You've gotta watch this show. It's one-part trivia show, two parts travel show, three parts suspense and four parts comedy, and it's a pretty awesome Let's Play series to boot. But most of all, it's possibly the greatest and most sincere tribute to video games ever committed to film. Enter: Game Center CX.
The show goes like this: every episode, the host, Shinya Arino (Also known as "Kacho," meaning "boss" or "supervisor") has to play a different retro game under a looming time limit, usually 24 hours with the occasional extension for especially excruciating challenges. It's always a blind run, or else a game that he only has a passing familiarity with and/or hasn't played in many years, and in both cases has never made much progress in, let alone finished.
Oh, and by the way, these games are hard. Playthroughs are long and brutal, and between the sadistic fervor of the games in question, from the notorious (like Ghosts 'n Goblins) to the downright infamous (i.e Battletoads,) and Arino's rapidly fluctuating levels of competence, things can get pretty intense, with Arino breaking out the cold compresses and obscure strategy guides, exploiting glitches and Easter eggs, occasionally calling in one of the show's ADs for advice and limited assistance, engaging in bizarre rituals to improve his luck, and devising plans so madcap crazy they need an entire whiteboard and multiple people to draw them out. All of this streamlined with crisp editing, and played to the sound of a rousing score and dramatic narration that seems so hammy as to be ironic, until you become so invested in the show that it goes right back around and becomes fist-pumping cool. This is gaming made awesome.
It's also, as you might be able to guess, much more than just a screen and a voice. Part of the charm of the show is that it manages to pull in viewers who otherwise wouldn't hang around to watch somebody play through a game while making offbeat jokes (myself included,) by taking the adventure beyond the screen. You see, in video games there are always two narratives running concurrently to each other. The first is the plot established within the game itself: save the princess, save the world, save that last slice of pizza, save yourself. You know the drill.
But here's the thing: there's a second narrative running outside the game, directly connected to the first: Yours. It's a story of the player that discovers the world and tries with all her might to understand what makes it tick, to master its laws and forces through perseverance and ingenuity. Every time you discover a new technique that lets you storm through levels that would have pulverized you in minutes, every time you scream at the heavens for warping you back to the beginning of the game, every time you're amazed to find the Infinity +1 Sword lying under a simple rock. The thrill of discovery, the love for your teammates, the rush of a hard-earned victory and the devastation of an endgame defeat.
That look on your face, right there. That's your narrative. And Game Center CX loves this.
Episodes are treated as a battle against the game itself, and things like the discovery of infinite-1up tricks and the employment of specialized controllers are treated as just another part of the plot. You get to see the gang bond in front of the screen, go giddy with anticipation as they near the end of the game before being faced with a one-winged angel so unexpected it shocks the narrator too. And in doing all of this, by letting the viewer sense their emotions, it captures not only what the game looks like and sounds like, but what it feels like to play, what video games feel like to play. I'm not sure if it's enough to convince your family to get into it, but hey, it's quite an achievement.
Between segments of a challenge, the crew heads off in search of arcade game goodness in hotspots all over Japan, from your average game center to the decidedly not-so average, including but not limited to:
- Bath houses
- Theme parks
- Shooting galleries
- Indoor fishing ponds
- The Tokyo Game Show
- Candy Shops
- Wherever fortune lies.
Between the owners and the locals, the team makes no shortage of friends along the way. Laughs and memories are shared, and Arino samples the food, wins the prizes, and plays arcade games new and old, occasionally roping his newfound friends, from children to adults to movie stars to old ladies, into his gaming adventures.
Also, there's Pac-Man ramen. Now you know who to turn to for vacation ideas.
But that's just one of the segments. There is singing. There are game shows. There are interviews. There are dramatic readings. And on top of it all, Game Center CX is by and large a learning experience. Shinya Arino dabbles in the obscure and little known, picking up failed consoles (Fun Fact! Sega shows up here a lot.) and forbiddingly pricey Game & Watch classics, among other bastions of the impossible-to-obtain. And rounding off the whirlwind of trivia and did-you-knows are the "Game Collection" segments, showcasing a who's who of Famicom and Game Boy games from any given year or within any given theme, with footage and info to compliment. It was from this segment that I discovered such hidden gems as the cult classic troll game Takeshi's Challenge (AKA I Wanna Be the Guy's great-granddaddy!) non-violent pop star RPG Lasalle Ishii no Child's Quest (You quirky thing you,) and God knows what else. Lots to see, lots to see.
Anyone recognize this gorgeous jewel? There are even greater treasures than this!
