Game Center CX is an interesting Japanese TV show that started back in 2003. It stars middle-aged Japanese man Shinya Arino, one half of comedy duo Yoiko and tasks him with playing old video games and trying to clear them. The catch is..he’s quite bad at them. He’s forgetful and awful at pattern recognition, both important skills for older, unforgiving games, but his upbeat attitude turns that into fun and more often than not he eventually meets his goal. The series got a small cult following in the west, largely thanks to the efforts of a subtitling translation team based on the Something Awful forums.
It doesn’t take much thinking to come to the conclusion that a tie-in game based on a show about games would be a good idea, but there was an issue – the games that Arino plays all belong to the license holders. They couldn’t well put out a compilation of games from different publishing entities. Instead, a creative route was taken.
Game Center CX: Arino no Chosenjou / Retro Game Challenge
Publisher: Namco-Bandai Games International/XSEED Games
Platform: Nintendo DS
Namco-Bandai contracted development team IndiesZero to create a series of fake retro games and a clever environment surrounding them, naming it Game Center CX: Arino no Chosenjou (lit. Arino’s Challenge). Upon starting the game, a floating low-polygon representation of Arino’s head (no doubt aping Dr. Kawashima from Nintendo’s Brain Training series) appears, turns you into a child and sends you back to his own childhood time, stating that if you wish to return to normal you need to clear his gaming challenges.
The games themselves span the life of the “Game Computer” console, a parody of the NES’ Japanese name, Family Computer. Each game has four challenges, and upon clearing the fourth, time passes and a new game is released.
Alongside each game are fake game magazines, resembling early editions of Famitsu or Nintendo Power. Each issue contains musings from the editors (with pictures of the show’s staff, or in the case of the US version, members of the gaming press such as Dan Hsu with subtle name changes like Dan Sock), tidbits about upcoming games, jokes about Dragon Quest being delayed and in some cases, cheats. Each game also has a proper booklet-like manual, just like games of that time would have. The player can also chat with Arino, who sits next to you in front of the TV. Sometimes he has good hints and other times has absurd schoolyard rumours that don’t help at all, but it adds to the atmosphere immensely. While playing games, he will get excited and yell depending on what’s going on, even getting disappointed when the player fails a task.
Each of the contained games is a pastiche of games that existed at the time. In order of unlock, they are:
Cosmic Gate: A fairly simple non-scrolling shooter that is essentially Namco’s Galaxian with little difference aside from the bonus stage. Much like any early arcade shooter, there are a lot of stages, but they are just slightly tougher variations on enemy patterns. Every few stages the player is whisked off to an “Asteroid Zone” where large asteroids approach at a high-speed and need to be either avoided or shot down for points. The latter can be tricky, especially with larger ones, but it can also be lucrative.
Robot Ninja Haggleman: An arcade-style platformer not unlike Jaleco’s Ninja Jajamaru-kun with a bit of Enix’s Door Door mixed in. The player controls a low-fi robot ninja who needs to defeat all the enemies in a stage to proceed to the next. This can be done by jumping on their heads or hitting them with one of the many doors littered around the stage. Doors have one of three colours and a letter on them – using a door also uses other doors of the same colour, so by using a blue door on the floor below an enemy standing in front of one above, you can dispatch them effectively and safely. Haggleman can also throw a cog a short distance to stun any enemies it hits. Using the doors in alphabetical order will change them all to the same colour; doing it in reverse restore’s Haggleman’s single hit-point. After defeating all the foes, a boss enemy will appear, then once they are gone the end level door will take you to the next stage. There’s a couple of power ups that enemies can drop, but if another enemy gets to it before you do, it’s lost.
Rally King: A top-down racing game somewhat similar to Sega’s Enduro-Racer or Rare’s RC Pro-am. There are only four courses, so the game is fairly short. Each course is littered with obstacles, jumps, grass patches and rival drivers – hitting a driver or wall will spin you out to a halt and take a notch off the damage meter. Emptying the meter will end the game, though occasionally a flashing refuel car will appear that repairs your car if you run into it. The player’s car can also perform a drift by letting off the accelerator before a hard turn and then reapplying it. Successfully doing so rewards a huge speed boost for a moment, though if not used carefully it’s entirely likely to hit other cars or a wall.
