[15 March 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Ralph Koster pointed out in his book A Theory of Fun that game designs are inherently empty. Artists and writers fill the game design of a platformer or a racing game with the content that gives these game designs meaning. Although the evolution of video games can be traced by console or graphics, it’s just as easy to show the medium’s development by the changes in game design. Developers are now making games more accessible, providing ways to curb difficulty and allowing challenge to be a choice instead of a burden, all defining conventions of the modern era of gaming.
What Retro Game Challenge has created are a series of modern games with 8-bit aesthetics that spoof or satirize games from the ‘80s. The result is a superb exercise in nostalgia, role play, and quality gaming.
The game begins with a digitized Shinya Arino, whose show features him playing classic Nintendo game challenges, capturing the player and sending that player back in time. He declares that you will be transformed into a twelve-year-old boy and remain trapped in the ‘80s until you can beat his video game challenges. The game features eight original titles that are throwbacks to often several games at once. Cosmic Gate is a pitch perfect spin on Galaga, while Rally King nails Motorace USA and the drifting mechanic. Each game is broken into challenges that the player is given by Arino that will eventually let you unlock the game and play all the way through. What’s interesting about these challenges is how much they simulate the same approach that one uses to beat an 8-bit game.
One of the challenges in Haggle Man is to simply beat the fourth level without dying once. This is very similar to how you have to approach beating something like Castlevania. You have to get through the first few levels without dying, so you practice at that until you can do it purely on muscle memory. Other challenges will require the player to unlock a secret or use a special move, a skill many gamers would have to teach themselves to beat a classic 8-bit game. What these challenges do is require the player to go through the motions of playing a game from the 8-bit era.
The games themselves could best be described as ease through elegance. The difficulty is curbed in a variety of ways depending on the game. Cosmic Gate adds a much needed rail shot that goes through enemies and warp points to skip levels. Haggle Man has a cheat that lets you continue at any “Game Over” screen and a door flipping mechanic that lets uncoordinated players get around enemies. These designs all facilitate both accessibility for players, but also, they speed up the progress. Whereas each of these games would’ve been able to stand on their own if they maintained the difficult sensibilities of the ‘80s, by curbing that it makes it so each one can be beaten much more quickly. The JRPG 8-bit game, Guadia Quest, speeds up the long grind sessions by having several powerful spells be unlocked before the 20th level and only featuring two enormous dungeons. The game’s more complex shmup, Star Prince, even lets you buy a turbo controller. By holding down Y, it acts as if you were continually pressing the fire button. If the game’s design doesn’t make something easier to do, the cheat codes in the magazines will provide an alternative.
Which is where the roleplay parts of Retro Game Challenge come into play. Your twelve-year-old self is visiting a young Arino on a rainy day. Both of you are parked in front of the T.V. next to a shelf full of games and magazines. On the DS this becomes the lower screen while the upper screen is the television, the actual game you’re playing. You even have the ability to reset the console while the game keeps playing, resulting in several sessions where you just restart exactly as you would if it were only the game itself.
This meta level of the game is where the experience of playing 8-bit games truly comes out. With every new game also come magazines that give you all the tips and tricks to beating them. Each one captures the painstaking corniness and odd writing of magazines from that era, right down to the bizarre questions like, “Could he be the strongest enemy ever?” The magazines even have intentional typos, such as tiny misprints in the cheat codes that force you to figure some of these portions out for yourself. Another great touch is the constant changing of writers for the magazines, a nod to the notoriously short-lived careers of most game critics. Play sessions will occasionally be interrupted by Arino’s Mom asking us to buy groceries or even Arino himself talking about school. His cheers and shouts all coordinate with the gameplay, making him an eerily accurate simulation of having a friend watch you play games. During more dull games like Guadia Quest, Arino will instead yawn and take naps while we grind through levels. The conversations with him can be a bit slow but they’re reminiscent of the same chatter any two kids about games had back in that time.
Throughout this experience are all the sly winks and details of gaming from the time period. The all-new exclusive version of Rally King that select contestants win is actually the exact same game with a few artificial tweaks, including in-game commercials. The exciting sequel to Haggle Man is the exact same game but bigger. The third in the series takes a hit by being a little bit too radically different from the original formula. The game even plays with your expectations about which game you’ll be playing next, such as having the magazine hype your interests, and then reporting yet another delay for the game. It’s all just so painstakingly…there.
Complaints about Retro Game Challenge are few, but they should be noted. Players expecting the same level of difficulty from that era will be disappointed to learn the game is targeting people more interested in nostalgia than challenge. It does make up for this with the last game which is inspired by Ninja Gaiden, which is a bit of a brick wall in terms of difficulty, but most of the games are designed to be fun and easy to enjoy. It would also be nice if we could turn Arino off, even if it is his games we’re playing.
The last challenge of the game is to go back and beat the games you’ve collected properly using whatever trick you can think of. Whether it’s through cheat codes or honestly playing through each game, Retro Game Challenge doesn’t really force any kind of hardcore or casual mentality on the player. It’s a game with modern sensibilities that delivers the experience of being a kid in the ‘80s superbly.