GameCenter CX is a Japanese TV show about a man who plays video games, mostly 80s and early 90s games for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. It stars comedian Shinya Arino in his quest to play and complete old games (easy and hard) while a melodramatic narrator acts like something hugely important is on the line. It’s very sane as far as Japanese television goes.
My first exposure to GameCenter CX was Arino’s game, which was frankly quite terrible. It had some of the trappings of early Famicom games but none of the good design, and not an original idea was in sight. This was multiplied by the fact that you had to complete arbitrary challenges (complete with unskippable cutscenes) rather than simply being allowed to play the fake retro games. But my interest was again piqued with his appearance in Video Game Championship Wrestling. The stream chat seemed to love this Arino guy for some reason, so I looked him up.
Part of the appeal of the show is that Arino isn’t very good at most of the games he plays; he can take lengthy periods of time to complete levels that actual experts can dance around in. He’s decent but at times incompetent. He even has to have his genial staff help him on a frequent basis by providing hints, maps, diagrams, and sometimes even doing all the work for him. It’s more fun than it sounds, as Arino’s unbridled enthusiasm prevents dreary slogs like Ghosts ‘n Goblins from being as dull as they normally would be.
Take this episode featuring Battletoads, for instance. Despite the fact that Arino is playing the easier Japanese version of the game, he still needs a co-worker to help not only by telling him about the warps but by acting as a warmer-up to get him through the game to the last level where he left off. In a serious competition either of these would obviously be breaking the rules, but GameCenter CX is rather light-hearted underneath its stoic Asian exterior and gives Arino frequent breaks and assistance that would be out of order otherwise.
And Arino needs all the help he can get, because his skill level is downright schizophrenic. He has beaten famously obtuse games like Solomon’s Key and Milon’s Secret Castle but not straightforward ones like Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Final Fight. Sometimes he runs out of time (he is on television after all), sometimes he gets frustrated and just quits after a difficult effort, sometimes real-life concerns take greater importance, but he doesn’t always win. It’s all part of the fascination; Arino is no gaming prodigy and he often makes obvious noob mistakes that leave the viewer clawing their face in entertained frustration. When “27th attempt” appears in the upper left corner of the screen as Arino struggles to get through a relatively easy part of a level that many of the readers have beaten as children, you really start to feel like you’re watching a genuine underdog not winning but getting his chain yanked by some cruel taskmaster.
But then there are times when he triumphs over adversity, and they make the show worth watching. I felt downright elated watching him beat the infamously unfair Ninja Gaiden and Legacy of the Wizard. It’s true that he needed someone to replay parts of Ninja Gaiden for him and was hopelessly lost in Legacy of the Wizard until a crew member flat-out drew a map and strategy guide for him. You could call it cheating (which it totally is) but we’ve already established that he’s not a fantastically skilled player, and beating these kinds of games even with crutches is still quite an accomplishment, akin to the Trix rabbit obtaining his sugar puffs or a Special Olympian becoming king of his own country. He is the everyman of video gaming, and he’s better at it than any Let’s Player I’ve ever seen.
There are frequent segments in GameCenter CX in between the gameplay that feature Arino and other employees traveling to obscure arcades, collecting rare games or memorabilia, and reading game-related comics. These offer great insight into the personal lives or Arino and the GameCenter crew; it humanizes them by showing that sometimes even a cameraman or gaffer can possess hidden depths by having personal aspirations or by being better than the star of the show at certain games. I initially feared that these segments would be a distraction from the challenges that were the main purpose of the show, but they ended up being a charming and most welcome addition that fleshed out the show in a meaningful way.
GameCenter CX hasn’t been released internationally on a large scale, but subtitled episodes are freely available on YouTube and fortunately have yet to be removed by the internet copyright gestapo. A few episodes were translated and dubbed by omnipresent gossip aggregator Kotaku in 2011, but they apparently failed catch on, as Kotaku didn’t renew the translation for a second season. We’re better off with YouTube fansubs that with those big jerks anyway.
Arino has sometimes been called the Japanese equivalent of the Angry Video Game Nerd, but the comparison doesn’t work. AVGN is James Rolfe’s gimmick, his character, and it’s a character that is completely unlike Arino’s typically dispassionate Japanese style. All they have in common is that they play old video games and get paid for it. And that they’re both fanmade skins in a dumb wrestling game I can’t stop watching. But that’s as irrelevant as the product placements for junk food and forehead-cooling patches that pepper the show. You can enjoy it on its own merits, and its merits are manifold. Shinya Arino is officially a Rad Japan Dude just like Hirohiko Araki or Tak Fujii.