Later on, you are tasked with playing the game again as Rally King SP – a ramen-branded version of the game “given away as a bonus with GameFan Magazine”, parodying 1980s low-effort tie-ins such as Coke Wins and Pepsi Invaders, or All-Night Nihon Super Mario Bros. Not much is changed, only some graphics and the cheat codes. It’s a clever joke, but it does drag the game out farther than it should have.
Star Prince: Another shooter, made by the same fake company as Cosmic Gate, though this one borrows more from Namco’s Xevious and Hudson Soft’s Star Soldier. The game scrolls vertically through a space station as mobile enemies and stationary weapons appear and need to be dealt with. Periodically the scrolling stops for a large defense installation with multiple turrets and a core. Technically once the core is destroyed the game moves on, but the turrets are hard to avoid without taking them out. Several different weapons for the player exist, hidden in boxes that need to be shot multiple times to reveal their goodies, promoting shooting everything on-screen for more firepower and points. It’s a much more fleshed out and polished game than Cosmic Gate was and shows the sort of evolution shooter games went through in the early days of consoles.
Robot Ninja Haggleman 2: A mostly by-the-numbers sequel to its predecessor, Haggleman 2 changes only a few things from the original game, chiefly the larger focus on verticality as well as having more stages. Boss enemies at the end of the levels are tougher, requiring more hits to defeat them and more attack avoidance, and the levels themselves do have a much higher enemy count, making clever use of doors all the more important than they were in the first game. It definitely idealizes the more polished but safe sequel concept that series like Mega Man tended to follow.
Guadia Quest: Easily the game with the most pre-release hype – both in the game’s world and our own, Guadia Quest is a surprisingly decent Dragon Quest clone. It has the same party set-up of three characters as Dragon Quest II, with the added ability of recruiting a special type of monster – the titular Guadias – to help you out, which was also a mechanic in Dragon Quest V. It also has an interesting function in battle where normal attacks have you hit the A button at the right moment to get either a critical hit, normal hit or outright miss, which takes away some of the “mash confirm to proceed” tedium that older RPGs tended to fall into and makes it more involving despite being turn-based.
The game can be cleared in just a few hours as it only has two dungeons, the first of which is the only one that has to be cleared to move on to the final game, and the pacing is quite quick considering older Japanese RPGs tend to be quite sluggish. Guadia Quest stands out as a strong realization of the “fake retro” tone that the compilation sets out to evoke.
Robot Ninja Haggleman 3: In the days of the Famicom and NES, it wasn’t unheard of for a game sequel to completely change almost everything, the most obvious example would be the wild difference between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 no-thanks-in-part to being a different game with a coat of Mario paint.
The third Haggleman game throws out its arcade platform gameplay and is instead a game much closer to Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden, with some exploring and backtracking like Metroid, though the backtracking is contained in the stages themselves. By defeating foes, Haggleman collects nuts that can be used to purchase new attack units. Utilizing these different power-ups is key to progress. For example, purchasing the rapid-fire upgrade so that Haggleman can break through quickly regrowing vines with his gear-shurikens.
The levels are quite large and have a lot of areas to explore, though there are only three of them and a final boss gauntlet. Haggleman 3 is brisk in both pace and content, but plays smoothly and from a pure gameplay perspective is probably the best game within the game. It also looks fantastic, though possibly beyond what the actual NES was capable of at the time. Regardless, it serves for a fine finale.
It was largely unexpected that the game would see a western release – though the show would later see very sporadic releases in the US in later years with twelve episodes shown on Gawker Media’s gaming site Kotaku in 2011 and an English DVD release by Discotek Media with two additional episodes in 2012, but pre-2010 it was about as niche as possible. Not helping matters, Namco Bandai tend to be protective of their own works – numerous companies had approached them with offers to localize their Tales of.. RPG series with no luck. XSEED Games managed to convince them otherwise and localised the game as Retro Game Challenge in 2009.
