — to further embrace my twenty-year passion in analyizing most defining era. In closing the book on 2019, I’ve found myself my tenth 8-Bit Chronicles piece, and what better opportunity to shift gears into something a little different: a relevant video game not released in the Golden Age of arcade games, but instead just over a decade ago — when motion controls and handheld touchscreens strove for innovation.
To claim Retro Game Challenge — a 2007 DS game eventually localized for American audiences in early 2009 — earned my vote as 2009’s best video game would be head-scratching to any cursory reader; indeed, the flavorless name alone yields absolutely zero differences from any other low-budget compilation wedged deep within Walmart bargain bins. But however obscure it may be, this compilation of 8-bit games mimicking NES/Famicom graphics, design and sound is nothing but the highest labor of love; a genuine love letter to ’80s gaming that instantly disposes with any preconceived notions of phoned-in nostalgia and functions as an organic replica of gaming yesteryear.
Such an unorthodox concept was derived from one fundamental origin that, despite being absolutely inseparable from the game’s DNA, is all but absent in the English localization. Retro Game Challenge‘s Japanese title is none other than Game Center CX — named after the much-beloved Japanese variety show of the same name, wherein famous comedian Shinya Arino bumbles his way through classic games — be they Ninja Gaiden or Super Mario World — before the timer runs out. Adhering to Japanese manzai comedy, the show’s game-clearing missions are framed as soul-stirring suspense — every marginal victory a hard-earned step towards tear-gushing victory; every loss a cruel stain on Arino’s conquest. The man’s on a mission, dammit, and nothing short of time can stop him, even if it means taking off his pants on national television to apply pain relief patches after an intensive bout of the Power Pad-accompanied Attack!! Takeshi’s Castle Showdown!. (A futile countermeasure, we soon learn, but I dare not spoil the results.)
To summarize: we spectate with bated breath as an eternal man-child struggles with ancient gaming software, all the while gleefully touring local arcade centers, turning down the advances of show-sponsored Game & Watch auctions, or even fawning over foreign Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. All delightful entertainment speaking dearly to my own inner child, albeit with limited distribution to English audiences — Kotaku’s web localization in Retro Game Master was short-lived, leaving us with only a forbidden treasure trove of fan translations. You’re on your own for that, although I can confirm they aren’t that hard to find.
There’s plenty more I could elaborate upon — be it his Mario Maker cameo or even interviews with Hideo Kojima, Shigesato Itoi, and the late Satoru Iwata — but let’s not lose the thread; point is, a video game based off the show eventually cropped up in Retro Game Challenge, and so we end up with something like this: Arino, confounded by current-gen gaming, spawns a digitized manifestation within his Nintendo DS — Game Master Arino. The polygonal monarch of the 8-bit realm — paradoxical, yes, but roll with me here! — traps unsuspecting gaming experts in a mad time-travel scheme, forcing them to complete challenges on fictional Famicom games with only his younger self serving as your guide.
All lovingly presented by indieszero — the developers behind the quirky Electroplankton. Through their passion for both Game Center CX and the Famicom era, we’re treated to a veritable retro gamut: Cosmic Gate and Star Prince, two sci-fi shoot-’em-ups emphasizing vertical progression; Robot Ninja Haggle Man and Robot Ninja Haggle Man 2, Mappy-inspired platforming games featuring lovable mascot characters; Rally King and Rally King SP, racing games that may or may not reference cynical fast-food tie-ins; Guadia Quest, an old-fashioned JRPG with monster-raising characteristics, and Robot Ninja Haggle Man 3, a gritty reboot emphasizing action.
Already a step above your standard mini-game collection in offering full-fledged video games, Retro Game Challenge ups the ante by providing a springboard into something entirely new: it doesn’t just want to recreate retro games; nay, it wants to recreate the 1980s. Your pal in Young Arino comes home with the latest magazines sharing news and cheat codes on the latest games. Manuals are packaged with each and every game. You can write tips and tricks on memos. Arino shares the latest playground rumors and eggs you on while you play. Its chronological timeline bookends the 80’s between home ports of basic shoot-’em-ups to sprawling RPGs and snazzy, plot-ridden action platformers.