But mark my words, the greatest discoveries of all will come from the challenges themselves. It didn't take long for Game Center CX to exhaust your standard Marios and Mega Mans, moving on to ever stranger material, from the dating game to the train simulator, to the terror of Clock Tower to Another World, to every game to get barred from Europe and North America from the fifth generation back, ever. As fun as it is to watch the Kacho play through a game from your (hopefully) cherished youth, it's even better to see him pick up a game that you've never seen before. Watching him and and friends get involved, seriously involved, makes for better advertising than hours of commercials, and it's an easy way to pique interest in a game that would have easily flown under your radar otherwise. Effective recommendation. Aroused curiosity. Just make sure to stop the video early if you want to get to the ending yourself.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: Shinya Arino is an amazing host.
At first, you'd almost mistake him for the default snarking Let's Player, except that he has the mild advantage of being a professional comedian, and boy, can you tell the difference. The Kacho exudes personality and approachability, the gaming buddy we all wish we had. Childlike wonder? Unwavering determination? You got it. Never does he lose his genial smile, no matter how many times he gets his head handed to him, long beyond the point where, for any of us, there would be much rage quitting and broken hardware involved. But Arino would never do that. It's just not his style.
And he'd better keep his head up, because he's fighting a losing battle. Arino has, as a fellow comedian once said "just the right amount of suck." That is, enough to build suspense and generate comedy, but never so much that you give up on him entirely. That said, expect to see failure, repeated, frequent and hilarious failure. Expect to see Kacho make mistakes so brilliantly idiotic, that you wonder how he gets as far as he does.
But that's just the thing: he does. For all the mocking the fandom gives the guy, consider this: This man goes blind into games we've spent our entire childhood trying to conquer, and beats them dead in a matter of hours. Crouching moron, hidden badass. And he's laughing the whole way through.
Here is someone who clearly loves what he does. It's contagious, and it's not just him; you quickly begin to get the feeling, just by watching the way the crew talks and interacts, that everybody on here has been playing games for some part of their lives, a significant part, if not all of it, and...get this...actually likes them. Game Center CX is a wonderful rarity in that it's a TV show, or any piece of media at all, that just gets it, a work fueled by passion and a genuine understanding of the medium as opposed to disrespect and exploitation (nearly every video game movie out there and, sadly, the ill-fated GAME_JAM,) or ignorance and misconception (King of the Nerds, so so much Big Bang Theory,) Fear not, you wary and betrayed, victims of Uwe Boll and Paul W. S. Anderson. You're safe with us.
If you're thinking of giving the show a go, a cursory Google search should bring up enough online videos to last you a lifetime of Red Bull-powered nights (presumably ending in death by heart failure, come to think of it,) but those who'd get their fix through less legally dubious means can shoot for a steeply-priced, but well worthwhile DVD on Amazon. It only contains the challenge segments due to licensing issues, but what you do get should be plenty satisfying. In ether case, I'd suggest starting with either the Ninja Gaiden or Solomon's Key episodes, as they do a pretty good job of establishing the tone, style and structure of the series. And for those of you in the right places, the show is still running on Fuji Television, and you can even pick up a couple of licensed 3DS games (only the first of which is available in the US,) with a host of original retro-themed challenges and the above rendition of Arino.
I do have one real criticism, maybe a personal one. When I say that Game Center CX is "the spirit of gaming distilled," I mostly mean that with a few disclaimers and a grain of salt. It should be pretty obvious going in that they are rarely (though not never) going to be playing anything recent, and being a show from a land where PC gaming never really took off, you can count on one finger the number of times they're even mentioned, and that's only once you include the sub-segments.
Furthermore, even though many of the feelings they experience will be familiar to anyone gaming today, because these games come from a much earlier period in gaming history, some feelings will be conspicuously absent. Anything pertaining to story, characters, and the like, really. It focuses more or less entirely on the sensations brought on by action, grinding, puzzles, and other conventional mechanics and styles of play, never taking anything seriously or treating anything soberly, and now that I think about it I guess some of you might be into that sort of thing. But given the effusiveness of a group that lets out a collective gasp of horror at the climax of Ninja Gaiden and sweats like crazy over the latest boss in Kirby's Dream Course, I'd love to see them cry over the death of Aerith, or even blankface over the ending of Mass Effect 3. But that's just me.
But give them even that relatively narrow band of emotion, and Game Center CX manages to turn it up to intensities never before witnessed on network television. Criticism aside, you're bound to find something in this show that you can relate to, something that you can remember thinking, feeling or doing in your own experience playing video games, and it will be completely exhilarating, an experience you will never, ever forget.
This is what makes Arino's escapades the most magical of all: For the first time, we can see our own experiences reflected back onto the screen. Our tension, our joy, our shared memory. Game Center CX is more than a show for video games. It's a show for the men and women who play them, and that is its ultimate strength.
The greatest and most sincere tribute to video games ever committed to film. Such a bold claim.
Now vindicate me.
Seen the show and got anything to say? Got another must-watch show for the general gaming public? Would you agree that Arino is flurpin' awesome? Sound off in the comments below!
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