Games | NES | The Kid Culture on the NES

Article by Mike Zeller? | August 27, 2010

At first it might seem strange that a game like Retro Game Challenge managed to accumulate the rabid cult following that it did. After all, it was basically just a collection of knock-off NES games. Not only that, but check any discussion about it on the Internet and youíll see that no one can even agree which games were any good. (For the record, the best are Star Prince and Guadia Quest.) But examine things a little more deeply and youíll see the real genius of what Retro Game Challenge did: It managed to tap into a powerful cultural experience shared by millions between the ages of 20 and 35.

The games are part of it, certainly. No one who grew up playing NES games in the í80s and í90s can completely resist the siren song of those plinky sound effects and crunchy graphics, and if nothing else Retro Game Challenge certainly manages to nail the look and feel of old NES games. Itís been said before, but if someone had dumped the ROMs of Rally King or Robot Ninja Haggle Man on the Internet and said they were lost NES titles, no one would have been any the wiser. But even more than the games was their context. While the player burns through evil Arinoís in-game challenges on the top DS screen, the playerís avatar sits with young Arino on the floor of his room on the bottom screen. Pull off something really cool and young Arino will cheer you on, but suffer defeat and he will groan in empathy. In between games, young Arino will chat with you about upcoming releases, mention tips heís heard, and generally talk about how awesome he thinks videogames are. When the player wants to swap games, his avatar crawls over to the nearby shelf to retrieve the next cartridge. Periodically, Arinoís mother will call in from the next room to offer snacks, which young Arino always hastily rejects.

While the physical structure of young Arinoís house is distinctly Japanese, the scene could have easily been ripped from millions of American households circa 1989. Playing Retro Game Challenge feels like nothing less than reliving those lazy summer days when you and a good buddy spent hours lounging around on the floor of his room or basement, swapping the controller back and forth as you tried to finally beat any of the countless impossible NES games. Mention such a scenario to anyone who admits to being a gamer back in those days and he or she will instantly be able to cite similar experiences.

You see, the NES generation was really the last era in the history of gaming that didnít have a console war. Having rebuilt the U.S. videogame market from scratch after the crash of í83, the NES was top dog and no punk-ass Sega Master System or TurboGrafx-16 could unseat it. The NES was ubiquitous in gamer households to such an extent that it left disinterested parents referring to playing videogames as ďplaying NintendoĒ well into the 32-bit generation. So itís not just nostalgia for the days when we had time to sit around playing videogames with friends all day that permeates Retro Game Challenge, but rather nostalgia specifically for a time when gaming involved blowing dust out of big, gray cartridges, listening to chiptunes, and holding down the reset button when you turned the power off to make sure you didnít erase your saved data. In the í80s and early í90s, gaming was the NES.

Sure, kids nowadays probably have similar experiences to those depicted in Retro Game Challenge. Iím sure plenty of them spend their summer days bonding with good buddies by running over hookers in Grand Theft Auto and chainsawing locusts in Gears of War. But itís hard to imagine that when they play they still feel the same thrill of discovery. In those heady NES days, the World Wide Web didnít yet exist to show us all that everything cool had already been done (and probably much more skillfully than we could ever hope to do it). Our pride hadnít yet been crushed by an endless array of YouTube speed-runs and GameFAQs walkthroughs posted mere hours after a gameís release. Super Mario Bros. had transformed videogames from simple quarter-munchers to real adventures, and we had a sense that we could discover something new and unique that nobody outside of the gameís programmers had yet seen. We experienced a genuine sense of awe when, while messing around on a lazy Saturday, we accidentally stumbled upon something like Super Mario Bros. 3ís warp whistles or one of the numerous secret passages in Metroid. Of course, the first thing we would do upon making such a discovery was to brag about it to all of our friends. Sure, it was a nice ego boost for us, but it also served the vital purpose of passing the information along, since without the Web one of the only two ways of learning about game secrets, outside of discovering them for yourself, was to hear about them from somebody else.

Itís hard to overstate how important the swapping of tips and secrets was to the culture of gaming back then. The lunchroom and the playground were places of business where every day held the possibility that one could acquire the vital piece of knowledge necessary to finally crack a particularly difficult title. Without this community of kids all working together and sharing their findings itís difficult to imagine many of us would have been able to finish painfully incomprehensible games like Simonís Quest? or Milonís Secret Castle. While Retro Game Challenge lacks these large-scale social interactions, young Arinoís chatter about games, peppered as it is with tips and anecdotes, does frequently resemble the manner in which similar information would be exchanged.

The other means by which gamers learned about vital gaming errata was, of course, Nintendo Power. Buoyed by the fact that the NES was the only game in town, Nintendo Power became an institution the likes of which will never be seen again in the field of videogame journalism. I use the word ďjournalismĒ only in its loosest sense, as Nintendo Power was really nothing more than a glorified advertising vehicle, containing page after page of articles gushing over every NES title under the sun. But gamers at the time still ate it up. The arrival of a crisp copy of Nintendo Power in oneís mailbox was a cause for rejoicing, especially if oneís social circle had recently been short on new gaming tips, since it was sure to provide plenty of new tricks to try out before disseminating them to the unwashed masses. Not only that, but it also gave tantalizing glimpses of new games on the horizon, something that was in fairly short supply in the time before the Web instantaneously revealed the merest trickle of new information to come out of every developer.

Being a Japanese game, Retro Game Challenge understandably designed its in-game magazines to more closely resemble Famitsu, Japanís gaming magazine institution, although its breathless excitement for each upcoming release canít help but remind one of Nintendo Power. Flipping through the pages of each new issue searching for the vital tip necessary to finally best one of Arinoís challenges is uncannily reminiscent of the way we all devoured each new issue of Nintendo Power, instantaneously absorbing all of its content into our gaming knowledge base to be regurgitated as necessary.

Although released 15 years after the last licensed NES game, Retro Game Challenge is a vital NES experience. Anyone who spent their childhood jumping on Goombas, blasting robot masters, and whipping Medusa heads will instantly connect with young Arino and his silent friend. Seldom does one find a part of oneís life so perfectly summed up by a piece of media, but for those of us who grew up with an NES controller in hand, Retro Game Challenge does so with aplomb. If I could make one suggestion I would ask that each of you, after reading through the articles in this volume, go and play Retro Game Challenge for an hour or so. I think youíll find it a particularly cathartic experience. The age of the NES may be long gone, but it wonít ever be forgotten.

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