While the likes of gaming magazines and insert manuals may be phased out today, Retro Game Challenge’s rendered an ageless time capsule in its virtual presentation of a lazy Sunday afternoon, complete with couch gaming and idle banter. What really sells the game is Young Arino as a wingman — we’ve all had that smartass best friend lounging about, quipping about every move we’ve should’ve made, and Arino fits this role to a T not merely in the hundred-plus ways he screams at your gaffes (all infectiously enunciated by Yuri Lowenthal; seriously, I crack up every time), but in how he echoes everything from mythical schoolyard talk (“A flyer at the mall said: The Pro Gamer’s Coming!”) to the trials and tribulations of game collecting. (“They wrote their name on the cartridge!”, he bemoans after picking up a used game.)
Accompanying your retro journey is a treasure trove of gaming magazines — be it names poking fun as known Western game journalists (Milkman and Dan Sock? Where’ve I heard those before…?) and famous games (“Absolutely the Last Fantasy” debuts in the final issue’s sales charts), developer interviews, or randomly indulging in toilet humor (the very first issue features a letter from “I.P. Freely”), the fictional GameFan’s our window to the world outside Arino’s playroom. Through reports of Guadia Quest‘s continuous, frustrating delays or developers citing childhood memories conceiving Rally King‘s development, we’re teleported back to that familiar childhood fervor where nothing mattered more than than the latest issue of Nintendo Power arriving in your mailbox, awaiting to reveal all on the latest new Zelda.
Of course, there’s the matter of the eight games themselves. I’ll be the first to admit they’re authentic to a fault — Guadia Quest, for instance, relies more than a little on obtuse ’80s JRPG progression, and those averse to 8-bit exploration could find themselves groaning at having to juggle NPC hints and random turn-based battles. When also factoring in the two nearly-identical Rally Kings (more on that in a bit), the curious historian can find themselves experiencing retro burnout, but you can’t dismiss the love and craftsmanship poured within — each game’s tailor-made to their respective ’80s standards, offering a personalized smorgasbord of leisurely five-minute bursts, captivating hours-long adventures, or endless score attacks.
Dense with malleable gameplay concepts — not the least in their cleverly-hidden cheat codes — when we’re not busy clearing challenges, we gradually pick out our favorites from the lot for regular sessions. Personally speaking, Robot Ninja Haggle Man 2 earns my vote: as seen in the above video, its multi-faceted mechanics in color-coded revolving doors play into an addictive combo-based system, with the meticulous player carefully altering the landscape to their advantage as they fire off shuriken and nab innumerable power-ups and summon scrolls. Complete with its lovable mascot cast, and it’s an endearing little game I dearly wish was replicated in the actual market.
Such dedication does Retro Game Challenge bear towards the ’80s that key segments will likely fly over many a millennial’s head. Take Rally King SP — halfway through the game, Arino’s younger counterpart enters a magazine raffle to earn a brand new version of Rally King, and it’s not just any version — it’s the collaborative event between developer SimpleSoft, GameFan Magazine, and the Inokichi Cup Chicken Noodle company. Best of all: it’s limited edition! (“You can’t get it at stores!”, Arino exclaims.) What could possibly go wrong?
Turns out, plenty: it’s the same exact game but peppered with more obstacles, some shoddy texture/sprite swaps, and, most damningly of all, tacky commercial interruptions advertising yummy ramen. To the modern gamer, Rally King SP is nothing but lazy padding courtesy of indieszero; to gaming history veterans, however, it’s a hilarious in-joke poking fun at shameless promotional tie-ins capitalizing on celebrities or fast food, be it in Nintendo’s All Night Nippon Mario Bros or Atari 2600’s Pepsi Invaders — irrelevant artifacts only of interest to the most ardent game collectors. Rally King SP may be a dud, but too bad — Game Master Arino demands results, so you’re stuck with it!
Meanwhile, we witness further division with the risk-taking Robot Ninja Haggle Man 3 — a hardcore “reimagining” of the original cuddly cast, transforming them into badass human-proportioned robots emulating Ninja Gaiden. Much fun as its gear-based weapon management and Metroid-esque exploration are, I find myself missing the cute characters, the cartoonish atmosphere, the background love story! But again, I never direct my disappointment at indieszero; nay, I draw my ire towards fictional company Gears for abandoning the faith and goodwill brought about by their previous masterpieces. Why, I’d have half a mind of branding them sell-outs!
And yet even when indulging in biting commentary and toilet humor, Retro Game Challenge maintains an unabashedly gentle persistence in reviving our childhood magic. To speak on composer Koji Yamada’s behalf might be folly — an OriginalSoundVersion interview has been lost to the internet ether (might there be a Good Samaritan out there with an archived copy?) — and yet nothing channels this innocent joy more than his score. It’s no surprise a game paying tribute to gaming’s Golden Age supplies no end of nostalgic chiptunes, but I often think of the light-hearted xylophones and recorders accompanying Arino’s room, not the least the infectiously boppy magazine shelf music: an adorably unbridled anticipation of what may lie inside those alluring pages.
