Saturday, February 28, 2009

Retro Game Challenge

Retro Game Challenge
Pile of Awesome - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 1 Save
1 player

I lucked out with Retro Game Challenge. I just happened to be around when a couple of people mentioned it in passing. I had never even heard of it before, but knew then that I had to have it. Basically, it's a collection of 80s-style parody games. Being raised as a NES-gamer, I couldn't help but be interested. RGC was originally released in late 2007 as Game Center CX Arino no Chousenjou. Thankfully, XSeed Games decided to bring it over, and they made quite the effort to preserve this labor of love.

The setup is a little odd. Some strange fellow is lousy at playing modern games, but absolutely loves the games he played growing up. So he ends up trapping you and forcing you to undergo his retro gaming challenges. Although not the most epic storyline, it does provide the backdrop for this quirky collection. The great thing is that these games play homage to many of the old classics from the 80s. Cosmic Gate is almost identical to Galaga. Robot Ninja Haggleman closely resembles Ninja Jajamarukun and Ninja Gaiden (NES). Guadia Quest is clearly modeled after the early Dragon Quests. But although these games are very retro in their look and feel, they also incorporate some modern twists. For example, Star Prince is a generic vertical shooter, with the ability to collect power-ups to change your weapon. But Star Prince adds the ability to absorb bullets through a shield mechanic and launch a barrage of fire as a counterattack and collectathon elements by uncovering P-R-I-N-C-E tiles scattered throughout the stage. These games successfully blend the tight design of traditional gameplay with newer mechanics to produce familiarity, yet feels fresh at the same time.

The game is structured as a series of challenges. For the most part, these challenges are fairly easy. They are presented to help you learn the basics of each game, rather than mastery of them. When a challenge is met, the game immediately stops and brings you back to the main story. This initially bugged me - you spend your time getting to a new part of the stage, and then the main game kicks you out. But as you complete the four challenges for a single game, you then earn the right to play that game in "Free Play" mode. So I guess the purpose of the main game is to fulfill challenges, and not necessarily to play each individual game to your own liking. In addition to unlocking "Free Play", you also unlock the next game in the compilation by completing a game's four challenges. The final challenge of RGC requires completion of all the games.

It was the little things that stood out most. The first game you play, Cosmic Gate, is very barebones. Being that the game was "released" in 1984, you get a basic title screen, blocky visuals, basic mechanics, poor grammar, and tinny music. But as you unlock additional games spanning "release dates" from 1986 to 1989, you see a progression of all those things. Haggleman 2 has noticeably better visuals and higher quality music than Haggleman 1. Cinematic cut scenes were introduced. Gameplay concepts are evolved. Ending credits became far more elaborate. Retro Game Challenge accurately portrays the 80s era of gaming. In addition to the 80s-esque games themselves, RGC includes a library of magazines with news, tips & tricks. As a kid growing up with an EGM subscription, it's a really nice touch. What's also interesting is the English localization by XSeed games. The RGC magazine is called "Game Fan" and has editors named "Dave H." and "Dan Sock", which are obvious American game culture references. It's details like these which show that both the Japanese developers and the American localization team delivered the game out of a passion for video games.

As far as the games themselves, there are 8 titles included, although perhaps only 6 unique titles.

- Cosmic Gate is the Galaga clone, with the addition of a power-up that can destroy multiple enemies with a single shot and warp zones.
- Robot Ninja Haggleman 1 & 2 are almost identical games. I guess the best way to describe them are 2d action platformers in a confined space. When you destroy all the enemies in the stage (usually by jumping on them), the boss reveals itself. The twist is that the game has a bunch of doors scattered throughout the stage and if you enter one door, all doors of the same color will open, revealing power-ups, damaging enemies, and possibly revealing the stage boss early. Haggleman 2 has larger stages, harder enemies and upgraded visuals.
-Rally King and Rally King SP are overhead perspective racing games. Being a rally game, drifting is of the essence. If you can drift for 1 full second, you'll trigger a "drift boost" which propels your car in the direction of your drift for a few seconds. It's similar to Mario Kart DS snaking, except you simply drift, not drift from side to side. Unlike Mario Kart, you take damage every time you hit a wall or another car, so if you're wreckless with your driving, it's game over. This causes you to be strategic about your drift boosts, because you're penalized for bumping into objects. Rally King SP is really a remix of Rally King, and not a sequel.
- Star Prince is a vertical scrolling shooter. It's a very solid game, with lots of things to shoot and dodge. Interestingly enough, the waves of enemies change randomly, so replaying the same stage will result in a slightly different experience.
- Guadia Quest is very much a take on Dragon Quest. You have a party of 3 characters with similar spells to those offered in DQ. The "Guadias" are special enemies that you can make a pact with. If you defeat one, they will help assist you in future battles. Unlike a party member, Guadias cannot be directly controlled, and they do not help out every turn. Still, their presence is appreciated because Guadia Quest is a surprisingly thorough adventure. Even though the overworld is limited with only a few dungeons, the game makes the most of it. The dungeons themselves are huge, with many branching paths to explore. There are puzzles, a variety of enemy types, difficult bosses, rare equipment, etc. - basically what you'd come to expect of any standalone J-RPG. It may be old-school, but it's old-school well done. My only gripes with it are that it mirrors retro-RPGing too well. You need to go to a submenu to talk to someone or to look at an object. I'm not entirely sure why that couldn't be done with a single button. And although most items and spells are explained in the manual, some are not, which can be frustrating because modern games have descriptions built into the interface. Another pet peeve of mine is how older RPGs had terrible shop interfaces, where you were basically purchasing items blindly, not knowing if the weapon you're buying is better than the one you're wielding. Almost all modern RPGs show you stats increases/decreases so you can easily make informed buying decisions. Guadia, like most early generation RPGs, does not. Still, despite my quips, I enjoyed Guadia Quest more than most RPGs today.
- Finally Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 marks the end of the collection. It is completely different than Haggleman 1 & 2, resembling Ninja Gaiden (NES) more than anything else. In HM 1 & 2, your main weapon was jumping on enemies to defeat them. Here, it's all about slashing them with a sword. Haggleman 3 also resembles Metroid in the way that certain sections of a stage are inaccessible until you acquire specific items.

All in all, it's a good mix of games and genres. Only the latter two have a save feature that allows you resume right where you left off. The first six games are pick-up-and-play so they don't really need it.

My curiosity was piqued when I first heard about this title. Now that I've got it in my hands, I love Retro Game Challenge even more. As a gamer defined by the 1980s myself, RGC hits all the right notes. It is undeniably a product made by gamers, for gamers. Coincidentally, Game Center CX 2 was released in Japan this past week. Here's hoping that RGC sells well enough to pave the way for RGC2. We need more games like these.