December 13, 2009

Review – Retro Game Challenge

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Jamie Love @ 11:30 am

Review Retro Game Challenge
Though his work remains obscure, Doctor Cairn Kipling devoted his life to understanding the thought process of the animal kingdom, particularly the domestic dog. For over 20 years, he lived in a modest home in Austria, raising and studying a pack of Papillons. Though the details of his grisly demise made headlines, his true contribution to society was the seminal work, Belegter Butterbrot von Türkei auf Weizen. Among his many observations, his seminal thesis involved the primary mental imperative of our four legged friends, which he summarized as, “I’m a dog!”

And just as I questioned how any of this information might ever prove relevant, XSEED Games published Retro Game Challenge, a game that’s primary pre-occupation is excitedly exclaiming, “I’m a game!”

It’s a game in love with being a game. But to be clear, it doesn’t strive for post-modern vanity. Instead, it exists as a game excited to exist. And this tiny DS cartridge just might be the geritol our worn and ragged gamer souls need. It’s a Voight-Kampff test, separating those that “were there,” at that precious place and time from those who are now ready to embrace this title today.

But this isn’t about a tortoise on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun. So what is Retro Game Challenge about, then?

It’s about sitting in your basement, your shadow cast against the wall behind you by the warming glow of an old television. The bookshelf is littered with games and game magazines. While you sit, hunched over and gripping a sweaty controller in your hand, a friend is laying on the carpet, eyes fixed on the high score you’re about to set. A voice calls from the kitchen, asking if you’re hungry, and if the two of you are ever going to take a break – that motherly tone of passive concern you try to ignore. You stop only to swap to another game, but the television screen is blank. Of course you have to blow the dust from the cartridge before it will work. This is Retro Game Challenge.

It’s about a time when videogames were your best friend. When you came home from school, hurriedly grabbed a snack and rushed back to the game you had to leave the night before. It’s about the games you played late into the night, turning down the volume so no one would know you weren’t in bed. These are the types of memories gamers mention when talking about how videogames have changed. The type of shared history that can be cited and understood by the retro faithful, who feel a strained and at times forced relationship with the evolution of the medium. But Retro Game Challenge seeks to mend those wounds, and ease the mind of such nagging concerns. It encourages you to simply play games again, and cheers you on as you overcome the challenges it presents. In many ways, it’s about deciding whether games changed, or if we did.

It’s about what might be the greatest use of the dual-screen ever. The ability to watch your character reach for a game and suddenly have the upper screen light up with the title screen, an 8-bit symphony filling your ears.

It’s about eight games: Cosmic Gate, Star Prince, Robot Ninja Haggleman, Robot Ninja Haggleman 2, Robot Ninja Haggleman 3, Rally King, Rally King SP, and Gaudia Quest.

To call these mini-games would be a severe disservice. A mini-game is a creature of distraction, an OCD fixation on some element of game-play that can then be repeated ad nauseam.

These eight invented titles represent the four fundamental building blocks of videogames – Shoot-Jump-Race-Explore. This is the palette used to create experiences that still live vividly in my memory. Retro Game Challenge hinges on how good these games are, and each is a unique amalgamation of games we did play – somehow emerging as fresh interpretations of those four genres that prove relevant as new entries in their own right, as well as expertly defined uses of nostalgic license.

Players are trapped by the game-master Arino and forced to play games with a young Arino in the past. As such, each game is accompanied by a set of four challenges. But what really feeds my verbose review is the way in which each subsequent game progresses the overall theme of nostalgia and recreates childhood memories. That parody of the past brilliantly replicates the fact that games grew and developed along with the gamers that played them.

You begin with the challenges of Cosmic Gate, a standard top-down shooter. Your ship moves left to right, fixed against the bottom of the screen as you tap the fire button furiously to destroy the invading Insectoids. And then later, you meet the challenges of Star Prince, the spiritual successor to Cosmic Gate. Suddenly your craft can move over the whole of the screen. Levels are larger and guarded by bosses and mini-bosses. Explosions seem more vibrant, and power-ups allow you to bring a new degree of destruction to your enemies. Similarly, the sequel to Robot Ninja Haggleman delivers larger areas and harder enemies, culminating in the ultimate evolution of that series through the third installment, which I won’t spoil here.

There is every opportunity to get lost within the games themselves and lose sight of the challenges. Star Prince is so solid a shmup that I’ve already lost countless hours to it. Guadia Quest has brought back the daunting challenge of the earliest rpgs, with all the limitations but surprising imagination intact.

Retro Game Challenge is about a rare indulgence. It’s about the nuances of details, down to the most obscure memory shared between you, me, and the early beginnings of an industry. Attention to detail is evident in the manuals that accompany each game within the game. It’s accentuated by every issue of Game Fan Magazine, with all the tips, cheats and articles, and certainly with the musings of Dan Sock’s column, “If The Shoe Fits…” When confronted again by conversations about whether true gamers read tips and cheats, or suddenly handed a rapid-fire controller for the first time, the memories that seemed so personal to us are suddenly an immense and shared experience. Perhaps we remember a time before the Internet, when we only had immediate friends to share the excitement of what videogames meant. And yet Retro Game Challenge also emerges as a reminder that we were not alone in that experience, and not as our parents may have claimed, the only victims of the gaming obsession.

Retro Game Challenge makes one additional contribution, one that will perhaps be overlooked at first. For all the coffee table books that try to record a history of the gaming industry, here is the answer many of us have missed. Should the history of the industry exist as a series of static papers left to gather dust? Or should the story of the industry, and the shared narrative of those who created and supported it, exist as the most sensible and appropriate creation – as a game itself? Retro Game Challenge is about the foundation, emergence, and development of a culture. But as a game about games, it’s also a critical realization of a true, contextualized means to remembering the history of videogames.

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