Retro Game Challenge mines 8-bit nostalgia without the aid of plumbers. In fact, the seven old-school games it simulates are completely fictional: They’re new works crafted to look and play like relics from the ’80s. Rally King is a top-down racer that plays like a weaponless Spy Hunter. Cosmic Gate riffs faithfully on Galaga, while its sequel, Star Prince, depicts the shoot-’em-up’s evolution to scrolling adventures that culminated in epic boss battles. The Haggle Man series starts as a rudimentary, single-screen platformer (like the original Mario Bros.) and eventually morphs into a full-fledged Castlevania clone. And the centerpiece to it all, Guadia Quest, offers a fleshed-out RPG in the Dragon Quest vein.
Experienced alone, these tributes would offer only fleeting fun, but Retro Game Challenge cleverly ties them together by transporting players to the ’80s. The premise is a bit like Mystery Science Theater 3000. The all-powerful Game Master Arino traps players in the past, forcing them to complete increasingly tricky gaming challenges. To help in the quest, players get chums (whose cartridges and console can be mooched for hours upon end), full-color manuals, and a collection of gaming magazines crammed with hints, strategies, and cheat codes. To complete the illusion, your pal cheers on successes, cries foul when the going gets rough, and complains that he’s hungry.
Beyond the game: Retro Game Challenge is based on the Japanese TV series GameCenter CX,a.k.a. Retro Game Master. This 10-season series followed comedian Shinya Arino as he played old Famicom games and interviewed their creators.
Worth playing for: Arino’s challenges play like modern-day Xbox Achievements. These short-term goals have a transformative effect on the games, making play sessions feel more bite-sized (at least early on) and a lot more interesting.
Frustration sets in when: The same setbacks that inspired players to chuck controllers in ’89 will send them flying in ’09. Tough boss fights are easy to deal with, but losing all your progress because you forgot to use the right cheat code can be disheartening.
Final judgment: Feels like the first time.