I’ve said before that I don’t review games unless I feel strongly about them. And I feel very strongly that Retro Game Challenge, Bandai Namco’s unique sendup of 1980’s gaming, needs more love.
I feel this way because its sequel is not already locked in for a U.S. release.
Released this past February by XSEED Games, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite publishers, the game apparently sold like day-old flapjacks. I can understand why. The line of thinking goes like this: why shell out $30 for an eight-pack retrogaming pastiche when there are compilations like Namco Museum, Taito Legends and Intellivison Lives! that feature real retrogames for a fraction of the price? I’ll admit, it took until May before I was able to justify purchasing the game, finding it at a Fry’s Electronics for $25 (and the sticker price said $28!), but now that I’ve played it…I feel like a fool for not making it a release day purchase as I originally planned. The whole, in brief, is greater than the sum of its parts.
To understand the game’s premise, thin as it is, we need to take a brief trip to Japan, where this game is called Game Center CX. It was conceived of as a spinoff of a TV series of the same name (which may or may not be released overseas as Retro Game Master), whose main attraction is comedian Shinya Arino’s attempts to conquer classic games. In Retro Game Challenge, it is explained that Arino’s evil digital doppleganger, the self-styled Game Master Arino, is haunting DS systems everywhere and he’s decided to pick on you, the player, by zapping you (or rather, your polygonal avatar) back into the 80’s, where you’re stuck playing video games with his younger slacker self until you can complete all his challenges.
All this is just a ridiculous framing device for one of the most gloriously meta games out there. The idea of making what amounts to a gaming sim seems ridiculous on paper, but this trip back in time faithfully recreates those days of way back when, before the Internet made cheats and hints ubiquitous. Your best friend is the fictitious Gamefan Magazine (which, ironically enough, was once the name of an actual game magazine), a periodic periodical dispensing tips, tricks, news on upcoming “releases” and the occasional bit of fourth wall-tapping humor. There is something satisfying about plunging through each game, relying only on what the manual tells you and what clues you glean from the magazines: there is an excitement to discovering new codes and secrets that is largely lost in this era where GameFAQs makes everything so simple.
I wax nostalgic because I do, in fact, remember those days when game magazines were the primary source of game info. I got my first Nintendo Power three months before I actually got my SNES for Christmas in 1993. Super The Empire Strikes Back was the featured article; we had Yoda sitting in Dagobah on the cover. It also covered Cool Spot, the infamous SNES version of Mortal Kombat, and divulged some of the finer points of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening’s first dungeon (information that would come in handy later, as I also got my original vanilla brick Game Boy that same Christmas). But I digress.
The game is structured as follows: a new game comes out, Game Master Arino drops four challenges in your lap, one after another, and when you’ve cleared them all, the game flashes forward a few months to the next big release. There are eight titles in all, summarized (as close as I can get to a summary, anyway) as follows:
Cosmic Gate is, at its most basic, a Galaga clone. This is good, however, because Galaga is an awesome game. There are also differences enough to make it stand out on its own: enemy wave movements are a little more erratic and unpredictable, the bonus stage is an asteroid shooting gallery (where you can die!), enemy sprites are palette-swapped instead of switched entirely (which arguably makes them look more freakish and alien on the higher levels), the game features actual powerups (as well as a hidden warp system), and it also has a finite end: after 64 levels of alien shooting, the game dispenses the obligatory CONGRATURATION! and sends you on your way. Keep this fact in mind: you’ll need to get there eventually.
Robot Ninja Haggleman is a silly-sounding name (though I suppose you could call him Haguruman if you prefer) for a decent “defeat all the enemies to proceed”-type arcade platformer in the vein of the original Mario Bros.. There’s some strategy involved with the matter of the color-changing doors (which, if used efficiently, can be your most effective means of defeating foes), and it takes a cue from Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins (complete with questionable English) by making you play the entire game again to get the true ending. A fine beginning for a fictional franchise.
Rally King is an overhead-perspective racing game. Four tracks, 19 opponents, no pit stops. Not a bad game, but not especially notable.
Star Prince is the spiritual sequel to Cosmic Gate, evolving from a relatively simple Space Invaders-type shoot-’em-up to a full-blown space odyssey in the vein of RayForce (a.k.a. Galactic Attack, a.k.a. Layer Section…), Ikaruga and the like. It seems short at first – there are only four levels, and the first three all have incrementally stronger incarnations of the same boss – but after you’re done, the game drops the Ghosts ‘n Goblins twist in your lap and sends you back through for another go-round. The number of projectiles approaches danmaku levels towards the end; fortunately, your ship is armed with a shield that absorbs bullets and sends ‘em back in an eight-way screen-clearing wave. Proper use of this trick is, unsurprisingly, the key to survival.
Robot Ninja Haggleman 2 is a linear sequel to the original. Mad scientist Chingensai has kidnapped the princess again, he’s spirited her off to his Mech-Castle again, etc.. This game is basically “Haggleman 1, Extended 2-Disc Director’s Cut With Bonus Scenes“: levels are larger, bosses are harder, and if you get to the end of the game – the second end, I mean – there’s even an extra final boss battle to face. More of an expansion pack than a proper sequel, really.