Naturally, Shinya “The Kacho” Arino himself was involved in the process; in fact, behind-the-scenes footage of the Game Center CX‘s team brainstorming/beta-testing process was featured throughout Season 7! While sadly his more outlandish/tongue-in-cheek suggestions were shot down (A Luigi cameo? That’d take a year to clear!), the Out of this World episode dives into how he suggests using the challenges from the show as the game’s main objective, as well as his Ninja Gaiden-inspired suggestions being the genesis for Haggleman. Of course, there’s more than a few perks exclusive to the Japanese release: Arino provides his own voice, and GameFan’s editor/writer mugshots are ADs from the show. (I’m assuming the American version featured members from the localization team.)
So that’s all well and dandy, but you’re probably asking: how was a game based on a Japanese variety show adapted for America? As you may expect, Game Center CX was strictly tailored to a Japanese audience, namely in how a) Bandai-Namco was notorious for not playing ball with outsourcing licenses, and b) the game’s programming wasn’t equipped with localization-friendly text swaps or alterable graphic files. None of this daunted its publisher in XSEED, who recognized the game’s potential and miraculously landed the rights. As you may expect from the aforementioned hurdles, the localization process was a “Herculean task”, yet the ragtag team’s great passion for ’80s gaming saw it through, swapping out impenetrable Japanese puns and Game Center CX references with Western-based nods (“GameFan” was an actual magazine back in the 90’s), memes (“Spoony bard?”, quips Arino at one point), and trends (As Retro Game Challenge follows a chronological timeline, the localization team took the time to match-up the games’ line-up with American fads) — all forging a timeless love letter to ’80s anyone familiar with retro gaming would appreciate.
Alas, while Retro Game Challenge birthed a passionate fanbase, XSEED reported poor sales for the 2009 cult hit. Despite our best efforts — including one fan’s homemade Haggleman pins for every copy sold — the game failed to achieve its minimum threshold of 100,000 copies, rendering plans to localize its DS sequel readily abandoned. Thankfully, through the hard work of said fan following, a fan translation in Retro Game Challenge 2 was eventually released in 2014 — perhaps we’ll review it in the future? (Apparently a third title for 3DS didn’t fare so hot under a different developer, but hey, can’t win ’em all, I guess.)
Still, five years is a long time — having thoroughly fallen in love with a game I happened across one Easter morning by chance, the agony in knowing we’d never get a localized sequel was soul-crushing. An exaggeration, you may say, but consider this: in the post-game, once Game Master Arino’s been foiled and we’re free to hop between timelines whenever we wish, Young Arino no longer shoots the breeze; oh, all his hilarious quips are present during gaming sessions, but he’s otherwise nothing more than a glorified option button, offering only visits to the ending credits mini-game. I couldn’t bear the sight of my little buddy reduced to this — an automated imposter, bereft of any meaningful human interaction — but even so, I cherished my time far too much with him to erase it all and start over. Succumbing to the depths of obsession, the answer was obvious: buying a used copy to relive this bond whenever I wished — an EarthBound-esque echoing of nostalgia within nostalgia.
Once, in a bout of aimless depression knowing my precious sequel would never arrive, I stumbled across a blog for an online magazine — both names are long lost to the sands of time, but I’ll never forget my discovery of a kindred soul in his Retro Game Challenge piece: While he longed for the NES era that defined his youth, he saw to it his writing career — that being a retro gaming magazine — paid tribute to those memories by sharing his experiences with the world.
However, a miracle occurred in 2009: “thanks to Retro Game Challenge, I now have new ones.”
If there’s any vindication in Game Center CX receiving entertainment awards for spreading video game awareness, could there possibly exist any reason more deserving, more commendable than this? No matter how much I lamented Retro Game Challenge‘s failure in the West (and even now, Game Center CX‘s obscurity even within the Western gaming fandom), that this escapist nostalgia trip was born from the universal languages of laughter and gaming presents possibly the most authentic article of video gaming I’ve ever encountered; that being, naturally, the value of human interaction elevating an insular activity into cherished memory. The rest of the non-Japanese-speaking world may not appreciate Shinya Arino’s youthful passion, but if no one else will, I’ll treasure this experience forever.
By the way, I’m prepping myself for Season 8 of Game Center CX; admittedly, it did take me a long time to visit the source material. Any good episodes coming up?