Popping up on the internet with someone declaring “It’s Top Gear for video games!”, Game Center CX caused a stir the moment it hit but there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it. Truth be told, that’s not really a fair comparison. Instead of three old British guys thrashing sports cars around and cracking racial slurs, you have a young comedian playing some of the hardest videogames conceived in a downtown office. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.
Thanks to the advent of Youtube and Twitch, the concept of Let’s Plays are a common thing. The premise is simple. You can search for any videogame out there, no matter how old or obscure and chances are someone has recorded themselves playing it. Do you remember that old arcade game you used to play? See someone take it through to the end. Not sure as to buy the latest release? Watch someone pick it apart as they go through it for the first time. Thanks to the popularity of Pewdiepie and his like, Let’s Play is mainstream in game culture, as much achievements, releasing unfinished titles and pay to get ahead DLC.
If you’re wondering as to if there’s a rather negative tone to this, you would be correct. The Let’s Play concept is littered with individuals who expect to make a living off of it. These days anybody can fire up a stream, ramble away to commentators and ask for donations, but not everybody should do it. If you want to watch someone go through a game with commentary, they require a certain amount of charisma. Without it, you might as well be watching one of those drinking bird things randomly pecking at controller buttons.
Years ago in Japan, when Youtube was still a few years off from launching, let alone gaining popularity, someone at the production company Gascoin had an idea for a videogame variety program. The host would look at some titles, interview some names in the business and have a “challenge” segment where they would be tasked to complete a game. Who would be the face of it though? That was the key question.
Shinya Arino was a young comedian, part of a double act called Yoiko that was gaining a degree of popularity. It made sense to have someone engaging as the face of the program and he was approached to be its lead. Surprisingly shy at the first meeting with the producers, he agreed, leading them into thinking that it may have been a mistake.
Arino took to the camera with his comedy persona, relieving all production fears. The first Season of the show was pitched to Fuji TV who picked it up, but as engaging as it was, behind the scenes, format changes were starting brew.
You see, the program was being outshined by its own star. The challenge segment, a quarter of the program at best, had Arino face some of the toughest 8-bit games devised. Watching him torture himself to reach the ending was found to be engaging, amusing almost. He wasn’t skilled in the slightest and prone to making idiotic mistakes but he persevered as far as he could push himself. Charmed by this, the decision was made for the format to be revised and for Arino’s challenge to become the show itself.
The change worked and the show exploded. Despite being in a late time slot, word got around that this young comedian was taking on games from people’s childhoods. What was even more alarming was that he was winning. 12 hour recording sessions were not uncommon, neither was being stuck for hours on a single level. Peppered with mishaps of his own creation, such as forgetting to continue and wiping out half a days work, only added to the appeal. Arino wasn’t some industry giant. He was a regular guy people could cheer for and cheer they did.
As time passed, titans of the era fell to him. Mario Brothers: The Lost Levels, Ghost and Goblins, Wizardry and many more that were shunned by the West for their difficulty, Arino took them all on. Even his losses were enjoyable, requiring the staff to help out from time to time.
The staff of the show became just as important as its host. A small operation, the Assistant Director or other crew member would sometimes come to his side to give advice or give Arino a respite by taking on a life or two. As is the nature of television, the AD’s changed, giving fresh faces to root for, some with varying degrees of success. Even the rebel biker fanatic cameraman found himself getting screen time. The times when Arino couldn’t complete a game, it fell on the AD to finish the job, no matter how long it took.
The program still retained some segments but with a twist. Viewers would recommend locations to play games at, ranging from full blown arcades to dilapidated cabinets outside corner shops. It doesn’t sound engaging in the slightest but Arino is the glue that holds it all together. He makes it work.
Over the years the show grew. Live TV specials gave way to 24hour challenges. His own movie. He’s even played before thousands in the Bukodan, a stadium that holds 14,500. Specials have him travelling to France, America and others to see the state of gaming overseas. With over 230 episodes, there’s no sign of the show stopping any time soon.
Despite being practically unknown elsewhere the popularity of Game Center CX cannot be underestimated. Arino, earning the moniker “Chief” of “Katcho” in the show itself for his prowess, has been the subject of video games themselves, with three stand alone titles and turning up in Super Mario Maker as a playable character. A version of Space Invaders was made with him making all of the sounds for the games anniversary. He is mobbed at events around the world especially the Tokyo Game Show. The once shy comedian has become part of the industry itself, regularly taking to the stage to promote his love for gaming. He’s rubbed shoulders with the creators of Mario, Metal Gear, Castlevania, Pokemon, Space Invaders, and many others.
Yet despite this popularity, Arino remains down to earth, proclaiming that the desire to reach the end of the game is his goal because, in his words, “there’s always an ending”.
Sadly the show has never broken the West. It was attempted, under the moniker Retro Game Challenge though this was accompanied with an over excided American voice over and cutting the arcade visits, severely hampering the programs enjoyment. Kotaku had the rights for a year but after letting it go, they’ve not been picked up since. These days the only way to watch Game Center over here is to look for the official uploads onto Youtube, or download the fine work by fan-subbing teams.