9 in ’09, number six: Retro Game Challenge

I’m aware that there is a perception of me among certain people that I mindlessly sing the praises of any game that passes itself off as “retro” or “classic” style — that I’m so addled by an unquestioning love of anything predating such-and-such a year that I’ll gleefully lap up any work in that style, regardless of origin, quality, vintage, or style. These people are also known as “mouthbreathers,” and someday, when I am king, I will punch them all in the face as punishment for being so dumb.

In fact, the precise opposite is true: I don’t merely like classic games, I like great games of every vintage and find an 8-bit masterpiece every bit as entertaining as a great recent release. Older games employed different technology and design than modern 3D blockbusters do, and as such they exhibit different strengths. Age and technology don’t make one game better than another; they simply mean each game has something different to offer a player. At the same time, my appreciation of retro-style games means I also have very little patience for bad old games. And even less for contemporary games that try to ape the style of bygone console generations and get it wrong. Developers have had 25 years since Super Mario Bros., and 15 years since PlayStation debuted, to figure out what makes great 8- and 16-bit games great. There’s no excuse to get it wrong, and simply dressing up a crappy game in dated graphics doesn’t excuse its crappiness. It just makes the developers seem cynical opportunists with a P.T. Barnum-like believe that the consumer is an easily-hoodwinked dupe.

On the other hand, when a modern game successfully employs the retro style and does it right, it’s a welcome sight, because so few worthwhile games of that kind are being produced these days.

Retro Game Challenge
Namco Bandai / XSeed | Nintendo DS | The NES, compressed

Retro Game Challenge gets it right. And it doesn’t just get it right once, it gets it right more than half a dozen times.

But of course, the strength of RGC is that it’s entirely predicated on the conceit that it’s an omnibus of actual classic games. The games in question never really existed, but each was crafted with love and care and honestly and truly could have sold for $30 back in the 8-bit era. I would have bought Haggleman 3 or Cosmic Gate as an NES owner, and I would have loved them. If Guadia Quest had been released on a cartridge, it would be a cult classic that demands $50 on eBay (or more, if you had the box and fold-out map).

These games couldn’t have existed back in the day, though, because while they almost perfectly emulate the tech and style of NES games — maybe the color palettes are a little too rich, and maybe there’s not quite enough slowdown, but they’re damn close in look and feel and sound — they’re designed with the canniness of people who well remember the Famicom boom and all the great things about those games, but aren’t sheeplike in their adoration and weren’t afraid to borrow a few lessons from the 20 years of game design hindsight that creating a game in 2009 affords. The games in RGC are all a little too smart, a little too refined to have been legitimate NES releases. But this isn’t a shortcoming; on the contrary, it’s ideal. It means the faux classics anthologized here have all the fun and charm of an 8-bit hit but deftly sidestep the frustrations and flaws so common to gaming’s 8-bit adolescence. Yes, even Rally King, the somewhat unpopular top-down racing game, isn’t bad, and it’s a whole lot more fun than any other game in that style which comes to mind.

All of these games are bound together with a curiously metatextual narrative that takes the player through ten years of imaginary NES history. In Japan, RGC was based on the brilliant TV series Game Center CX and perfectly encapsulated the country’s collective Famicom experience. We here in the U.S. have neither of those things as touchstones, which was undoubtedly a tricky challenge for XSeed’s localization staff. They did their best to compensate, and the results are still satisfying — especially for those familiar with the personalities of American gaming magazines. It’s at once a tribute to and a parody of the NES era, but it doesn’t subsist strictly on fond memories. On the contrary, RGC succeeds because that satirical shell is simply the wrapper on nearly a dozen exquisitely designed fake 8-bit games, each crammed with secrets and Achievement-like challenge objectives; at this point, it seems the closest thing we’ll ever see to a DS-based Virtual Console. And it’s fantastic.

Pity you didn’t buy a copy, because it means we’ll never see the sequel, which is even better. I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can be friends anymore.

32 thoughts on “9 in ’09, number six: Retro Game Challenge

  1. Yes. YES to this whole damn article.

    Retro Game Challenge may’ve been eclipsed by all the AAA console titles that were released this year, but RGC will probably be the game of 2009 that I remember most fondly years from now.

  2. RGC was charming as all get out. I could import the second game, but I wouldn’t be able to understand a word of what would be said in the living room or in the magazines, and that just makes me sad. At least I’ll always have Haggleman!

  3. RGC came out? where have I been? I remember reading about it in some crap magizine that you get when you sign of for a used game card (yea you know the one) and i was thinking “I need to get this.” Must of slipped my mind. On a side note, i just realized I never broght Okami, either, and I got Muramasa, but i only played it for an hour or two. I think I’m becoming a “pop gamer” (term trademarked and copywrited by phatslo)

  4. Most of the knuckleheads on Talking Time bought it and are including it in their own top 10s. I’ve thought about breaking out each game separately for my top 10 with Rally King coming in at #1. Yeah, I can’t get enough of it.

  5. I bought two copies. One for me and one that is going to be a Christmas present for a friend. She better like it or else.

  6. Si, si. I agree strongly with this article.

    I think I’ve purchased four or five copies of RGC over this year; one for myself and the rest for friends who otherwise might not have known about it.

    Would love to see the sequel in English.

  7. Yeah, I bought several copies of RGC this year, too – one for myself, and a handful as birthday/Mother’s Day/Flag Day/etc gifts to other gamers. Knowing that a decent number of people may have done the same bums me out just a bit, since that would suggest that the game was bought by even less people than those numbers would suggest. BAH, HUMBUG.

