OTAQUEST supporter, video game fan, and performer EXILE NESMITH recently had a chance to check out the filming location for famed Japanese video game program, Game Center CX. Game Center CX celebrated its 15th-anniversary last year, and a special celebratory DVD set was just released in Japan at the tail end of September. Being a long time fan of the program, NESMITH was particularly excited to check out the set and meet one on one with the show’s iconic host, Shinya Arino (also know as Arino Kacho). We present their conversation below, translated in English, provided in collaboration with Monthly EXILE magazine!
NESMITH: I’m finally here in the challenge room that we see on TV… It’s overwhelming. (laughs)
Arino: So you watch the show?
NESMITH: Of course I do! Every episode, without fail. Ever since starting this series, I’ve always wanted to visit the “GameCenter CX” stage.
Arino: Good thing we weren’t canceled. (laughs)
NESMITH: I see that you really do have forehead cooling pads and cheap candy all around here…
Arino: You can have some, if you’d like. (laughs)
NESMITH: Then I’ll help myself once the interview is over. (laughs) Now, I’d like to ask you about how you do the “Arino Challenge”, the segment where you try to beat old games in one sitting. To begin with, you record these segments once every two weeks, correct?
Arino: Right. Our previous recording session gave us enough material for November. I was asked about my feelings for the upcoming year, even though it was still August. (laughs) As a program, the creator interviews used to be the main portion. The “challenge” was a mini-segment, where we’d discuss little stuff like tricks for playing “Gradius”. Once we had interviewed most of the creators we wanted to talk with, we thought we might make the game challenge our main segment, and that’s how it’s been for these past 16 years. In a recent episode, we got Shigesato Itoi to come and talk to us about “EarthBound.” That was our first creator interview in some time.
NESMITH: By the way, do they keep the game you’ll be playing a secret until the recording day?
Arino: That’s frequently the case. Most of the games are ones I’ve never seen before.
NESMITH: Are there any games left to beat after doing this for 16 years?
Arino: Even the Famicom/NES alone had 1,600 titles in Japan.
Producer Tsuyoshi Kan: And we have most of the Famicom titles at our studio.
NESMITH: Wow! When I was a kid, a work friend of my mom’s let me eat dinner at their house, and I also got to play on their Famicom. There was one game I could never beat, so I brought it home with me: Sanma no Meitantei. It was tough for a kid.
Arino: That was a tough one.
NESMITH: I gave it another go as an adult and beat it. (laughs) Do you have any such to-do titles like that you haven’t tried to beat on the program, Mr. Arino?
Arino: I do. Particularly now that we’ve expanded from just Famicom to the Mega Drive and PlayStation One. After 20 years, we’ve narrowed our focus to retro games, and the original PlayStation’s games look to be joining that category.
Tsuyoshi Kan: After all those Famicom games, Arino can’t help but laud PlayStation games for their “pretty” visuals.
Arino: “Whoa, there’s a Z-axis!” (laughs) Seeing all these video games here, it’s really sinking in how much they’ve evolved. Have you ever just played video games for an entire day, NESMITH?
NESMITH: I have. I’m particularly fond of the “Tales” RPG series. I first got into them in middle and high school. It has anime-style characters, and despite being an RPG, it has some elements of action and puzzle-solving…
Arino: When was it that you got into music? We still haven’t heard anything about you singing or dancing. (laughs)
NESMITH: Oh, I was doing both, believe me. It was studying for school that I wasn’t doing.
Arino: Then did you listen to music while you were playing games and stuff?
NESMITH: True, I sometimes listened to music or watched TV while playing games. For visual novels like “Banshee’s Last Cry,” that led to situations where I’d suddenly have a decision tree and have to wonder what the story was up until that point. (laughs) But as for you, you have to focus on the game and get to the ending before you run out of time.
Arino: Right. Even so, I often have no clue how far I’ve gotten, or if I can beat the game in just one day. So when night falls, the staff start whispering amongst themselves, like “Can’t we give this another day and make the game a two-parter?” (laughs) We’ve always had an assistant director to play the game in advance and give us a time-to-finish estimate based on how I’m doing, but… Nobody’s ever given an accurate estimate. (laughs)
NESMITH: Speaking of which, up until now you’ve beaten around 300 games…
Arino: I’ve got a list of them right here. I bet there are some you’ve never heard of.
NESMITH: (reading the list) Quite a few, actually. There are also a lot of titles that I’ve played, but were too difficult for me to beat. Like “The Transformers: Mystery of Convoy.” I couldn’t finish the first stage of it.
