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On Retro Game Master and getting mad for the right reasons

[In the following article, guest writer Ray Barnholt, the Western world’s foremost authority on Game Center CX, explains why many of your complaints about the new Retro Game Master DVD set may be misdirected.]

Earlier this year, I stopped work on my Game Center CX Episode Guide, with a post there explaining why. Part of it touched on the fact that GCCX was getting plenty of new fans in the Western world over the past year, with tons of people discovering the show and talking about it all over the place without ever seeing my site.

What I didn’t mention was the other side of that fandom; a darker side that took shape last June, when GCCX arrived in America as Retro Game Master, exclusively on Kotaku. It was supposed to be good news, but when it started, people didn’t really like it. Hated it. Really, they wanted everyone involved to die — the regular reasonable Internet reaction. I hoped that people would continue to appreciate the show for what it was, but instead I observed a cacophony of upset fans condemning Kotaku in all sorts of ways, mostly through kneejerk sentiments and just plain made-up assertions to justify their anger over what they saw as a bastardization.

I appreciate that people love GCCX, and I do think many had their heart in the right place when they got grumpy about RGM, but it nevertheless upsets and, no joke, kind of hurts me when those people get facts wrong, and other people take those and run with them, and all of a sudden there’s this humongous cloud of negativity hanging over a great thing that doesn’t need it.

So whereas before I talked about GCCX and me, I’d now like to talk about GCCX and everyone else. On the eve of the release of Discotek’s Retro Game Master DVD, I want to address a few of the key criticisms about RGM that have been repeatedly brought up in forums, on Twitter, and comments on Tiny Cartridge and elsewhere since that fateful June, and respond with as much of the truth as possible — as a fan, a friend, and a Game Center CX scholar, even though that last one sounds really pathetic.

Kotaku cut out the arcade (TamaGe) segments and the developer interviews!

This has been the biggest and most prominent complaint, and it’s not even true. GCCX has been chopped up like that for years, because the DVD box sets in Japan are made that way: assortments of challenge and TamaGe segments put into volumes. Sometimes this is softened by the challenge being an hour-long “director’s cut,” as well as the inclusion of DVD-exclusive challenges, but the rest are all extracted from the broadcast version and spread out over several two-disc sets. So, because the international rights to the show are held by Stylejam, the company that produces those DVDs (and who also had the idea to call the show Retro Game Master when attempting to take it international in 2008), they had only their version of the show to distribute. What we got was literally the Japanese DVD video overlaid with subtitles, an English narrator, and an RGM logo sequence covering up the king/prince bumpers.

But why are the DVDs organized that way instead of being full seasons? I have no real clue. No one does except Stylejam, Gascoin (the studio that actually produces GCCX) and Fuji Television. Anything else is conjecture. Granted, some of that conjecture sounds reasonable: that because GCCX gets permission from game companies to show their games on TV, that might not be something that extends to home video, so only the segments that are re-approved for the DVD are what make it through, instead of whole episodes. On top of that, the show uses a lot of licensed music, which is also likely only cleared for broadcast, and it’s all replaced for the DVDs. Now, though that may not be the absolute truth, those assumptions are nonetheless based in reality — there’s reams of red tape involved in even the simplest TV productions around the world, and that can quickly put a damper on the best-laid plans. So if the compromise was to split up the shows, well, they went with it. Didn’t seem to hurt sales in Japan much, anyway.

The more important, if less obvious thing behind this complaint is that the DVDs are kind of expensive, so international fans are dissuaded from buying them, if they knew they existed in the first place. The result, of course, is that because no one’s seen the Japanese DVDs, they have no frame of reference, and naturally assume that Kotaku took GCCX from its makers and ripped it apart because they hate fun. But it’s not quite that simple. In an ideal world, everybody would be as crazy as I am and would’ve bought every GCCX DVD available and then see how the segments were separated and understand what happened and never complain (or not as loudly). I don’t doubt that some people got into GCCX because of what they saw on Kotaku, but most didn’t throw themselves into it until the rise of the Something Awful fansubs, which was concurrent with the announcement/release of RGM, and sadly, hearsay won out. tl;dr: No one from America cut GCCX and there was no way around it.

