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Retro Game Challenge

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It strikes when you least suspect it, in that one, awe-inspiring moment in which you realize what you’ve forgotten. What you’ve left behind. Sure, you might be immersed in some hundred-hour RPG, or slaughtering random baddies with your huge arsenal of high-tech weapons. You enjoy what the current generation of games can offer you. There’s nothing wrong with that; gaming has come a long way in the last twenty years. If you’re old enough, you can appreciate such advancements even more. But all those amazing graphics and deep gameplay can only do so much for you. There’s always that longing – hunger, really – to play a game with that perfect blend of simplicity and quality that only old school games seem to possess. You might not realize how badly you want it, but when that craving hits, you’ll end up digging out something you might not have touched since you were a child. That satisfied, prideful feeling you get after you’re done makes it all worth it. There’s no shame in nostalgia.

There is madness, however.

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Arino is suffering from an insanely powerful nostalgia trip. Not content with what the current generation offers, he’s returned to his roots in 1980’s gaming and has mastered everything it could offer. While such regression isn’t necessarily a bad thing in concept, it’s proven really annoying. You probably know at least one old school gaming elitist bastard, but Arino has taken it to a whole new level. He’s downloaded himself into your DS (turning into Floating Polygonal Head of Doom in the process) and wants to challenge you to the most epic retro gaming gauntlet ever conceived. Since he can’t handle the games of our time, he’s also transported you back into the mid-eighties and forced you to confront his and your child selves (or at least an unconvincing avatar of them) on the touch screen. Armed with nothing more than nimble fingers and pure skill, it’s up to you to put this smug little punk in his place.

Victory isn’t easy, though. Arino will subject you to a series of games that retro fans will recognize all too well. A couple of shooters, some racers, generic ninja action games, and even a RPG. Pretty standard, simple fare for anyone that’s grown up on it. But it’s about beating these games – you can do that on your own – but about whatever challenges Arino comes up with. You might have to attain a certain high score, collect some items strewn throughout the screen, find hidden warps, or beat a level within a specified time limit. Few of these missions are truly difficult, though; these games simply require a bit more effort and skills with the controls to beat. Patience is the key to success here; you’ll undoubtedly come across a few Game Over screens, but perseverance and willingness to learn from your mistakes pays off. After you’ve completed a handful of challenges for a given game, you’ll be able to play it freely and unlock the next title. Rinse and repeat enough times, and you’ll show Arino who the real game master is.

A daunting task, indeed. But it’s a fair bet that you’ve seen these games before, but under different names. Take Cosmic Gate; it’s little more than a straightforward Galaga clone. You’ve got a lone spaceship taking on wave after wave of oncoming alien fighters, all of which have unique attack patterns. That’s on top of the hidden progression system, which involves you shooting flashing foes to open up warp-holes to skip levels. While there’s nothing particularly mind-blowing about it, the fast pacing and responsive controls are top-notch. Star Prince fares a bit better, though. As the collection’s obligatory Star Soldier knockoff, it allows you to blast through whole legions of enemy fighters, mutant monstrosities, and spaceships that fill several of the vertical-scrolling screens. The points and weapons system is more evolved than that of the other shooter, too. Shooting down combinations of targets means a higher score, and multiple pickups allow for more choices in terms of attack style. That’s on top of the wonderfully crafted counterattack system, which will save your sorry ass at least once. Even if you’ve beaten all of the challenges for these, they’re addictive enough to keep you coming back for more.

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The same can be said about the Robot Ninja Haggle Man games, too. The series like the typical gaming trilogy; the first game is simple and fun, the second game improves upon its predecessor’s basics but retains the gameplay, and the third is completely different but comes off as the best of the trio. The premise is simple: Haggle Man has to save a kidnapped maiden. Progression involves him exploring a small level of platforms and crushing every enemy under his pixilated ninja boots. You can also hide behind or flip doors, which allows you to find hidden objects and slaughter foes en masse. Once you’ve killed all the minor baddies, a slightly tougher boss will appear and feebly attempt to kill you. Its maimed, bloodied corpse will turn into a portal leading to the next area. The second game is identical, though it has more (and a bit more diehard) enemies onscreen. The third game ditches this in favor of a more Ninja Gaiden-esque sidescroller. Throw in some upgradeable throwing stars and a horribly overpowered summoning trick, and you’ve got a decent action platformer. The hit detection isn’t perfect, though; running into a little hooded monk or skull-shaped blob doesn’t always kill you. At least the steady graphical improvements and level developments make unlocking the last game all the more worth it.

