Monday, June 23, 2008

Retro Game Master - A Review

Retro Game Master is the English title of Game Master CX, a Japanese reality show featuring a man who challenges himself to play and finish old video games. On June 28 and 29, the New York Asian Film Festival screened two episodes of the localized version of the show. You can read the festival's description here.

Retro Game Master stars Shinya Arino as "the Kacho". The first show I watched implied that Kacho meant salaryman, but further research reveals that "middle manager" is probably a more accurate translation. The idea is that Arino is not an amazing video game player, but a guy like you or me with nostalgia for the video games of his youth. Each episode centers around one video game. The two that played at the film festival were Mystery of Atlantis (a game never released in the United States) and Ghosts 'n Goblins. The episodes chronicled the hours-long process of Arino receiving the game, beginning to play it, getting stuck somewhere, consulting the instruction booklet for help, trying again and not progressing much further, getting some help from his assistant, and then, finally, making it to the end.

The shows were preceded by a trailer that explained its premise and popularity in Japan. It had the vibe of a late night product commercial that prompts you to call its 1-800 number "in the next ten minutes!". Still, for those unfamiliar with the show it provided a good sense of context. The best part of the trailer was the end where you get to know who Shinya Arino is. He explains that he does this for all the video game loving children and all the middle-aged people who remember playing these games.

Following the trailer was an introduction by Arino himself. It was one of the most hilarious things I have ever seen. Arino speaks in a very heavily accented English, obviously reading the words phonetically off of cue cards. He boisterously and enthusiastically proclaims that he is the Retro Game Master and that everyone in Japan loves him. Although it could have come off as making fun of Arino, it was obvious that he was totally into the act and just hamming it up for the crowd and that made it even better.

The shows themselves succeed in triggering any latent nostalgia you have for old video games. If you remember going over to a friend's house when they got a new Nintendo game and taking turns playing it to see how far you could get, then the show will strike a chord with you. During the Mystery of Atlantis episode, I was specifically reminded of when I got Ninja Gaiden for my birthday and my friends and I took turns playing level 3, trying to get past the birds. The shows are also successful in their humor. Arino plays out his frustrations and bewilderment perfectly. He always has an appropriate quip about whatever ridiculously obtuse or aggravating situation the game has put him in. This also serves to endear him to the viewer. You really feel for him and want him to succeed. In both screenings, the audience held their breath as he faced a difficult encounter and barely escaped by the skin of his teeth. In the Mystery of Atlantis screening, people actually clapped when he finished the game.

Of the two episodes I saw, Mystery of Atlantis was the superior one. I think this is because Mystery of Atlantis has more variety as a game and is also incredibly inscrutable. Mystery of Atlantis features 99 levels, power-ups with unexplained properties, warps to different levels, warps hidden in bizarre ways like deaths or bottomless pits, and utterly ridiculous puzzles. This melange of characteristics provided significant humor and could maintain the viewer's interest. The Ghosts 'n Goblins episode was significantly different because Ghosts 'n Goblins is merely an incredibly difficult game. The episode showed Arino progressing a little bit, getting stuck for hours at one enemy, and then finally getting past it. This process repeated for the entire episode. With little surprises or variety, the episode had to focus on it just being a really hard game and that wasn't as successful in keeping my attention for thirty minutes. The drama was further lessened because people who hadn't following the show wouldn't realize what a landmark it was that this was the first game that it took two sessions to complete. I still enjoyed it and, despite knowing what was coming, shared in Arino's bewilderment and disappointment when he found out what happens at the end of Ghosts 'n Goblins.

My previous exposure to the show was watching it on youtube. I greatly enjoyed those clips despite them being wholly in Japanese because Arino's trials and frustrations were obvious and relatable no matter what language they were in. Still, the show is even better when you know what is going on. Everyone who appears live on the show is subtitled in these episodes and the significant amount of titles and voice overs are all redone in English. Understanding what is going on means that, in addition to empathizing with Arino as he struggles through a game, you also get his jokes and can comprehend the new strategies he employs to get through the games.

While the translation is appreciated, some of the localization choices seem a bit odd. Arino is always called "The Kacho" in the show. While this may be typical for Japanese tv shows, it was weird for me to get used to the constant use of his title. Similarly, his assistants are never called by their names, but rather the title "Assistant" and the first letter of their last name (so I saw Assistant T and Assistant S). The general style of the show seemed like it couldn't decide between being a more staid American reality show and a more out there Japanese reality show. This was in full evidence with the performance of the voice over announcer. The voice over, provided by Patrick Harlan, an American-born comedian in Japan, sometimes follows the American style and delivers a tension-building narrative before a commercial break and a quick recap of what is going on after one. But the announcer sometimes becomes very excited, sounding like the fate of the world depends on what the Kacho does or that the events in the video game are actually happening. It seems like he may have been trying to ape the Iron Chef style, but given the different content of this show didn't pull it off very well. For all I know, he was trying to be as true as possible to the original Japanese announcer, but to my ears it was a little off-putting.

Finally, as enjoyable as the shows were, there was also a noticeable lack of polish. I got the feeling these localized episodes were put together as concept trailers to use to sell the show to an American distributor. Talking to a representative from Stylejam (the company that distributes the DVDs in Japan) confirmed they were in talks with American studios to try and get Retro Game Master released in the US. In addition to these screenings lacking opening or closing sequences for the shows, there were also some misspellings in the titles. In the Mystery of Atlantis episode, one of the titles talked about the "climatic" moment of the game which was especially noticeable because Arino and his assistant had just been talking about the game's climax.

Game Center CX is an amazing show. Almost everyone who sees it, whether there is a language barrier or not, can identify with Arino and his struggle to finish a video game. I knew this going into the screenings. What I didn't expect is that the show could become so much better once I understood it. Despite some questions about the announcer they used and the localization style, I loved the show. After each episode, I wanted to watch another one. I hope Stylejam succeeds in finding a US distributor for the show so I can do just that.

1 comment:

8bitcity said...

The fucking birds. Ha! I had so much trouble with Stage 3 in Ninja Gaiden, until I made it to level 6 and all hell broke loose. Awesome game.

Anyway, you've got an awesome site here, would you be interested in linking blogs?