Kotaku still gave the show crappy subtitles and voice-overs!

Yes and no. This is the other big thing: “Kotaku” here was really the work of a partnership between parent company/blog Gawker and a production company called A Bigger Boat, which is better explained below. They were the ones who seemed to take the cheap and easy route with the translation (to quote Gawker’s COO, "It was not an extravagant experiment to make"), though I’m willing to bet there was some naivety mixed in, too. The translation was outsourced and obviously wasn’t doing any service to the material, as it was quite clearly done by people who had little to no idea of the world of video games and were seemingly left to their own devices (most of the time; they did look for confirmation at least once).

It was a perfect storm of stupid stuff that left us with a below-average product, and yeah, that is worth some complaining. All they had to do was get at least one person who knew what the show was talking about and they’d probably be more than halfway to pleasing people. Instead it took a year and aDVD release from another company for the opportunity to get Nina Matsumoto to re-translate the thing.

Kotaku made the Something Awful fansubbers take their versions of the episodes down!

No, those folks voluntarily removed the download links they were giving out, often ahead of the RGM versions going live. Call it a preventative measure or maybe, to some teensy degree, a show of respect, since the show had finally reached America in some way. (That doesn’t necessarily mean anyone involved with the subs liked RGM.) Really, though, the implication that anyone associated with RGM wanted to or would bother with having fansubs removed is kind of hilarious in hindsight.

But Kotaku still [insert other thing about RGM that you hated]
Well, I’ve tried to explain and re-explain that Kotaku was really just a vessel for delivering the show, only to be drowned in noise. It’s possible this post will also fall on deaf ears, but since people have been firing at the wrong target, and I still think you and I can be friends, I will lend you a hand. Here’s the officially unofficial short list of people and entities responsible for Retro Game Master from beginning to end — based on blogs, press releases, show credits, and other readily available information:

  • Stylejam: As mentioned, they’re the film production and publishing company who has the GCCX DVD license from Fuji TV and produces all the DVDs in Japan. They went on to spearhead the original Retro Game Master “pilots” in 2007-‘08. At the time, Stylejam’s international sales department was headed by Yuko Shiomaki, who went on to form…
  • Pictures Dept.: A smaller production company that acted as representative of Fuji and Stylejam when, years later, RGM was finally about to be a real thing and a deal needed to be discussed with…
  • Jetpack Media: A production company founded by Eric Spiegelman, also behind the “Old Jews Telling Jokes” web series. Spiegelman is credited as co-producer on RGM and brokered the deal between…
  • Gawker: The blog/media network that owns Kotaku, and…
  • A Bigger Boat: Yet another production company, this one formed by Peter Block, and the one that packaged RGM. From here, exact details are vague, but the leading presumption is that Stylejam’s self-produced RGM was too rich for everyone’s blood, so they compromised by getting the video “master” (which was, again, just the video from the DVDs) and working from there. Regardless of how true that is, the Americans were left needing RGM to be translated, so they contracted the services of…
  • Vitac (misspelled “Vitec” in the RGM credits): A translation and transcription company responsible for the RGM English translation, credited to VPs of the company Maggie McDermott and Yelena Makarczyk. Along with translation, Vitac’s services include transcribing TV shows for closed captioning. In other words, they probably don’t get a lot of Japanese video game shows repurposed for the Internet coming through. This is the same translation that you read on the screen and heard from the voice of…
  • Adam Ray: Comedian, voice actor, and the English announcer/narrator who pronounced everybody’s name wrong. Oh, but that wasn’t all his fault; it’s a safe bet no one outside Vitac knew how, but noting pronounciations probably wasn’t a part of their job, if not just overlooked.

I know it’s a lot to keep track of, and I know it’s easier just to say “BLURGH KOTAKU” when you want to vent because so many people hate them to begin with. But try to remember that when it came to the production of the actual RGM show, Kotaku, the video game blog, had barely anything to do with it. Really.

