Retro Game Challenge has shovelware written all over it. Another quick and dirty compilation of old school classics repackaged in a nondescript box with bad cover art. What's worse, its 8-bit collection of retro games are all knock-offs: the Space Invaders/Galaga clone is called Cosmic Gate; Star Soldier is called Star Prince, etc. You could hardly be blamed for assuming Retro Game Challenge is yet another cheap, derivative attempt to cash in on NES-era nostalgia. If you saw this game on a shelf you'd walk right by it.
And that would be a very big mistake.
Retro Game Challenge is a wonderful mashup of games cleverly tied together by a sublimely wacky story in which you are transported back in time to the 1980s and forced to play video games by the vengeful Game Master Arino. You are transformed to a child, and your gaming companion is a friendly youthful version of Arino, unaware of the evil transformation that awaits him. Your only way back to the present is to overcome challenges Arino throws at you from an array of retro games, including 2D shooter, sidescroller, racing, and even a surprisingly deep RPG.
It's easy to see how a collection of retro-inspired games framed by a properly nutty Japanese gameshow theme could make for a pleasant, off-center diversion. Throw in some gameplay challenges, a maniacal host, a few nods to game genres we remember fondly, and voila: a fun little handheld diversion.
But Retro Game Challenge transcends such a self-limiting design by aspiring to more than a simple old school mashup. It does several very important things very well. Among the lessons RGC delivers:
- Homage and parody don't exempt you from quality. True, RGC is full of games that ape the conventions of classic NES titles, but they also happen to be terrific games in their own rights. Cosmic Gate, Robot Ninja Haggle Man (Mario Bros./Bubble Bobble clone), and Star Prince are complete, multi-level games that control smoothly on the DS. When you overcome Arino's challenges, each of these games is unlocked for freeplay, and they are, in my humble opinion, every bit as good as their originals. I would even argue they play better than their overpriced official Nintendo re-release DS versions.
- Embrace your meta-self. One of the charms of RGC is its wry awareness of itself as a game. Developer XSEED cleverly weaves ironic bits of commentary from Arino that suggest he knows you know you're playing his game of old games. The devilish glee he derives from throwing these challenges at you makes each one feel personal and delightfully ridiculous.
- Make the experience feel at once familiar and brand new. If you played any of these games in their original forms, RGC will offer little that seems new (though Guadia Quest riffs on Dragon Quest in some wondeful ways that are fun to discover). But the game delivers its challenges in a fashion that chops each homage into a variety of games within games that make you experience them in ways that feel fresh.
- Love the player and the culture. RGC is a gift to gamers. It includes a wonderful, well-written fake magazine called Game Fan that contains articles about the games, rankings, cheats, and even game advice from fake journalists, one of which is clearly modeled after Dan Hsu, former editor of EGM. All of this is delivered in loving detail, with fonts, graphics, and layouts reminiscent of the magazines many of us eagerly pored over back in the day.
- Don't take yourself too seriously...except when it comes to delivering an extraordinarily well-conceived, smooth playing, and refined game that cleverly hides all those tracks beneath a cheap, jaggy 8-bit veneer.
If you haven't yet played Retro Game Challenge, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. It's a terrific compilation of games that fairly represent the defining decade of the medium. Playing the included Robot Ninja Haggle Man series alone (1-3) conveys a remarkably accurate view of 80s game development from the earliest NES games to their more refined successors that appeared near the end of the 8-bit era. That alone makes the game worth playing.
Happily, its designers aspired to more than a history lesson or dusty rehash. Retro Game Challenge is a brand new experience all its own. Game Master Arino awaits you.