Kids today increasingly have to hear complaints from aging gamers, along the lines of “Kids today have no clue what it was like in the good old days.” Yes, those younger gamers can enjoy Metroid and Xevious on today’s home consoles--but since time travel has yet to be invented, they’ll never really know how it felt for people like me to grow up alongside the NES. For those looking for the closest approximation of teleporting to 1988, there’s the underplayed gem, Retro Game Challenge.
The game is based on the Japanese TV series Game Center CX. The host, Shinya Arino, plays old, painfully difficult games, and does his best to beat them. He remains an affable host no matter how terrible the game might be, and he’s been playing all these games on Japanese network TV long before the boom of Let’s Play videos on YouTube. Eventually Arino ended up with a game of his own on the DS, only this time, he was the one that did the challenging.
When I finally got my hands on it, Game Center CX had been rebranded as Retro Game Challenge. I was already a fan of Arino, but his goading me with tough objectives wasn’t why I loved the game. I was immediately taken by the setup of Arino teleporting the player back to 1984--specifically to Arino’s living room with a child version of the host waiting for you. The kid just got the latest video game system and wants to see you play the newest releases. While the “real world” resides in the bottom screen, you boot up a fake NES on the top.
Technically a minigame collection, the gameplay for each of them is more or less equal to a full NES game. You start with Cosmic Gate, a simple Galaga homage, and the games keep evolving until you reach 1989, when you'll be playing a relatively sophisticated Ninja Gaiden clone. They get so complex, in fact, that the Dragon Quest clone could legitimately take you 20 hours to complete. Each game recreation is filled with moments that’ll be familiar to older fans, and all the references I caught brought a smile to my face. However, I ended up taking more pleasure in the little touches that recreated an ‘80s childhood.
Despite its Japanese origin, there’s something universal about sitting in front of a 20-inch TV with your best friend to play games. And the English translators did a great job when localizing the script, giving young Arino lines that alluded to blowing on cartridges to make them work, as well as the barely watched film The Wizard. The game’s greatest achievement in writing comes in the form of game magazines you continually consult for tips. The layouts and style feel like the earliest days of American games journalism, and they even feature cameos by veteran editors from such publications as EGM and Game Fan.
Anthologies of classic games will give you context, but Retro Game Challenge’s faux NES games capture what it felt like when they were brand new. Scouring magazines for codes and watching games shift in complexity condenses half a decade of gaming into one campaign. Sadly, RGC wasn’t the hit it deserved to be, though you can still find the DS title without too much effort. Compared to how difficult actual time travel is, buying RGC is a pretty fair compromise.
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