Retro Game Challenge was originally released in Japan back in 2007 under the title Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge. This is because the game is actually based on the Japanese TV show titled Game Center CX, which stars Shinya Arino, a popular Japanese comedian who tackles a different difficult game in every episode.
He’s really not all that good at games, but usually, despite dying thousands of times and playing for over half the day, he does manage to finish the game. The show is a smash hit in Japan – It’s been running since 2003 and still gets new seasons every year. Fuji TV, its Japanese publisher, has actually been looking for a western TV station to air it (with subtitles, of course) under the name “Retro Game Master,” but sadly, no concrete plans seem to have been made.
But how on Earth does a show about a man playing videogames work as a videogame itself? Simple – Just make up a bunch of fake retro games and have you play them together with Arino! The story’s completely insane – Arino, being incredibly bad at videogames, has gotten so frustrated losing to his friends in current-gen games, that somehow a digitalized version of himself spawns inside the DS. “Game Master Arino,” as he calls himself, turns you into a kid and sends you back in time to his childhood – you have to play games he used to play and beat various “challenges” to get back to modern times.
There are a total of eight different “retro” games included in Retro Game Challenge, covering a variety of genres, from platformers to racers, and even RPGs. During gameplay you’ll get audio commentary from Arino, although he’s naturally been voiced by an American person for the localization – he can praise you at times but can be condescending at others, just like friends do when they play with you in real life.
You’ll start off with Cosmic Gate, which is a lot like Galaga – enemies come down and form formations, before going at you one by one. After clearing four challenges (such as “Reach level 4” or “warp two times”) you’ll unlock the next game. You have to do this in all the other games as well.
The second game you’ll unlock is Robot Ninja Haggleman. This resembles Ninja JaJaMaru-kun and other similar classics, with you running around a stage which only scrolls horizontally, trying to defeat all the enemies. Later in Retro Game Challenge, you’ll unlock Robot Ninja Haggleman 2, which is essentially the same – the only differences are that there’s more helpful items and that the levels also scroll vertically. The final game you unlock is Robot Ninja Haggleman 3, which is totally different, playing more like Ninja Gaiden.
The rest of the games are similarly inspired by real classic games – Rally King (and Rally King SP, which basically just adds advertising for a product, like quite a few original Famicom games did in Japan as well) is an overhead racer similar to Road Fighter. There’s not much to it, just avoid dirt and jump off ramps to catch up to all your opponents, and try to go for first in every race.
Star Prince is a lot like Star Force and Star Soldier: just a typical vertical shoot ‘em up. This game includes one of the few remaining nods to the TV show (most of them were removed during the localization as we wouldn’t understand most of them). At certain points, enemy segments float onto the screen – once the center segment flashes, you have to hit it about 8 times really fast to kill it instantly and get a bonus. In the TV show, Arino once played Star Force, his challenge being to do the exact same on an enemy in that game. He even had to get advice from Hudson Soft’s button-mashing expert, Takahashi Meijin! After beating the first challenge of Star Prince, you’ll actually unlock rapid-fire – holding the Y button will unleash an almost endless stream of bullets.
Finally there’s Guadia Quest, a 5+ hour RPG similar to Dragon Quest. The main gimmick of this game (as evidenced by the title) is that you can sometimes encounter “Guadias” as enemies in random battles, which you can attempt to negotiate with and have them fight alongside you as a computer-controlled helper. The game isn’t really that long, with only two dungeons. It’s not as primitive as Dragon Quest either – there’s a warp spell which lets you instantly reach any location you’ve visited before, and you can save anywhere you want. If you don’t like slower games but want to unlock the games that follow after it, there’s no need to worry – you only need to beat about 50% of the game to clear the three challenges.
Even after unlocking all eight games and clearing their four challenges the game isn’t over yet – the ultimate challenge is to completely clear every single game. A lot of the previous challenges were pretty easy, but this one will require some real dedication, especially for Guadia Quest and Haggleman 3 (which is longer than it seems to be!).
The “retro” games included in Retro Game Challenge all ooze charm, but they’re not all the game has to offer – to give you a true 80’s experience you will also gradually unlock issues of “Game Fan Magazine,” which includes cheat codes, hints, and even fake reviews and interviews for every game. Each issue also has a top 5 of games, which features even more fake game names for you to laugh at. In the original Japanese version of the game, the magazine’s staff were actually all people from the TV show, but with the US release we have several fairly famous video game journalists (although they've given themselves nicknames).
After clearing the main three challenges in a game you’ll unlock it in Free Play Mode; if you just want to keep playing one game to try and set a high score you can do so here. You’ll also get a ranking, based on your total play time and performance for all of the games combined.
One final neat addition is a memo pad – during any game (all of which are played on the top screen of the DS) you can call up a sheet of paper on the bottom screen, on which you can draw maps, cheats or even messages so you don’t forget what to do. Guadia Quest, for example, has two quite annoying sections in its two dungeons which are filled with pitfalls – you can draw a handy map on the memo and mark all the pitfalls on it so you know what route to take. It's a great use of the DS hardware.
It could be considered a miracle that Game Center CX was localized for the US – after all, it’s based on a show which is not likely to appear outside Japan (even though the manual claims it will!). However, even with most of the links to the show removed, the game is still a blast to play (and they've even added some new references for western gamers - including a mention of the 1989 movie The Wizard). If you were to play any of the games included without knowing anything about the complete package, you’d probably assume that they’re actual retro games, such is the quality of this package. If you're a retro-fan and miss the joy of playing addictive 8-bit games, this should be a no-brainer. All we need to do now is hope that XSEED also localizes the sequel – it’s already out in Japan, and includes a whopping 15 games!