Sadly the game did not sell very well in the US, never got a EU release and never got a reprint after its initial run. Due to somewhat of a nightmare involving licensing combined with low international sales, the sequel never saw a proper western release.
Game Center CX: Arino no Chosenjou 2
Publisher: Namco-Bandai Games International
Platform: Nintendo DS
The first game did well enough in Japan to see a sequel with a slightly higher budget, giving IndiesZero more time and effort to focus on the smaller details as well as outright having more games and features. Story-wise, Game Master Arino is retroactively unimpressed with your previous efforts and sends you back to challenge more games.
As well as having more games and a wider variety of games, Game Center CX 2 also features a daily challenge mode, where each day has a different challenge. Clearing these daily tasks earns you stamps and points, which can be used to unlock t-shirts and voices for Arino. Several games also have two player modes where Arino will join in. This time, the game lineup is as follows:
Wiz-Man: An early console puzzle game, akin to Nintendo’s Devil World or Solomon’s Key by Tecmo, Wiz-Man tasks you with collecting all the red and blue gems in a level to proceed, but they can only be collected when holding a magic rod of the same colour. Said rods also enable to you defeat enemies that get in your way.
The player can also get bonus points by collecting larger gems in a specific order, given away by the next one in the sequence having a special sparkle to it. Wiz-Man is quite a simple game, but despite that it is a surprisingly fun little game and opens the core game itself nicely.
Mutekiken Kung Fu: A US import title for a Sega Mark III type system, apparently originally on some sort of home microcomputer. Taking inspiration from Jordan Mechner’s Karateka and Irem’s Kung-Fu, the player takes control of a martial artist in training, seeking revenge an attack against his master.
Foes can be dispatched with a mix of punches and kicks, strings of which will form powerful combos that can knock defeated enemies into other enemies. Doing this several times nets the player a super mode, rewarding finesse on the player’s part. Mutekiken Kung Fu also features very fluid animation, reminiscent of Jordan Mechner’s rotoscoping techniques used in Karateka and Prince of Persia.
You can fight against Arino in this game, though he is a little unfair and it feels like the AI outright reads your inputs to instantly react to them.
Demon Returns: A platformer featuring a young man turned into a demon by a greater demon who also happened to kidnap his girlfriend, Demon Returns is similar to Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins thematically, and Sega/Hudson/Westone’s Wonder Boy/Adventure Island games in terms of play. You have a rapidly dwindling health meter just like the original Wonder Boy games which is replenished by finding apples strewn throughout levels. The demon, Damon, has a small attack that will cause any enemies it hits to become dizzy. Once stunned, they can be jumped on and mounted to ride them through the level, giving you a speed boost, a double jump and a hit buffer. Getting hit or using the double jump will get rid of the mounted enemy, however. Damon’s normal attack can also break some blocks that impede progress.
Two other power-ups exist, the requisite “get bigger” type and one further that allows Damon to shoot small gusts of wind forward when he uses his regular attack. Getting hit once will set him back to his default state unless he was riding an enemy. There’s sixteen levels in all and while they aren’t too long, the game does feel surprisingly meaty compared to the original two Haggleman games.
Arino – Ace Detective: Released for an in-universe Famicom Disk System, an attachment for the Famicom that played games stored on floppy disks, this game serves as an homage to early Japanese adventure games and visual novels, namely Enix’s Portopia Serial Murders, Nintendo’s own Famicom Detective Club and HAL Laboratory’s The Software House Serial Murders.
Detective Kacho places the player into the story proper, having them team up with Arino to investigate strange happenings around a fictional game company that happens to be operated by the show’s staff members.
The experience is authentic, it opens with a boot screen asking you to insert the disk, just like the FDS does and features (thankfully short) loading times complete with floppy drive seeking noises. For better or worse it plays just like older adventure games, requiring you to exhaust every option repeatedly before being able to proceed but the game is short enough that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. The game is actually split into two halves, with the second half being released after GunDuel, similar to how Famicom Detective Club’s ‘second part’ was released much later for the Super Famicom.
