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.