Retro Game Challenge is so Meta


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Indeed.

I first heard about GameCenter CX in the now defunct 1up Show where, in episode 0711, Ray Barnholt expressed his fondness for the quirky program.

GameCenter CX is hosted by the comedian Shinya Arino and revolves around him — with the occasional help of his staff — playing through classic old videogames. It’s a simple concept, but one that apparently stuck a chord with the public. The show is into its tenth season in Japan, and there’s even been some attempts to bring it to the West as Retro Game Master. It also got its own videogame release, GameCenter CX: Arino’s Challenge, but, unlike the show, that one has been released on this side of the pond.

Retro Game Challenge is a Nintendo DS title with a somewhat cute but ridiculous premise: an evil version of Shinya Arino sends you back in time to play various 8-bit videogames with his younger and friendlier self. The catch here is that these games never existed.


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Cosmic Gate in all its Engrish glory.

For fans of the medium, videogames that could have been is often a tantalizing concept. It’s one of the reasons sites like Lost Levels are so popular; there’s just something inherently dreamlike and alluring about the prospect of undiscovered old games. Granted RGC isn’t based on any real-life titles that never made it, but it retains the intrigue that surrounds them. Its slew of games also do a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the NES, and the whole package is like a wonderful little time capsule; unearthed over two decades later, it yields a treasuretrove of 8-bit goodies.

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Sadly, it’s not quite as good as R.C. Pro-Am.

Now one could argue the historical accuracy of imaginary videogames, but the overall “release arc” of RGC is pretty spot-on. The original NES came out in the West in 1985, two years after the Famicom’s debut in Japan. This wasn’t that long after the likes of Atari 5200, and it showed. Pinball and Popeye were amusing titles, but it took a while for games like Contra, Mega Man and Super Mario Bros. 3 to appear. RGC mimicks this by presenting its games in chronological order, with the first being a single-screen Galaga clone, and the last an open-ended, big-sprited Ninja Gaiden homage.

And that nicely sums up the content of RGC — quite simply, it’s a cross-section of fake NES games inspired by various classics.

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Success!

There are eight games in total, each one roughly 1/3 the size of its 8-bit equivalent. Despite this scale, there’s a lot of variety, and even some small modern-day updates, i.e., the default option on Guadia Quest’s title screen is “continue”, not “new game.” The games themselves might be a bit less challenging than their NES counterparts, but what really makes them easy to digest is another modern concept: achievements. In each game, the player is tasked with completing various challenges such as killing two enemies by jumping on them without touching the ground, getting a start-boost at the beginning of a race, or leveling up all your party members.

This is a rather brilliant approach that, in a way, turns RGC into a collection of minigames. Their challenges are not as brief and hectic as WarioWare, and they actually serve to legitimize the full games. None of RGC’s eight titles could make it on its own in this day and age, but, as a collection filled with various goals, it’s more than palatable. This results in the games themselves remaining “pure” — there’s no need to dumb them down, update the graphics, stretch out the play time, etc. What remains is a varied collection that’s hard not to look at through rose-tinted glasses.

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All that this Star Prince boss can do once you destroy his cannons is hover around and await the inevitable.

Of course there are still nits to pick.

As a whole, RGC is incredibly linear. You really only have a single challenge-imbued game to play at any one time, and its goals need to be completed in a strict order. Once a task is finished, the game automatically exits and the next challenge is presented. This is particularly annoying because it’s impossible to complete any two challenges in one go even though it’s technically feasible to meet the criteria of both.

For example, I defeated at least two bosses in Robot Ninja Haggle Man 2 before getting all three scrolls. After this challenge was completed, my next task was revealed: defeat a boss. Not only did I have to wait for this challenge to be unveiled, but the game did not register that I had already completed it.

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Arino’s stack of magazines.

This spoon-feeding of games is great for easing players into RGC, but it also seems unnecessarily constrictive (especially towards the end of the game). The linear structure also proves to be a little frustrating as some challenges are more tedious than others, and even though all the games differ in size and scope, each one only has four tasks associated with it. What’s more, the challenges are always the same, and this substantially hurts the replay value.

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The boss of the Dungeon of Darkness.

None of these faults break the game, though, and it’s easy to look past them on account of the great presentation.

RGC is wholly permeated by the videogame culture of the 1980s. All eight of its titles are accompanied by mockups of actual cartridges, complete with somewhat obtuse manuals. The young Arino also periodically buys issues of GameFan magazine (no relation to DieHard GameFan, I’m assuming). Somewhat modeled after Famitsu, this in-game publication is filled with various overviews, previews, cheat codes for the games you play, sales charts, cheesy reader letters and short editorials.

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Never!