You might not like the Rally King games as much, though. In a nod to every top-down retro racer ever conceived, you’re pitted against nineteen other competitors to become the racing champion. The courses are pretty generic; you’ll zoom through blotches of color representing woodlands, desert dunes, and even city streets. But what these tracks lack in style they make up for in design; there are tons of curves and shortcuts for you to deal with. Aside from some blatant advertising, the SP version develops the established courses and shifts palettes to simulate a new experience. Both games employ a drifting mechanic that allows you to navigate all the curves and abuse the boosted accelerations that happen afterward. The problem is that the controls are slippery enough to make the drifting system a pain to use. It’s all too easy to start a drift, then accidentally release it in the wrong direction and smash into a wall. Even if your car can take some punishment (conveniently displayed at the bottom of the screen), it’s likely that you’ll see your car go up in a pixilated fireball before you get the challenges done. It’s addictive and aggravating in a way that only old school racers can be.

Besides, you might forget about those once you’ve unlocked Guadia Quest. No old gaming challenge would be complete without a cliched RPG, and Arino is more than happy to serve one up in all of its Engrish-ridden glory. You’ll gain control of a trio of heroes commanded to save – you guessed it – a kidnapped princesss from the clutches of evil. You’ll get to wander a blocky, flat map, spend the nights at inns to regain your strength, explore multi-leveled dungeons, plunder treasure chests by using the Look command, endure hundreds of random battles, and all of that other stuff that apparently made Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest so damned good back in the day. This is a grindfest in its purest form; you keep on battling for experience points and money, and keep leveling up until you can take on stronger foes and purchase better equipment. You can talk to certain monsters and attempt to get them to join your party, but that’s the extent of anything that really stands out. Even if the monster art is pretty detailed, there’s no attack animation or any of that other fancy stuff you’ve likely grown accustomed to. But hey, at least it sets out what it was supposed to do: portray the gameplay of the 1980’s as accurately as possible.

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Retro Game Challenge itself goes the extra mile to rekindle your childhood gaming expriences. While the games are being played, your childhood avatar and Arino’s younger self will be sitting in front of a TV and game console on the touch screen. You’ll occasionally get enthusiastic cheers or moans of disappointment from the young gaming prodigy, as well as his input on what he considers to be “new” games. He’ll eagerly show off his latest issue of Gamefan magazine, complete with articles about upcoming releases, cheat codes, tips for getting high scores, and other hidden surprises. You might even peek into the games’ manuals to see if there’s anything you might have missed. One of the best parts is the dialogue; older gamers will pick up on references to the NES cart blowing trick, the Powerglove, and several other gaming terms you’ve let slip away over time. Not to mention the huge build-up (and delayed) for the release of Guadia Quest. If that weren’t enough, Arino’s mother occasionally checks in to tell him to take a break or do some chores. It’s as if this were a day after a school at a friend’s house, and not the epic challenge it’s supposedly is.

Look, folks. If you like old school gaming, you need to try this. It doesn’t sound like much; it’s merely a collection of eight clones of classic games. They’re as primitive as they get. But what it lacks in style and depth it makes up for in sheer replayability and nostalgia. It takes you back to a time before there were meaningful stories, fancy leveling systems or any of that other stuff you might take for granted. It recaptures that feeling of joy you get when you finally get that high score, or how you managed to outpace that one racer that kept managing to take first place. It’s about remembering a time when you were excited about some huge new game, and you could only find out about it by reading a magazine, or learning some rumor or cheat from a friend. Above all else, it’s about nostalgia. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2005.

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