Well, the TamaGe (arcade visits) segments are better than the challenge parts anyway! They should’ve just found a way to use them!

Obviously I can’t debunk an opinion, and I’m not going to keep you from enjoying the show for any reason, but it’s very clear that even in its uncut form, GCCX is presented as being about the game challenges, and it’s important to understand that. It makes up half the show, it’s the longest chunk of it, and it’s the easiest to “pitch,” whether you’re its creators trying to sell it to an international market, or a fan trying to sell a friend on it. Personally, I enjoy GCCX as whole episodes, but I’m fascinated by people who love the TamaGe segments so much that they elevate them above the rest of the show. They are great fun and very interesting, but for a show so grounded in its core concept (one it does pretty well, if I do say so), some folks seem too quick to toss it aside when thinking about how they’ve been wronged. I doubt many fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 watched it just for the host segment skits, right? I mean, I hope not.

* * * * * * * * * *

So that I’m clear as possible: this is not a defense. Please, get mad about Retro Game Master all you want — I just want to make sure you’re mad for the right reasons. I thought RGM was a great get on the surface, but now that the dust has settled, I didn’t like what they did with it any more than you. “They” being the American producers for skimping on the TLC, and the other “they” being Gawker and Kotaku, who appeared excited to host the show, but didn’t do enough to get people to care about it (placing ads around the site on a semi-regular basis was cool, but de rigueur). Worse, they were oblivious of the Los Angeles meet-and-greet that formed the climax of the USA special — which was predicated on the existence of RGM on Kotaku in the first place. It seemed as though the Japanese side expected Kotaku to know about the trip and be ready to announce it at the same time, but that didn’t happen until two days before the event. So what has two thumbs and tried to pick up the slack?

And to reiterate what I said at the beginning, I don’t like that they left a bad taste in people’s mouths, which then created an angry mob. (Hey, noteverybody; I did see at least five positive comments on Kotaku!) I tried to rein it in here and there, but I could only watch it get worse. Even before the ‘08 version of RGM, I fantasized about seeing GCCX officially in English and for it to be well-liked, but who knew those things would be mutually exclusive? Regardless, I always figured it was going to be a streamed web show if nothing else, because I never held any illusions about it becoming some national sensation. If you do/did, then ask yourself: could RGM still have a chance to break big even if it was treated magnificently? Whether you like it or not, we’re dealing with niche stuff (live-action Japanese programs about video games) in a still-relatively-niche medium (commercial web video), and nine times out of ten, it’s not going to be given a red carpet treatment. I’m not saying “deal with it,” because to me, that situation is what’s worth getting mad about instead of what happened to one show, but it’s something even more difficult to fix.

I’ll close with this: Game Center CX is a great show. If you like it and consider yourself a fan, and still have a little part of you that’s open to cutting through the bad translations, snippy comments, jumping to conclusions, and general bullshit that the show has been saddled with on its voyage across the ocean, then we can still get somewhere. If you’re buying Discotek’s DVD set, then you’ve proved that, but you can keep going. One of the best things you can do is to pick your favorite episode(s) in the version you like best (let me guess, uncut fansub? Gotcha), and simply show it to somebody willing. I can’t guarantee they’ll like it even if they are a big gamer, but you gave it a chance, right? And if you still have an urge to tell them to avoid RGM because you hated it so much, just… don’t. Instead, see what it’s like to be a good ‘n’ crazy fan of something that actually deserves it for once. Draw fan art. Make avatars and GIFs and 4chan reaction images. Go to a con in an Arino uniform and tell people who you are if they ask. These things contribute to getting people talking and thinking about the show, and I know that because I’ve seen it happen. On Game Center CX, Arino is forced to relive the past. You’re not.

Ray Barnholt

Buy: Retro Game Challenge, Retro Game Master DVD set
Import: Game Center CX 2 
See also: More Game Center CX posts

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