When A Minigame Collection Isn’t

Anyone who has ever worked with me knows my abhorrence of minigames. Why?

Minigames have little upside. For every Sumo in Fusion Frenzy, there are, well, 49 other minigames in Fuzion Frenzy. But they appeal to production because they are chunkable and low risk. It’s monumentally easier to cut three minigames from ten than to cut 30% of an AI system, for instance. Also, it’s nearly impossible to argue that a minigame won’t be fun before it is produced or prototyped, so it silences any dissent. After all “it’s just a minigame” when you criticize it, but it is “a bullet for the back of the box” when you champion it. From experience, designers who want to make minigames are either not creative enough to come up with good big ideas or too afraid of what will happen if they try to make something big.

So it’s odd that I was pulled towards Retro Game Challenge for the Nintendo DS. From all outward appearances, it seems to be a minigame collection. And if I wanted to play a minigame collection, I could just close my eyes and pick something off the Wii shelf at Gamespot. Remember the Namco Museum series? They split twenty old Namco games into five collections and charged full price for each on the original Playstation. Those were mostly straight up ports with a couple galleries of miscellany. Retro Game Challenge could have been that, but they focused on an aesthetic and polished it until it shined. My assumptions were wrong. Retro Game Challenge hits home on two fronts: nostalgia and gameplay.

If you were a child of the 80s, you will not only be hit with the pangs of familiar nostalgia when you play through the games included, but also when you view the cutscenes or read the in-game hints and cheats magazines. In-jokes like rumored special areas that don’t actually exist, “secret” cheats and tricks, game magazine editors that change every issue, the bummer of the game delay and co-branded special edition games that are essentially pallete swapped versions of popular games with some company’s branding included. (The creators went the extra mile on the last one. Instead of making two banners for the sponsor, one that reads left to right and one that reads right to left, they simple mirrored the sprite making the text unreadable as was done often in the NES days.) The attention to detail is absolutely A+. Okay, let’s downgrade that to simply A for using the terms “Woot” and “Shovelware” anachronistically.

But making an accurate reproduction of something that isn’t fun in the first place is a worthless achievement. Luckily, the eight (or seven, depending on your view) games in this collection are all in their own right excellent examples of early gaming masterpieces. None are straight-up copies of old masterpieces, but instead seem to simply be inspired by the greats. Each of these games are also the length of an NES cartridge, pushing the limit of the assumption of “minigame”. Indeed, I’ve played the Guadia Quest game longer than many of the full DS games I’ve owned.

For designers, the Retro Game Challenge shows how attention to detail and aesthetics can greatly increase the value of something that many designers treat as throwaway. For players aged roughly 20-35, Retro Game Challenge is a nostalgic trek without the crushing difficulty or gambles on quality. Due to a combination of charm, accessibility, nostalgia and excellence, Retro Game Challenge is the game to beat in 2009. Passing it off as another minigame collection as I almost did would be a huge mistake.

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