Rally King SP is the fictional product of a phenomenon that never really happened in the United States. Sure, we had product placement games over here like the aforementioned Cool Spot and Yo! Noid (which was actually a heavily-localized version of a game called Masked Ninja Hanamaru, but that’s an entirely different phenomenon), but I don’t think there was ever a special edition version of an existing game made specifically for product placement. Imagine if Masked Ninja Hanamaru came out unmodified in the U.S. and then we got Yo! Noid. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about here. Rally King SP is a special edition promotion between Gamefan Magazine and an instant noodle company; the end result is that the game features remixed versions of the original four tracks with a new “sunset” color palette and some annoying, unskippable cutscenes of Gamefan’s blue bird mascot eating cup ramen between every stage. The moral of the story? There are some things you should be thankful the U.S. missed out on.
Guadia Quest…ah, Guadia Quest. This one’s an unusual sucker. You’ll probably go in expecting a pale rehash of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy: a band of young heroes go out on a quest, plumb dungeons, grind levels, rescue a princess or seven, slay the dragon, kill the Demon King, save the world, etc.. This synopsis, while partly true, is far from accurate. Guadia Quest is an unapologetically old-timey RPG, but it brings just enough to the table to be a decent game on its own merits. Battle damage is no longer left to the whims of the Random Number God; instead, every weapon has a sequence of “hit marks” that determine its performance. You have to weigh the damage output of the weapons you obtain against their reliability: which is better, a powerful blade that is guaranteed to miss 25% of the time, or a weaker weapon that is always sure to hit? There’s also the matter of the eponymous Guadias, mighty monsters that can be convinced to join your side through a trial-by-combat. That’s right, there’s a monster capture dynamic, but instead of lobbing balls or conversation, you have to beat the crap out of your prospective recruit, which is easier said than done as Guadias magically become boss-level monsters as soon as you offer to make a pact with them. The game’s world is small for an RPG, around the size of Dragon Quest’s Alefgard, but the plot is where this game might surprise you. It opens up with the boilerplate rigamarole about how you are the chosen descendants of a legendary knight who saved the world with the power of Guadias, establishing a treaty between Heaven and the Netherworld, etc. etc., and now the princess of Centraan has been abducted and her father the King tasks you with charging into the depths of the self-explanatory Deep Dungon and rescuing her. Sounds simple enough, but where it eventually goes will surprise those expecting the obvious RPG plot: without offering too many spoilers, the twist right before the end is less Dragon Quest than Bioshock, and while there is a nice happy round of forgiveness handed out before it’s all over, the note the game ends on is far from triumphant.
Finally, we come to Robot Ninja Haggleman 3. The first thing you’ll notice upon booting this game up is that Haggleman now looks like Metal Sonic. The second thing you’ll notice is that jumping on enemies (as per Haggleman tradition) is a good way to kill yourself. Yep, this ain’t your father’s Haggleman. Haggleman 3 is what would happen if you tossed Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Kid Icarus and Metroid into a blender with some crushed ice and a twist of lime, and then splashed yourself over the head with the resulting concoction. Haggleman’s throwing stars now harm enemies instead of stunning them, and getting in close will allow him to dispatch foes with a sword swipe. There are only three stages (capped off with three consecutive boss fights), but they are long, labyrinthine and borderline sadistic at times: any one of Haggleman 3’s levels is easily worth three levels from most other sidescrollers, and exploring each and every nook and cranny of them is not just a good idea, it’s the law. (I’m serious. Haggleman 3 introduces an equipment system where you can customize Haggleman’s abilities by finding or purchasing “Hagglegears”. Some of the benefits these gears confer are required to proceed through key points in the game.) The only thing resembling forgiveness that the game shows is that it’s relatively generous with permanent checkpoints; levels are clearly divided into smaller (but still huge) subsections, and losing all your lives will send you back to the start of the current subsection rather than the beginning of the entire stage. You still lose half your cash, though, but you keep your Hagglegears. If this wasn’t the case, Haggleman 3 would probably have contributed significantly to the number of DS systems destroyed by violent impact.
At the end of this long and unwieldy dissertation we come to the matter of the game’s localization, which is (of course) top-notch. Young Arino’s constant commentary is provided by Yuri “Sasuke/Suzaku/Simon” Lowenthal; he sounds about ten years older than what his character appears to be, but this is probably a blessing. The localization has been Westernized somewhat, with Gamefan’s content being written by actual American game journalists writing under pseudonyms (or so Wikipedia says); this is somewhat incongruous with the blatantly Japanese setting (tatami mats on the floor? And just where did the first console RPG come from, hmm?) but it adds a welcome touch of verisimilitude. Guadia Quest’s localization is fairly straight and to the point, with a few anachronistic gags thrown in for good measure (try talking to the ducks!), while older titles retain appropriate amounts of Engrish (”YOUR ADVENTURE IS NOT END!”), and Haggleman 3’s localization is suitably somewhat awkward and corny (the third boss transforms with a declaration that sounds almost suggestive).
All in all, the question you should be asking yourself isn’t “why spend $30 bucks on this when I can get a real retrogaming compilation for less?”, but rather “where else can I get eight excellent 80’s-style games that no one’s ever played before?” If there’s a Fry’s Electronics near you and they’re still selling this game for $25, it’ll definitely be worth your while (and your money) to go pick it up.
And if you don’t?
Then the evil Net Master Ryusui will haunt your PC and drag you into an alternate 90’s where you’ll have to start up the fan translation scene on your own if you ever want to get back to the year 2009. Gene Hunt will not be there to save you. Pleasant dreams…