Crispy Gamer

Retro Game Challenge (DS)

Buried in its endless summer is the fact that Retro Game Challenge is seriously bizarre.

Retro game collections are a familiar sight: On store shelves, anthologies from Atari, SNK, Namco and Sega mix with the games du jour like repackaged leftovers. Decades-old games like Pac-Man, Dig-Dug and Sonic the Hedgehog are served up in bulk; they're still fun, and a lot cheaper than they used to be. But there's an awkward distance between the budget-priced collections and the new, maybe because years of design innovations sit between them.

Retro Game Challenge for Nintendo DS review
Star Prince, you make me swoon.

Retro Game Challenge isn't a collection of old games; it's a game in which you play as a kid who's been sent back in time to replay the games of his youth. These games never actually existed -- they've been newly built to recreate the feeling of discovering, as a kid in the 1980s, how a new game worked and how it could be beaten.

There's a (very Japanese) plot to help justify this elaborate conceit. A man named Arino is terrible at "current-gen" games. From his gaming impotence spawns the cackling, crown-wearing Game Master Arino, a shamed soul that resides as data in every gamer's Nintendo DS. Like a ghost of otaku past, he snatches DS owners back in time, where they have to face a series of challenges involving the games of their youth -- games like Cosmic Gate, a Galaga clone; Guadia Quest, a slow-burning JRPG; retro racer Rally King; the cheeky action-platformer Robot Ninja Haggleman; and my favorite, Star Prince, a vertical-scrolling shmup.

Retro Game Challenge for Nintendo DS review
Arino doesn't try to grab the controller.

You have a friend with you, and it's Arino as a child. He watches you play every game, cheering when you do well ("Dude!") and commiserating ("Oh, man.") when you don't. He also makes fun of you, gets bored when you hit the pause button or flounder in a game, and fends off his nosy mom. He even lets you read his issues of GameFan magazine for exclusive videogame cheats and previews. (The cheats work, but they still feel dirty.) Playing Retro Game Challenge is sitting with little Arino, his television and his Famicom in his room on the bottom screen, while playing one of his games on the top. Game Master Arino hands you challenges (get 15,000 points in Rally King; beat Floor 4 in Haggleman without shooting; etc.) to complete in eight different games that you play in sequence.

Each is a full game with a beginning and end. After you complete all four of a game's challenges, you unlock its Freeplay, which allows you to play the game at your leisure. You also unlock the next game -- which involves suddenly being transported to the day of its release. One minute you're enjoying a game with Arino; the next, you've been hurtled months or years into the future, while Arino himself hardly bats an eye.

There's a sadness to the unstoppable passage of time in Retro Game Challenge, and the Game Master character is downright dark. I started to wish it were more of an actual retro game collection than a meta-narrative. But Kyle Orland, peering over my shoulder last week as I was blasting foes in Star Prince, saved me from the brink of navel-gazing.

"Did you unlock the new Rally King yet?" he asked.

I said no without looking up, sharing in his anticipation and realizing that I was really enjoying myself.

Retro Game Challenge's very fine quality is in its details. Each of its imagined games is a flawless and uncanny evocation of the 8-bit era. That's what separates them from other modern-day, retro-themed games that don't have as firm a grip on the past. You endure countless waves of aliens in Cosmic Gate whose patterns change in precisely the right increments. You jump from enemy to enemy in Haggleman, not because it's simply what you do, but because it feels compulsively fun. You talk to blithe non-player characters in Guadia Quest who somehow aren't too fazed by the doom that has befallen the world. You gape as your ship in Star Prince transforms into its powered-up version. You wish you hadn't bought Rally King. (It goes without saying that the 8-bit soundtracks are pitch-perfect.)

In other words, the games haven't changed a bit. And even though the tatami mats and sliding screens render Arino's room distinctly Japanese, it evokes powerful memories. It's the way the Famicom sits innocently in front of the TV, the way your little self scrambles on hands and feet to grab a game or magazine off the shelf, the way Arino sprawls lazily on his side to watch you play.

Gameplay moments trigger all the correct responses from Arino. Create your first warp gate in Cosmic Gate, and Arino says, "Ohhh." Let a bonus slip by in Rally King and he moans, "You missed it?" Stumble upon a secret passage in Haggleman 3 and he says, "Interesting!"

Retro Game Challenge for Nintendo DS review
Haguru-man is the best game character that never existed (eat your heart out, Matt Hazard).

Okay -- the kid's dubbed exclamations sound forced, and they briefly snap you out of Retro Game Challenge's hypnotic spell. You feel that someone -- the designer, betrayed by the English localizer -- is pulling one over you, especially once Arino starts repeating himself unknowingly as you play and replay.

But it isn't hard to fall back into Game Master Arino's embrace. The maddening little games and Achievements -- I mean, challenges -- quickly make you forget where and who you are. What you know is that you become as doggedly persistent and carefree as your 7-year-old self. Maybe that isn't a function of age. Maybe it's games that have changed a lot, and not you.

Like the Game Master, Retro Game Challenge is obsessive, sealing you in a time capsule so tight that its fully contemporary trappings barely ever escape. Compare it to the retro gaming nostalgia that's spread all over the Internet -- on archival sites like YouTube, where fuzzy bits of the past (classic game intros, boss battles, speed runs and ROM hacks like M. Bison spinning his way through Stage 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. ) are there to be collectively admired and remembered fondly, as if from a distance. At point-blank range, Retro Game Challenge aims itself at you, the player, rebuilding your memories right in front of you with a scientist's precision.

Early gamer hype about Retro Game Challenge focused on the fact that its false games aren't just like their real-world counterparts; they're just as good. After playing them for a few minutes, the distinction between the games you actually played and the games you're currently playing begins to blur. Its brilliant move is that Retro Game Challenge tells you a story about your past in order to make history alive, to give you crystalline new memories.

And it doesn't feel cheap like a retro game collection. It, amazingly, feels like the first time, again. But Retro Game Challenge isn't just for people who lived through these experiences in the '80s -- I rarely had the patience to finish games when I was 7 -- it's also for people who never got to, who can now get themselves a fresh start. Game Master Arino's hidden message might be that gaming itself can, too. As much as innovation (technological, visual, conceptual) is prized in a cutting-edge medium like gaming, looking forward isn't much use without a point of view. Retro Game Challenge twists itself arduously through space and time to point out, more profoundly than any other game I can recall, that good ideas have infinite life.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.

Want more? Get the first hour in Kyle Orland's Games for Lunch: Retro Game Challenge.