Amidst all the hyped up major releases last year, you may have missed an odd little gem known as Retro Game Challenge. I still occasionally see copies of it huddled together, peering longingly from the back row to which they have been relegated in the brutal Party-Baby-eat-Party-Baby world of the Best Buy DS section. A tear comes to my eye when I see the little pixel art ship on the cover, alone in the black void of space, still searching for a home. I want to help it, I really do. But I can’t adopt them all, and so I come to you today, dear GameCola readers, with this review.
Yes, Retro Game Challenge received a bit of praise here and there for its originality and charm, but it otherwise came and went with little fanfare—unless you count the sound of the publisher whining about the disappointing sales. But you can hardly be blamed for this: based on the packaging alone, the game looks like just another retro compilation. I mean, let’s face it, we’ve all had this experience with retro compilations: you play the few good games once or twice, but then never touch it again because your friends are too cool to play 2-player Bubble Bobble with you so you can get the “Happy End.”
Ah, but therein lies the catch: Retro Game Challenge is not a compilation of retro games, but rather a compilation of fake retro games. “Demake” isn’t quite the right word, and “retromake” is too obvious. I was leaning toward “submake” or “pseudomake,” but the Wikipedia article on English prefixes has led me to settle on “megalomake” as the most awesome option, if not necessarily the most suitable. Retro Game Challenge is thus a unique collection of megalomakes wrapped up in a quirky and engaging presentation. One could perhaps even say that it is not so much a collection of retro-styled games as it is a game about retro-styled games, but since this isn’t an academic term paper I will refrain from posting several pages of bullshit for the sake of word count.
Regardless of what we call it, the game goes to great lengths to recapture the retro experience of the 80s. Rather than the usual straightforward “Game Select” menu, you’re treated to a storyline involving time travel, a floating polygonal head, and the dull mediocrity of a lonely friendless childhood. Each game comes with a correctly proportioned in-game manual that you are free to never read. As you complete challenges, you receive issues of GameFan magazine with tips, secrets, reviews, and the latest info about upcoming fake releases. Commentary is provided by the kid sitting next to you, who shouts such well-known 80s catchphrases as “Whoa,” “Dude,” and the ever popular “Look out.” His mom even yells at you to stop playing videogames all day, and you, of course, ignore her. The only element missing from the experience is the giant purple blotch in the upper-left corner of the screen where my brothers and I used to press magnets against the TV.
The games themselves are pulled from a mish-mash of genres, and can be described through reference to other well-known 8-bit classics. Cosmic Gate is Galaga with the addition of…wait, no, it’s pretty much just Galaga. Robot Ninja Haggle Man is similar to Ninja JaJaMaru-kun, with which will you undoubtedly be familiar if you were one of the suckers who were taken in by the enticing “IMPORT” tag on Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Rally King is a clone of that bitchin’ awesome Micro Machines game that the kid down the street owned, and Rally King SP is a slightly more difficult palette swap with the addition of product placement billboards. Star Prince is a decent vertically-scrolling shmup, and Haggle Man 2 is Haggle Man with oversized stages and a billion enemies everywhere. Up to this point, it’s a nice variety of quick, satisfying, pick-up-and-play gameplay.
But this brings us to the two biggest games, which are simultaneously Retro Game Challenge’s central showpieces and its greatest downfalls. Guadia Quest is a fan favorite for reasons that I cannot fathom: it’s just a turn-based JRPG from the Dragon Quest “wander and grind” school of design. I managed to slog through the mind-rendingly dull entirety of Dragon Quest II, and yet even I ended up using Guadia Quest’s secret “skip to the credits” cheat as soon I learned about it. To be fair, it’s actually pretty good as far as boring turn-based JRPGs go, but it just feels out of place: I was left feeling that a Zelda or Crystalis clone could have filled the epic fantasy niche while being less disruptive to the flow. All of the other games that make up Retro Game Challenge are like zippy little cars zooming down the highway; Guadia Quest is the bloated corpse of a giant squid that drops from the sky and brings traffic to a screeching halt. (Lay off; that is a damned fine squid-based metaphor.)
Finally, Haggle Man 3 finishes off the compilation, breaking from the long tradition established by the previous two fake titles in the series. With a release date just on the cusp of the 90s, the character design accordingly shifts from cute and super-deformed to an edgier style, but is softened by a greater social awareness as evidenced through the inclusion of such characters as “Haggleman Lady.” The gameplay has likewise evolved, and is now a clone of a game that people have actually played: Ninja Gaiden. Unfortunately, Haggle Man 3 suffers from some of the same problems as Guadia Quest: it’s just too long and tedious compared to the rest of the compilation (although at least it’s action-packed tedium this time around rather than “Jam A to get through every battle” tedium).
It may sound like I had a negative experience with some of the individual games, but Retro Game Challenge is more than the sum of its parts. This is often code for “The game actually sucks but I’m trying to avoid saying s0,” but it really is true in this particular case. Most of the games are reasonably fun reinterpretations of classic favorites, but there’s also a lot of entertainment to be had in the gaps between games: the Bart Simponesque fake names in the “Letters to the Editor” section in GameFan, the prophetic jokes about the sequelitis that will one day plague the industry, or the repeated pushing-back of the release date for Guadia Quest.
Retro Game Challenge was clearly made by people who remember the retro experience, warts and all. It’s a worthwhile nostalgia trip for $20 (as of the time of this review). And hey, even once the nostalgia wears off, you still might play Star Prince at least once or twice more before sticking it on the shelf with the rest of your retro compilations.