GameCenter CX has become a hallmark staple of retro gaming culture in Japan since its first broadcast in 2003. Even overseas, if you’ve spent any time on gaming-adjacent corners of the internet, you’re likely to have seen the face of the show’s host somewhere before. Whether it’s from YouTube clips, developer interviews, or memes, that man’s name is Shinya Arino, AKA: the Kachō. GameCenter CX is a highly enjoyable show that has more than earned its fervent cult following over the years, thanks in part to the efforts of certain Something Awful forum users. But after all this time, why isn’t it more widely accessible to watch via streaming services or additional physical releases, especially with how popular it’s become outside of Japan?
The show’s premise is simple: Arino (dressed in a retro Japanese office worker uniform) clocks in for his job in the morning, the staff presents him with a retro game that he must complete before the day’s end, and hilarity ensues. Arino is (usually) not terrible at games, but he most definitely is not a pro, and the show rides that fine line very well. We watch him slowly learn, or re-learn, the workings of each game. We watch him try, we watch him fail, we watch him laugh, and we watch him fall into the deepest pits of despair. All of this is accompanied by some of the most over-the-top dramatic narration and music you’ll ever hear, and really gives the show an extra kick. Watching Arino realize that a Game Over screen means losing all of his progress, and seeing the life slowly drain from his face as he respawns at Stage 1, is not only funny, but painfully relatable. We’ve all been there before, and while it’s hilarious to see him fail (“Abunai!!”), you can’t help but root for him to succeed. When he does, you can really feel a genuine sense of beaming happiness from him. The entire room loses their minds as Arino smiles ear-to-ear, pumping his fist, and shouting “I did it!!” when he finally defeats a difficult boss after countless attempts — the energy is electric.
Let’s Play Before Let’s Plays
Arino comes from a comedy background, being one-half of the comedy duo Yoiko, and clearly makes entertainment the number one purpose of this show. He has absolutely no qualms about making himself the butt of a joke, but has no hesitation in dishing it out to his staff either. He’s joined by a rotating cast of assistant directors, cameramen, and more, who act more like characters than merely off-screen production staff. Take Yuuya Inoue for example, AKA Inoko MAX, who was a wrestler before joining the staff of GameCenter CX as an AD. Unlike many of the other staff members, he did not have a major background in playing video games, but over time grew to truly love them as he assisted in helping (or sometimes hindering) the Kachō during particularly challenging episodes. And this is the true heart of GameCenter CX lies: teamwork, motivation, and finally, success! Well, hopefully. But don’t worry, on the off-chance that Arino is unable to complete a video game, a member of his staff will step in and beat it for him, just so viewers can see the true ending. Watching Arino team up with several members of his staff to finally beat Ninja Gaiden is a moment of shared accomplishment and pure joy that is more contagious and gripping than it has any right to be.
It’s not just comedy and gaming challenges that Arino and his dedicated staff focus on — the show has a great number of on-location segments where they visit game centers (the Japanese term for arcades), theme parks, and hobby shops around the country. There are also retrospective segments in each episode detailing classic games from the Famicom and Super Famicom eras. For example, did you know there was an ill-considered Tom Sawyer RPG made by Squaresoft and released only in Japan for the Famicom? You’re certain to learn new facts about gaming history and development, as the show also includes many interviews with prolific Japanese game designers such as Satoru Iwata, Hideo Kojima, Keiji Inafune, and even the reclusive creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Taijiri, which is to-date one of the only on-camera interviews he has ever done, and as such is frequently used as B-roll in Pokemon YouTube videos and Did You Know Gaming segments. GameCenter CX just has that kind of pull. So, shouldn’t there be an easier way to watch this show by now?
