Retro Game Challenge (DS) review
"Retro Game Challenge features eight games in all. That doesn't sound like much, and in some ways it isn't. After all, we've seen compilations of classic games that boasted three, four... even seven or eight times that number. Keep in mind, though, that these are original efforts. More importantly, they're original efforts that—for the most part—are fun to play today while still retaining that distinct retro flavor (including a score tally that mentions how many objects you shooted and an innkeeper that asks you if you feel asleep)."
You might not believe this, but when I say that Retro Game Challenge was made for people like me, I'm not just looking for an excuse to tell you all about my early days of gaming. Now that we've gone into that uncomfortable territory, though, let's stay there for a bit and you'll have to take my word for it that I do have a point relevant to the game. Really I do.
In January of 1989, after months of campaigning on my part, my parents relented and purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System. My third-grade whining actually broke them before that, but rural Oregon life in the 1980s--as now--meant that games and hardware were scarce. Even early in the holiday shopping season when the competition was less fierce, finding an NES on store shelves in 1988 would've been like finding a Wii at an antiques store in 2008. My parents were always procrastinators.
The years that followed were the best in my young life as I played games, studied industry magazines like they were my Bible and pleaded with my dad to let me call the long-distance game counselors in Redmond, Washington (a now-useless phone number that I still have memorized). I bought a few magazines here and there, subscribed to Nintendo Power and basically lived the stereotypical Nintendo nerd lifestyle as much as my family's limited means allowed. Those were formative years that were far from perfect, yet somehow I find myself missing them on occasion.
That's where Retro Game Challenge comes in, and you can stop rolling your eyes over my dreadful transition because it's really not as bad as you think. You see, Retro Game Challenge is a collection of games... but it's also an entertaining look back at what it really meant to be a gamer in that era. For me and thousands of others, it's the chance to step into a time machine of sorts.
The premise is like a bad 80s movie: some gamer guy is losing his touch so he somehow winds up as a magical floating computer head who zaps one unfortunate gamer--you--back into the early 80s, when the game industry as we know it was still a virtual toddler. Now the only way that you can return to your life in the future is if you meet a whole bunch of challenges presented to you by your mystical tormentor, Arino. By satisfying his demands in eight games, you will... find your way back. Or something.
After naming your character and choosing between a boy and a girl, you appear in a young lad's living room. His name is Arino and if you do your job right, he'll learn from your mad skills at the various games of the era. Maybe he won't grow up to be the bitter, washed out gamer who zapped you into the past. Stop wondering if that creates a time travel paradox or something like that, though, because the point here is that you have to kick butt at eight retro games. It's a.... RETRO CHALLENGE! Er... sorry about that.
The afore-mentioned living room, by the way, is your hub. From it, you can read any available issues of GameFAN Magazine (not the real one you may remember from the era, but a sort of composite of all of the major rags) and select any cartridges that you're going to tackle. Subsequent issues and games are progressively unlocked as you complete challenges, one game at a time. It's rather disappointing that you can't just select them all right from the start, but it makes sense given that the game's primary purpose is to take you on a trip through a virtual 80s gamer experience. The unique approach allows you to experience these fake games and sequels just the way you might have if they were actually around in the 80s: through months of magazine hype, around cheat codes that sometimes work and sometimes don't, and while reading through silly questions readers posed to game magazine editors.
Localization is spot-on for Retro Game Challenge, too. This game was developed for a Japanese audience first, but the team that brought it over to North America obviously did its homework. You'll witness rather transparent variations of popular industry figures of the time, including Dan Hsu, Dave Halverson, James Mielke, Greg Off and so forth. The 'people' writing in also have joke names that I remember being popular in playground jokes around that time, such as 'Ivana Tinkle' and 'Hugh Jass.' Someone had a lot of fun tailoring this release for its audience and for that we can all be grateful.
I guess really the only things left to talk about are the games themselves, eh?
As I mentioned, Retro Game Challenge features eight of them. That doesn't sound like much, and in some ways it isn't. After all, we've seen compilations of classic games that boasted three, four... even seven or eight times that number. Keep in mind, though, that these are original efforts. More importantly, they're original efforts that--for the most part--are fun to play today while still retaining that distinct retro flavor (including a score tally that mentions how many objects you shooted and an innkeeper that asks you if you feel asleep). That's quite the accomplishment.
First up, you have Cosmic Gate. It's a vertical shooter along the lines of Galaga. Ships come down, you shoot them, they disappear and you repeat throughout 64 total stages with only the occasional asteroid fields serving as diversions. Powerups and warp gates enter the equation, but they don't mask the fact that this is shallow stuff.
Next up there's Haggle Man, which most closely resembles a cross between a classic like Mappy and perhaps the likes of Xexyx or Milon's Secret Castle. You're a sprite-like character and you bounce on enemies to defeat them... or open and close doors in combo moves that clear the map more quickly--important, since stages have a strict timer--on your way to a more devious boss.
The simpler fare gives way to a vertical shooter with four fairly demanding stages (though the bosses don't really switch up enough to remain fresh), to an overhead rally racing game sort of like R. C. Pro-Am only not, to a Haggle Man sequel that's tougher but actually quite similar to its predecessor, to a special edition of the rally game that parodies industry cross-promotion and the GameFan minotaur, to a role-playing game (think Dragon Quest) to a rather robust platformer along the lines of Ninja Gaiden.
That's a lot of ground to cover, so it's understandable when things aren't always executed as perfectly as one might hope. Just the cursory descriptions of the various games above illuminate one issue: occasional repetition, and that's one flaw that doesn't ever quite go away. Another is that even the beefiest of the games feels rather shorter and less momentous than most of the actual classics from gaming's golden age. What's here is mostly good and thoroughly engaging, but 20 hours of play or so will be enough to thoroughly explore everything the DS card has to offer you. A final consideration is that even with all of the virtual help in the form of magazine tip sections and the likes, casual gamers of the modern era could be as lost here as they would be if they booted up an actual NES.
Ultimately, then, your experience with Retro Game Challenge is going to depend a lot upon your background and your mood. If you're interested in an interactive trip through 80s gaming--made fresh again by fictitious fandom that somehow seems as real as ever--then there's a good chance you'll love this package. If you've already tried that sort of thing and it didn't do anything for you, well, there's nothing here that's particularly likely to change your mind. Me, I quite enjoyed myself and can't help but look forward to the sequel. I guess there'll always be a bit of the 80s left in me.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 15, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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