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Old-school is a term we, as gamers, tend to use an awful lot when talking about our favorite hobby. If you, like me, were there back in the era of the Atari 2600 and the old Nintendo Entertainment System, then you understand full well what old-school is about. Retro Game Challenge, a 2009 Nintendo DS release from XSeed games, is old-school to the core. It not only flawlessly recreated the video game titles from the era, but also manages to capture the entire gaming experience, right down to the manuals and the pre-Internet reliance on information from gaming magazines. If you lived through the era, you'll love the way this incredible game both pays tribute to and pokes fun at those days gone by.
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This game was known as Game Center CX in Japan and is based on a popular TV show in that country. Even so, the story doesn't get lost in translation. As the game opens, the player learns (by way of Star Wars style scrolling text) about the game's antagonist, Arino. Arino stinks so badly at modern-day games that he has gone off his rocker, dubbing himself "Game Master Arino" and forcing unsuspecting gamers to compete in old-school style gaming challenges for his amusement. You, the player, are his latest victim. He has turned you into a kid and sent you hurling back into the 1980s, and the only way to return to the present is by overcoming the challenges Arino has set forth before you. The whole thing is wonderfully zany, and the writing is top notch. In fact, not only is the plot engaging, but the supporting material (such as the gaming magazines and manuals you need to refer to and the actual, intentionally-bad game translations themselves) is as well. It's a tip of the hat to the eighties that will leave you smiling and laughing.
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I've got to tell you, folks, I think this is a brilliant concept for a game. Essentially, you are given one new game to play at a time, and Arino sets forth before you a series of goals that you need to achieve, one after the other. First up is Cosmic Gate, an arcade space-shooter reminiscent of Galaxian. Your first task is to make it to level five. Do that, and you'll get your next challenge, which is to make two warp gates appear. To learn how to do that, though, you'll need to consult the game manual and/or the various magazines you have access to. This continues until you complete all of the Cosmic Gate challenges, at which point you unlock the ability to play through the game normally, and you're given your first challenge from the next game, Robot Ninja Haggle Man, a platform jumping game that reminds me somewhat of the old Sega classic Flicky. Complete all of that game's challenges to unlock the next title, and so on.
The concept is brilliant, but the execution might be even better. For one thing, the game's goals are always varied, unique and challenging, forcing you to play the game in different ways but never causing you to reach the point of frustration. Plus, the magazines often contain handy-dandy cheat codes that can help you out. In fact, looking for hints and tips like that is a large part of the fun! The games are all based off classic game titles, and cover a wide range of genres, from shooters to platformers to racers and even NES-era RPGs. Plus, as mentioned above, when you beat a game you unlock access to it in Free Play Mode, which can be accessed from the main menu. This is a great addition, considering that some of these games are just flat-out fun to play. Let me tell you, I've already taken advantage of this feature to play Cosmic Gate more than just a few times!
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Graphics and Sound
From the moment you turn the game on, you know you're in for something different, because right off the bat you're presented with a minimalist opening screen and 8-bit style beep-and-boop sound effects. Then, when you start up a new game, you'll experience that epic Star Wars style intro sequence I referred to earlier, complete with sinister sounding sci-fi music when Arino first appears--and, in fact, each time the Game Master shows up to taunt you. The games themselves, which play out on the DS's top screen, look about how you'd expect NES-era games to look. They've got it down to a tee, really. The bottom screen features your avatar, who is joined by a young Arino (who himself is a tremendous source of humor). They're rendered in fairly crude looking 3D, but even that has a certain charm to it. The manuals and magazines are fairly clear and easy to read as well. On the whole, I'd have to say that the graphics, music and sound effects are pretty impressive.
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I love this game. For me, it's both fresh and nostalgic. It reminds me of the times when all of this gaming stuff was new to me, back in the days before the Internet when we didn't know Final Fantasy III for the Super NES was actually Final Fantasy VI and we saved up our hard-earned allowances to pick up that new cartridge at our local toy stores. Yet at the same time, the way the game forces players to experiment with different play styles to complete different challenges, and the variety of the goals themselves, makes this feel like nothing else I've ever played before. Retro Game Challenge is incredible, and I'd easily recommend it to anyone, but especially to those who lived and breathed old-school before it was old-school.