Fun and Games

Self-deprecating adventures have a laugh at nostalgia’s expense

Cowboys and Commandos

Irony--a new videogame feature.D3Publisher of America

Like skinny jeans and Wall Street panics, everything old is new again, especially if you're a gamer. Thank golden-age throwbacks (i.e. Street Fighter IV) and budget-priced anthologies (see: Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection), which continue to score well with misty-eyed Gen X-ers. In an unexpected comedic twist though, two refreshingly cheeky titles are suddenly making sport of treasured childhood memories. Nor can these interactive outings resist asking just how blinded joystick lovers really are by nostalgia's lenses.

Handheld outing Retro Game Challenge celebrates the mid-to-late '80s, the so-called "8-bit" era, when primitive consoles like the NES and Sega Master System created millions of drooling vidiots. Based on quirky Japanese TV show "Retro Game Master," this collection of bite-sized mini-games gleefully pokes fun at yesteryear's electronic entertainment industry and its unique quirks. See a selection of faux arcade machines that includes head-stomping platform-hopper Robot Ninja Haggle Man and Galaga clone Cosmic Rift, made by "Tomato," a spoof of Japanese developer Taito. There's even a virtual rack of magazines filled with tips and tricks, and a villainous basement dweller adversary whose desire for multiplayer domination drives him berserk.

Be forewarned, though. Even for former Chuck E. Cheese regulars, the joke grows staler than the featured attractions' simple, button-mashing gameplay in under 30 minutes. Formulaic challenges based around scoring X many points or surviving Y stages without dying also prove tedious. Still, from authentic childhood banter to hypnotic bleeps/bloops and faux representations of classic game manuals, no digital diversion's more effectively captured the era's geek zeitgest.

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is a different take on the same retro joke: a 3D shooter for PS3/Xbox 360 starring a washed-up classic gaming hero. (Actually, he's an all-new character, complete with fictional backstory and softography, that spoofs classic personalities like Duke Nukem.) Following the failure of multiple sequels and spin-offs, the titular star attempts to mount a 21st century comeback. Unfortunately, his programmers are out to get him. With the help of grizzled Mario clones and holographic helpers who parody iconic Halo sidekick Cortana, players must combat zombies, sci-fi troopers, and other purposefully clichéd adversaries using water pistols and AK-47s.

My experience with a limited preview version suggests that the designers could use some help with their jokes. (Sample one-liner: "Do svidanya, comrade," after offing a fur-helmeted Russian commando.) Likewise, the action's less memorable than occasional sight gags, e.g. an androgynous opponent with giant sword who speaks only in text bubbles.

But in a field all too frequently given to artistic pretension and unintentional laughs, it's nice to know that tomorrow's next groundbreaking feature might not be user-generated worlds or massively multiplayer connectivity: rather, just good, old-fashioned ironic self-awareness.

Get Rich Playing Games (getrichgaming.com) author and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg has covered technology for 300+ outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.gadgetexpert.net.