The magazines really help to flesh out the imaginary setting and add significance to its timeline, i.e., after various reported delays of Guadia Quest, it actually feels like a treat when it gets released. In the Japanese version of the game, the magazines also made various references to the GameCenter CX show, but those have understandably been changed for the North American version. Instead, we get references to The Wizard and guest appearances by various Western journalists such as Dan Hsu. It’s a clever solution, and the localization team did an all-around good job of porting the game (they even included some intentional and well placed pieces of Engrish).

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The final Robot Ninja Haggle Man game got a lot prettier.

As you play the games, the young Arino also helps to breathe life into the experience. He accurately comments on your in-game actions — and inaction as well — and chats you up on various videogame topics such as the uselessness of manuals, cartridge maintenance, the phenomenon of turning your whole body with the controller, rumours of secrets he heard on the school playground, etc. After a couple of challenges, he even purchases a rapid-fire controller that makes Star Prince easier to endure. The disembodied voice of his mom also makes an appearance, periodically reminding him to do his chores.

These are all small touches, but they add a tremendous amount of personality to the game. In fact, the overall package is such a good idea that I often found myself asking “Why didn’t I think of that?”

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The end of an era.

RGC is a videogame about videogames, but it only scratches the surface. Of course its sequel might simply embrace more of the TV show’s segments, but videogames do have a culture, and it’s rife for plundering.

Competing consoles, trade shows, demos and leaked alphas, game tournaments, multi-regional releases, console accessories, ridiculous ad campaigns, multiplayer games (even a fake one could be great — just imagine having an AI Arino as a co-op partner or an adversary!), etc., it’s all up for grabs.

Even without all that, though, RGC easily stands on its own. It can effortlessly take you back to a time when you huddled on the floor with a brand new videogame to be cherished and explored, and that is a great feeling.

And now a quick summary of its eight games:


1). Cosmic Gate

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A single-screen Galaga clone.

  • Enemies come onto the screen in waves, and shooting a wave’s “master” destroys all the enemies connected to it.
  • Shooting a flashing enemy results in a powerup that increases your shot power. If the flashing enemy is the first to be destroyed in a wave, though, it leaves behind a portal. Shooting the portal allows you to skip ahead in the levels.

Challenges:

  • Beat stage 5 without skipping any levels.
  • Use two warp gates without dying.
  • Destroy a giant asteroid in the bonus stage.
  • Get 200 000 points.

Cheat codes:

  • Up, Up, A, B on the pause screen to get a weapon powerup.
  • Start + Left on the game over screen to continue from the same stage.
  • Down, Down, B, A on the title screen for increased difficulty.
  • In stage 1, fire 64 shots without hitting an enemy for a secret wormhole to appear that will take you to stage 64.
2). Robot Ninja Haggle Man

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A somewhat unique side-scroller that’s reminiscent of earlier era NES games.

  • Pressing up while in front of a door takes you behind it. Pressing down while behind a door (or after a short amount of time) opens it up again. If any enemies come in contact with a door that’s moving, they get hit.
  • Going through a door will automatically flip any like-coloured doors on the screen.
  • After you come out of a door, it changes its colour.
  • Going through doors in alphabetical order changes them into the same colour, while going through them backwards can restore health.
  • Bosses appear on the stage once all the enemies have been defeated, or if the player flips the door that reveals their hiding spot.
  • To drive a boss out of its hiding spot, the player must hold up after entering a door. If he comes out too soon, the boss will randomly get teleported to another door.

Challenges:

  • Kill 2 enemies in a row by jumping on them without touching the ground.
  • Beat stage 3 without using any ninja stars.
  • Beat stage 4 without dying.
  • Beat stage 8 and its boss.

Cheat codes:

  • Down, Right, Up, Left,  B, B, B, B, A, A, A, A on the pause screen to regain full health.
  • Up, Right, Down, Left, A, A, A, A, B, B, B, B on the pause screen to materialize three scrolls.
  • Start + Left on the game over screen to continue on the same stage.
  • Up-Left + A + B on a level’s intro screen for unlimited time.
3). Rally King

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A top-down racing game reminiscent of R.C. Pro-Am.

  • Levels contain various shortcuts.
  • Releasing the acceleration button while turning begins to drift the car. Hold a drift for an extended period of time gives a speed boost.
  • Hitting other cars or parts of the environment results in a skid. Turning into a skid will stabilize the car before it spins out.

Challenges:

  • Do two drift-boosts in a single course.
  • Finish stage 1.
  • Finish stage 2 in 5th place or higher.
  • Get 15 000 points.

Cheat codes:

  • Select + Left on the title screen for invincibility.
  • Select + Down-Right on the title screen to remove all other cars from races.
  • A, B, A, B, Up + Select on the title screen to start on the second stage.
  • A, B, A, B, Left + Select on the title screen to start on the third stage.
  • A, B, A, B, Down + Select on the title screen to start on the fourth stage.
4). Star Prince

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An homage to the great shmup Star Soldier.

