Games That Time Forgot: Retro Game Challenge (2009)
"PUSH START" used to mean "push Start." As in, stretch your thumb to the middle of the controller and push the honest-to-goodness Start button to begin the game. At some point in the late '80s, "PUSH START" came to mean "push anything." Start would still get you past the title screen, but so would A or B. It seemed like every developer switched over at the same time: One day, we had to press Start; the next day, chaos! Literalism gave way to liberalism. It was an epochal shift in title-screen interface design. And for a couple of decades, I thought I was the only person in the world who noticed or cared about this.
I was wrong. Retro Game Challenge notices, too, and I was delighted. In this pitch-perfect collection of ersatz '80s games, the early title screens accept only Start. Once you reach the latter half of the decade, A and B work, too. Sure, it's a tiny detail, and that's the rub. The makers of Challenge cared enough about paying proper tribute to the NES generation that someone took the trouble to program in proper Start-button behavior. This is a game about the importance of remembrance, which makes it a perfect capper to Games That Time Forgot.
There have been many adoring words written about the accuracy of Challenge's remakes -- how Rally King mimics the twists and frustrations of top-down racers like R.C. Pro-Am, how the evolution of the Haggle Man series touches on sources as diverse as Mappy and Ninja Gaiden. I won't belabor that point, noteworthy as it is, because Challenge achieves an even larger success in capturing the whole experience of playing those games.
My generation doesn't yet realize how quaint our relationship was with games in the 1980s. Challenge harks back to an era when your fingers would pulse with anticipation when the new Nintendo Power or GamePro arrived, with its precious fragments of wisdom that would be swapped in school the next day. Arcane controller sequences like the Konami code were spread like they were secret handshakes granting you entry into a secret club. Previews were rare and less than comprehensive; new releases were usually revealed only when some new splash of color caught your eye behind the Kay-Bee toy counter. More often than not, "multiplayer" meant swapping the controller with your buddy each time one of you died.
That was games' nickelodeon era. In a few more decades, it will be regarded as a strange footnote in the history of a rapidly changing medium -- the players of that era will only vaguely understand how we engaged with the medium in the NES' heyday. Retro Game Challenge captures more than an overall sense of game design; it captures a time.
When your little on-screen Challenge buddy Arino cries "Ooh!" at a warp zone in Star Prince, that's because he didn't already see video of the warp zone animation leaked by PR hacks, analyzed by breathless bloggers, and derided by forum trolls before the game was even released. When grown-up Game Master Arino challenges you to make it through the first level of Rally King, the challenge holds some weight because there's no leaderboard of 75,000 obsessives worldwide who have already cleared the level with a faster time than you could ever possibly muster. Challenge evokes a mystery and surprise that existed when gaming culture was allowed to exist on a local level without the specter of a global community looming over it all.
The current wave of commercially driven 8-bit "nostalgia" is not nostalgia at all. It is kitsch. Nostalgia hurts too much to be healed by a pixel-art T-shirt. The "-algia" ending means "pain" in Greek; nostalgia is the pain of a homecoming that will never come to pass. My home is swapping Strider tips on the playground; it's sneaking a few hours of Zelda past my bedtime to catch up to the neighbor kid who found the White Sword. And while I have grown up to do what I consider a dream job, it pains me to know that I'll never be able to return home. Retro Game Challenge went a small way toward salving that wound. I won't forget its kindness.
Check out more Games That Time Forgot.