  8. I purchased a copy of RGC on the first or second day it was available. A few months later, I purchased a second copy, which is still sealed. Overall, the game was mostly enjoyable… kind of like playing a mixed bag of games with a slightly irritating friend.

    It’s not every day that I purchase two copies of a game. I actually have to really like the game, and what it represents. Around 2005-06 I bought two copies of DQ8, and two copies of Ever 17. Neither game was a best seller.

  9. “I could import the second game, but I wouldn’t be able to understand a word of what would be said in the living room or in the magazines,”

    Personally, I think this attitude is more pitiful than not buying the first game. You know they’re good, we’ve been telling you they’re good, and many of you made up your mind that 2 will never come to America, but still you say no, because you can’t let go of the belief that foreign dialogue will totally bar your enjoyment of the games themselves, which is, uh, kind of the point of the product. Meanwhile, hundreds upon hundreds of people just imported FF13.

  10. and yeah, if you don’t know how to win the challenges, you can’t proceed, and they’re pretty hefty on the kanji.

  11. Isn’t one of RGC2’s game a dating sim or some other kind of crazy, text-heavy game? You’d have to be crazy to tackle that with anything less than a college semester’s worth of Japanese under your belt.

    (That said, I’m stupid enough that I would probably import RGC2 in a heartbeat if it came bundled with a Kanji-to-English disctionary.)

  12. See, the games by themselves were pretty darn fun, but it was the charming living room stuff and the magazines that elevated the game from “like a whole lot” to “love” in my heart. (By the way, I was pretty bummed that Arino stopped going on about playground gossip when I won the game and now just offers to run the credits instead.)

    Sure, I could import the game and it would be again a pretty darn fun time, but all of that supplemental framing stuff would be lost on me. And then I’d be sad. (Well, I guess there might be a FAQ somewhere, but playing next to a computer with a text file open does not sound like relaxing times for me. Also, text adventures sound fun, but I’d rather play it than just use a walkthrough.)

    tl;dr: The games are really fun, but the localization sealed the deal for me.

  13. I do recommend picking up the sequel on an import, even though some of the charm IS lost without the dialogue and game magazines being in english. Theres a greater representation of genres this time (including clones of Pac Man, Super Mario Bros, and Tetris) and some games from the original return as bonus games with new challenge modes (Time Attack mode for Star Prince as an example).

  14. I did buy RGC, thank you very much.

    Really, a very good article. I quite literally lol’d when I saw Editor-in-Chief Dave Halverson in the first issue of “Game Fan,” so I think Xseed did their job well.

  15. Rally King wasn’t bad at all, though it wasn’t a game I would have played back on the NES. I think it would probably be better regarded as part of RGC if they hadn’t made us play through it twice. I appreciate the Gradius ramen joke, but it could’ve just been thrown in as an extra. Everything else about RGC is pure brilliance.

  16. Pfft. RGC totally sucked. I mean only 4 out of the 8 games in are are absolute must have titles I would readily have purchased if they were released on their own for the price of the whole collection, the other 4 are just really fun games by anthology standards. Where’s the VALUE man?

  17. Rally King is great for having something to grouse about! It is everyone’s not favorite!

    Hm, now I’m regretting not forcing the game on my brother as a Christmas present. Ah, but his birthday is in a few months!

  18. I loved that Xseed went out of their way to actually use pictures of Ex-EGM editors Dan Shu, John Davison, James Mielke, and John Riccardi (I think) as faux-editors for the in-game GameFan Magazines. The games themselves are also wonderful, even Rally King.

  19. I’d followed the game through a preview or two but after 1ups many features on it and, of course, your review, I hunted the game down. I picked up the lone copy in the local Best Buy. (which apparently prompted them to keep the game on the shelf for a couple months afterwards) I played through and beat the game, grinning my ass off the whole time. Except through some of Rally King. I told every DS owning friend to get a copy and a few did. The more I hear of the sequel the more I consider the import and learning just enough kanji to play it.

  20. “…the faux classics anthologized here have all the fun and charm of an 8-bit hit but deftly sidestep the frustrations and flaws so common to gaming’s 8-bit adolescence.”

    I enjoy the ability to save anywhere in Guadia Quest as well.

  21. I hope someone translates the game script of the Arino detective games and the Guadia Quest sequel. I would totally go through those Mother 3 style, reading along with the script on my computer.

  22. Actually, not being able to save anywhere in any given RPG has always been a design choice. Dragon Quest gave you 2 save slots, writable only by talking to the king, living where you start the game, encouraging the whole “do I wing back and save it, or do I keep hanging out over here in high cash/EXP land a while longer?” strategic choice angle. The original Phantasy Star meanwhile, which was released just before/after depending on what country you’re in, had 5 save anywhere save slots, plus more inventory pages, characters, plot advancement and location data to deal with. Plus, really, saving anywhere requires at MOST 3 bytes of space- map id, position x, position y. Not really demanding, especially when any game with multiple savepoints needs that first one.

    The speed up spell on the other hand, that’s a modern design notion.

  23. I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a great update / twist on the 8-bit classics. I was really impressed with the length and playability of Guadia Quest (the weapon system was pretty dang cool, actually), and Haggleman 3 was just awesome. Reminds me a bit of TMNT3 on Gameboy, or anything else of it’s ilk.

    I really do wish they’d bring over the second, I played through the Japanese version until I hit the text adventure. For some reason, I really enjoyed Wiz-Man, even though I don’t normally enjoy the old maze-style games. And the kung-fu sidescroller was pretty good, too.

  24. Repetition that is instructive is essential. Repetition that is not instructive is a goddamned waste of my time.

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