The concept of GameCenter CX succeeds internationally because its premise is not only easy to understand, but also quite familiar. Many cite the show as the very first “Lets Play” series. Before The Angry Video Game Nerd, before Game Grumps, before YouTube, there was GameCenter CX, airing on Fuji TV exclusively in Japan. The show became a quick hit among Japanese audiences, but it wasn’t long until others took notice. A fansubbing community born from the Something Awful forums saw the show for what it was and wanted others to experience it. The team, going by the name SA-GCCX, has been translating and sharing episodes for well over a decade. At some point in time Gawker took notice, and acquired the rights to a dozen select episodes to stream exclusively on the gaming website Kotaku, albeit with the iconic narrator’s voice redubbed in English (everything else was kept in subtitled Japanese). The show was also re-branded internationally as Retro Game Master. Any of the episodes not acquired by Gawker were still fair game for SA-GCCX to move forward with.
However, the Gawker rights deal did not last long, and Discotek Media quickly swooped in and acquired the license to GameCenter CX, releasing those same 12 episodes on DVD. They worked in part with the Something Awful team to re-translate the episodes more faithfully, but unfortunately, these releases only include the gaming challenges, and none of the on-location segments or other fun bits. Ten years later, and there is still no word on any plans to officially release additional episodes. Why is it so difficult to watch this great show?
The Great Japanese Game Off
There are some obvious hurdles to getting the show licensed to conveniently stream on something like Netflix or Hulu. The first one is the show’s semi-frequent use of licensed music, such as Styx or Bruce Springsteen, but that is something that could easily be edited out. Otherwise, the rights to broadcast gameplay footage may vary from company to company, and could be a lot more difficult to navigate outside of Japan. Different companies have different rules, and some are stricter than others, especially Nintendo, whose games are frequently on display on the show. However, GameCenter CX and Fuji TV have a close bond with Nintendo, and Nintendo seems to be keen on letting them do whatever they want, happy to let them showcase their past games and sometimes even promote upcoming releases. Several games were released under the GameCenter CX on the Nintendo DS and 3DS as the Retro Game Challenge series, and for a time, exclusive episodes of the show were even broadcast specifically on the Nintendo eShop in Japan. Their close knit coordination went even deeper when, in 2015, Arino himself was released as free DLC for Super Mario Maker on WiiU as a playable Mystery Mushroom costume, complete with voiceover catchphrases and unique animations. The release was international, likely leaving many players confused as to who this character was.
And for every reason against, there seem to be several reasons in favor of broadcasting or streaming GameCenter CX internationally. If streaming deals are too much of an issue, new physical releases would no doubt be snatched up instantly by dedicated fans. This much is evident in a particularly heartwarming 2011 episode in which Arino and his staff filmed a 2-hour long special in America, taking a road trip through California and visiting different gaming sites on the west coast. The plan was for it to eventually culminate at a fan meet-up in Los Angeles. Arino himself said he only expected a handful of people to be there. “At most 50, but if there’s only 4 or 5, let’s take them out to dinner.” The smile on his face was massive as he arrived at the arcade in Little Tokyo where over 150 fans, including members of the Something Awful distribution team, greeted him with tremendous applause, cheers, and high-fives. Some even showed up in Arino cosplay. People love games, people love the Kachō, and people love GameCenter CX.
If more people could easily watch this show, it would get the international praise it truly deserves. But at the end of the day, it’s just great that it exists at all. GameCenter CX views its subject through a healthy lens of nostalgia, and gives a glimpse into what retro gaming culture is like in the birthplace of much retro gaming as we know it: Japan. Arino never loses his cool, because it’s all about having a fun time, even when the challenges seem completely insurmountable. The show continues to air in Japan to this day, and just last year it was announced that due to the show’s “retro rule” (20 years have to have passed since a console was released for a game to be considered retro and thus eligible for the show’s challenge) the “software ban” on GameCube, Game Boy Advance, and PlayStation 2 games has been lifted. This opens up a lot more exciting possibilities moving forward, and while there are still ways to watch the show currently, I can only hope that it will be made more easily accessible to wider audiences soon. If The Great British Bake Off could find international success simply by being streamable on Netflix, no doubt GameCenter CX could do the same.