GunDuel: Another shooter made by Tomato, the company behind Cosmic Gate and Star Prince. Again borrowing heavily from Star Soldier, though this time it has a couple of new systems. The ship essentially has two power-ups at any given time – main and sub. These can be switched with the B button, and different power-ups in each slot will give different effects. In one configuration, the Laser type in the main slot will fire straight and pierce through anything it hits. In the sub slot, the lasers will form small barriers on the left and right of the ship, offering a small bit of protection.
There are four stages, each having you infiltrate a part of the colony taken over by a mysterious bio-mechanical enemy. There are always three bosses – a fortress installation, an enemy ace and a proper big boss. They tend to be the same between each of the four levels, though their difficulty and tactics change accordingly.
Arino can help out as a second player. His AI is surprisingly good, knowing how to use each weapon properly (for example, moving in close to use the flamethrower, then switching and pulling back), though he will actively hog power-ups to inflate his own score. Generally, he dies very little and tends to run out of lives on the final boss, leaving the finale to the player as it were. Two player mode also allows two ships to combine with a special power-up where one player mans the controls and main weapon, the other player handling the sub-weapon. This tends to be devastatingly powerful, though it only lasts for one hit or until the end of the stage. GunDuel stands out as a really well polished and outright fun game, possibly the best in the compilation.
Triotos: A fairly straightforward puzzle game for a fake Game Boy, and essentially a mix of Tetris and Sega’s Columns. The aim is to match three of the same block in a horizontal or vertical line, like Columns, and they will fall into gaps and disconnect from each other which allows for combos, but like Tetris they can come in different L-shapes instead of straight lines. As well as an endless mode, it has a “Rival Mode” where the player battles 10 increasingly difficult AI opponents and a “VS Mode” where Arino is the opponent. However, due to the small, simple screen you only see a sort of ‘progress’ bar showing how filled the other player’s field is and can’t see when they are about to perform a combo.
Guadia Quest Saga: Actually the third game in the Guadia Quest series, this time being on the “Colour” version of the in-universe Game Boy. It apes a little from Pokemon and is the “Light version”, which has different Guadias to the “Dark version” that Arino has. You can link up with him and trade them, though. Guadia Quest Saga is mostly a straight sequel with some changes.
Each party member has their own Guadia pact that grants them different abilities and power, though unleashing their full force will cost them HP every turn. You technically have a fourth party member in the Guadia Meisters that are scattered around the world. Defeating them makes them become an ally that has their own pact. In battle, they are completely autonomous, though you can see their mood to get an idea of when they might attack or do nothing. Different Meisters of course have different benefits.
Though none of the challenges for the game require you to even enter one of the game’s dungeons, the final boss is a nice callback to the first game much like its inspiration, Dragon Quest III had to its first game.
Super Demon Returns: As the name may suggest, a Super Nintendo/Super Famicom-esque sequel to Demon Returns, complete with gratuitous rotation effects like so many early titles. The core gameplay is the same, with larger levels that have more varied features, like large vertical sections filled with springs, two different sets of collectables and a charge attack that can break blocks Damon’s claw attack would normally bounce off. Super Demon Returns certainly feels like an early Super Nintendo game, though in the end it isn’t very different from the original game and could easily be mistaken for a remake like Super Castlevania IV, it serves to close out the collection as it heads into a new generation of sorts.
As the game progresses, Arino and the player can head out to the local game shop and spend all day playing special versions of previous games as well as bug the shop owner for tips. Those bonus games are:
Cosmic Gate MASA-X: The original game’s Cosmic Gate, if it was ported to not-the-MSX microcomputer. The MSX couldn’t do scrolling via hardware and had some other limitations, so this version of Cosmic Gate feels a little rough on purpose. However, the system had fantastic sound capability, so the music is quite good. It also adds a few minor things, like bosses during asteroid zones.
Robot Ninja Haggleman Koume ver.: Haggleman returns from the first game, except this time you’re playing as the female ninja Koume instead of Haggleman himself. There’s more of a pink colour-scheme to things, but otherwise the game is the same.