  • Shooting parts of the environment can reveal letters, and each one gives a points bonus at the end of the level. Uncovering all letters and spelling out PRINCE grants an even higher bonus.
  • 1ups and other secrets are also contained in the destructible parts of the environment. Also, some are visually linked and destroying them in the indicated order grants a points bonus.
  • Holding A + B creates a shield in front of the ship that can absorb bullets. Absorbing three bullets allows you to unleash a counterattack.
  • Collecting powerups not only increases your firepower, but also makes the A + B shield surround the whole ship.
  • Shooting a powerup 12 times creates an explosion that damages all on-screen enemies.

Challenges:

  • Beat the mid-boss in stage 1.
  • Get a 1up (by either getting 50 000 points or collecting a 1up powerup).
  • Beat the end-boss in stage 2.
  • Get 250 000 points.

Cheat codes:

  • Start + Left on the game over screen to continue on the same stage.
  • Hold Up, press A, A, A, hold Down, press B, B, B on the title screen for invincibility.
5). Rally King SP

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A special edition version of Rally King.

  • The levels are mostly the same as in Rally King, but with a few minor course tweaks.
  • The environments themselves are palette swapped, and new in-game ads have been added.

Challenges:

  • Finish stage 1 without drifting.
  • Finish stage 2 in 2 minutes and 28 seconds or less.
  • Perform a start-boost at the beginning of a race.
  • Finish stage 3.

Cheat codes:

  • Select + Left on the title screen for invincibility.
  • Select + Down-Right on the title screen to remove all other cars from races.
  • A, B, A, B, Up + Select on the title screen to start on the second stage.
  • A, B, A, B, Left + Select on the title screen to start on the third stage.
  • A, B, A, B, Down + Select on the title screen to start on the fourth stage.
6). Robot Ninja Haggle Man 2

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A slightly upgraded version of Ninja Robot Haggle Man.

  • The game features simultaneous vertical and horizontal scrolling.
  • Enemies are generally tougher requiring more hits to take out.
  • Scroll powers are now used manually be pressing up and B instead of happening automatically once the third scroll was picked up.

Challenges:

  • Kill 2 enemies at the same time using the doors.
  • Collect 3 scrolls.
  • Kill a boss after forcing him out of a door with some enemies still left in the level.
  • Finish stage 4.

Cheat codes:

  • Start + Left on the game over screen to continue on the same stage.
  • Up, Down, Up, Down, B, B, A, A on the pause screen to regain full health.
  • Down, Up, Down, Up, A, A, B, B on the pause screen to get three scrolls.
  • Hold A, press Up, Up, Right, Right, Right, Down, Down, Left, Left, Left on the title screen for stage select.
7). Guadia Quest

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A riff on Dragon Quest II.

  • Although only a single inventory is shared between the characters, the equipment of each party member is highlighted in their corresponding colours.
  • The player is only given 4 letters to name each character.
  • Certain monsters called Guadias can be captured by the player. In order to capture a Guadia, the player must first challenge it in battle, at which point the Guadia becomes powered-up. Defeating the creature brings it into the party as a 4th character, although it’s not player-controlled — the Guadia will periodically attack enemies and comment on the fights.
  • Each weapon has 8 symbols associated with it, and each symbol can be one of 5 different values: miss, mediocre, good, critical and best. When attacking, a dice roll decides what type of a hit is performed based on the 8 available symbols.

Challenges:

  • Find the town of Timbuktoo.
  • Raise all your party members up to level 7.
  • Amass 1 000 ducats (the game’s currency).
  • Defeat the final boss in the Dungeon of Darkness.

Cheat codes (no codes, just secrets):

  • Just to the top-left of a sandy batch in the Royal Mausoleum is a hidden staircase. It’s revealed by using the “Look” command and it leads to an old man that plays the game’s credits.
8). Robot Ninja Haggle Man 3

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RGC’s highlight — a combination of Ninja Gaiden and Metroid.

  • A total reboot of the Ninja Robot Haggle Man series with all new art, music and game mechanics.
  • Although each area is quite large and you can explore it at your leisure, completing it automatically takes you to the next one and no backtracking is allowed between the areas themselves.
  • Doors now actually take you to new locations that serve as either tip dispensors, shops or arena challenges where all enemies must be defeated before exiting.
  • There are lots of secret destructible walls and areas that can only be reached with the proper gear combination.

Challenges:

  • Find the 3-shot hagglegear.
  • Destroy a regen-tree.
  • Defeat the boss in area 1.
  • Kill 100 enemies without dying in area 2.

Cheat codes:

  • A, B, A, B, Left, Right, Left, Right on the pause screen to get 99 lives.
  • B, A, B, A, Right, Left, Right, Left on the pause screen to get 9999 nuts.
  • B, B, A, A, Left, Left, Right, Right on the pause screen will take you to the current area’s boss fight during the next screen transition.

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