Rally King EX Time Trial: During the NES and SNES era, special versions of some games were produced, such as Nintendo World Championship, Super Star Fox Weekend and Donkey Kong Country Competition where the games are modified for players to amass points or reach a certain goal in a short period of time as part of a competition. Rally King EX uses this concept to have a “time trial” version of the game. There’s one one track and the player selects a speed, then tries to beat the time for that course. There’s a lot less cars on the track as well, to help things along.
Star Prince Score Attack: Another score attack version of an older game. The Star Soldier series had a few score attack variations during its life, with the last one being released as a downloadable game for the Wii, so Star Prince doing the same isn’t terribly surprising. You are given one life and either three or five minutes to get as many points as you can.
Triotos DX: A home console version of Triotos, featuring famous Japanese paintings for backgrounds and music that wouldn’t be out of place in a Japanese period drama. Aside from a nicer presentation, it adds in a hold function where the set of blocks to be placed can be stashed away for later, and the versus mode allows you to actually see your opponent’s screen as opposed to just a progress bar. Arino can be another player in this version also.
Game Training Tool: A three-button, auto scrolling LCD keychain game that is meant to teach you to be better at platform games. During the 1980s, a worker at Hudson Soft., Toshiyuki Takahashi was found to have absurdly fast fingers, able to fire 16 times per second in Star Soldier. Hudson used him as a sort of idol figure, naming him Takahashi Meijin (Master Takahashi) using him to popularize their shooting games and events and even making him the star of their Adventure Island games. They also released a “training tool” that would measure how many shots per second you could fire. Game Training Tool is similar in concept to that, but with a Nintendo Game & Watch bend to it. There is of course, no proper goal, the aim is to simply do your best and get a high score while perfecting your platformer abilities.
Game Center CX 2 was thought to be lost to the west – XSEED understandably didn’t want to gamble on it again, if Namco Bandai would have even let them. While the Nintendo DS is region free and the game could be imported, two text-heavy adventure games were a huge brick wall for anyone who couldn’t read Japanese or didn’t mind playing alongside a walkthrough, which can take a lot of the fun out of it and the RPG didn’t help matters either. A translation attempt started in 2011, though eventually fell through due to disagreements in the team that was working on it and eventually a hard drive crash that killed motivation.
Another group of people started working on the game in 2013, culminating in a release of a patch in June 2014 that allowed the game to be played in full English on either proper hardware (with the use of a flashcart) or in an emulator. The translation takes a lot of cues from XSEED’s work on the first game, even using the Retro Game Challenge moniker, but the effort involved on the part of the fans is not to be understated.
A third game was released in 2014, though it was developed by G.Rev, a company made of former Taito staff usually known for shoot ‘em up games. It is unknown if this was due to IndiesZero being busy with Theatryhthm Final Fantasy and NES Remix or if it was a decision based on other factors. Unfortunately it’s for the Nintendo 3DS, which is region-locked but import reviews are not kind, with Wired’s Chris Kohler going as far as to say everyone should pretend it doesn’t exist. More specifically, he states that while the games certainly look the part, the entire package lacks any proper soul or heart and just feel like mediocre games with pixels rather than clever parodies and callbacks.
The previously mentioned NES Remix by IndiesZero however, takes the challenge aspect of the Game Center CX games and applies it to classic Nintendo games to excellent effect, featuring a lot of challenges across a wide variety of games in two volumes.
The Game Center CX games really are a nostalgic trip if you have any memories of sitting on the floor with a friend, huddling around a console, trying to best a game as he flicks through a magazine trying to figure out where you need to go. Even if you don’t, it manages to do a fantastic job of evoking that feeling regardless and are definitely worth experiencing, especially the second game.
– Game Center CX 2 patch: http://gccxpatch.com/
– Wired’s look at Game Center CX 3: http://www.wired.com/2014/03/game-center-cx-3-2/
– SA-GCCX’s episode translation project: http://www.sa-gccx.com/