Arino: You die in one hit in that one. And the projectiles aren’t easy to see. (laughs)
NESMITH: Everyone from the Famicom generation has a title like that, I think.
Arino: And it was nothing like what today’s kids imagine when it comes to “Transformers,” too. (laughs) I think we had a brief special segment where I played it.
Tsuyoshi Kan: He doesn’t have the best reflexes, after all. (laughs)
Arino: And yet they keep giving me action games. (laughs)
NESMITH: Are there any other titles that you felt were impossible while playing them?
Arino: Let me think… “Lemmings,” maybe? We did it on a special 24-hour broadcast. Our producer lost all hope partway through, saying “we should never have done this”. (laughs) Normally, a 24-hour program would have a lot of segments to switch between, but it was just me playing video games the whole time with no commercial breaks. (laughs)
Tsuyoshi Kan: You beat the game in the last 11 minutes, I remember.
Arino: They got real mad at me for leaving 11 minutes to fill at the end. It was the climax of our 24-hour broadcast, but it was like we had defeated the last boss and had nothing to do. (laughs)
NESMITH: Well, there’s bound to be things like that when you’ve been on TV for 16 years.
Arino: It’s funny, the fans we meet at events increase in age for every event we go to. There were people we’d see at events who would find a partner, then they’d be married, and then they’d have a child– like, the same child that in a previous event was still inside the wife’s womb.
NESMITH: That’s cool. And lately, “Let’s Play” videos have really caught on over at YouTube and such.
Arino: Yes, there’s been more video game-focused shows on TV in recent years. Not that anybody invites me to any of them. Everyone thinks I’m the guy who “quietly tries to beat games alone”. (laughs) I could do without that typecasting.
NESMITH: Might it also have something to do with how their programs don’t feature classics like these games?
Arino: Ah, you call them “classics?” Not retro games? That’s a cool word for it, I think I’ll adopt that. (laughs)
Tsuyoshi Kan: It’s always been a niche program. We have fans amongst TV personalities out there, but for some reason, they always mention being a fan in hushed tones. (laughs)
Arino: Right. When we’re alone, they’ll whisper “I’m a fan of the show”. (laughs) Like, tell everyone else, then! (laughs) But now, I’ll whisper back “thank you.”
NESMITH: Last year, you had a 15th year anniversary event for the program at the Makuhari Messe convention complex. You also had events in the past at the Nippon Budokan arena…
Arino: Like a four-hour event where we’d do seven titles live. We’ll have rehearsals before and just before the events, but not for the game challenge. The thing we practiced for the most was the song-and-dance routine done by the staff, the “Messe Messe Club” unit. (laughs) That is to say, the song rehearsals done by past staff. I always have to wonder, “do I need to be here?” (laughs)
NESMITH: There are a surprising number of original songs produced by the program.
Arino: It may be an event for the program, but it would fizz out if it was all just me playing games. The songs always seemed to be a way to fill the gaps. Since much of the audience aren’t used to going to music concerts, we upload a video ahead of time so they can learn the audience calls.
NESMITH: Hey, I do that too. We published the choreography for “Ki・mi・ni・mu・chu” ahead of time so that people coming to the concert could dance with us.
Arino: Dancing, huh… Fans of our show have only held controllers. (laughs) But, it’s fun to try and get kids like that moving. Like, “hey everyone, let’s wave our hands!” (laughs)
Tsuyoshi Kan: Oh yeah, why don’t we show NESMITH a “Messe Messe Club” video?
Arino: What, now? (laughs)
Tsuyoshi Kan: I’d like to get NESMITH’s opinion on the music. (laughs)
(NESMITH watches a Messe Messe Club performance from an October 2018 event at Makuhari)
NESMITH: Wow, that’s something…
Arino: What would you do if your producers asked you to take on Messe Messe Club as a partner group? (laughs)
NESMITH: What?! (laughs) I’m not sure how the company would feel about that… People might wonder if we’ve jumped the shark after how far we come. (laughs) But this punchy stage production rivals our own concerts.
Tsuyoshi Kan: The stage production costs us big, so we can only spare it for part of the events. And where better to use it than for the music parts?
Arino: Wouldn’t it make the most sense to make a splash when I beat a game?
NESMITH: Still, you could feel the built-up love for the program. You can tell how everyone wants to support your act. Still, it’s just the costumes that are RPG-ish. I thought you could build up the song’s worldview a bit more with a sword or two!
Arino: Ah, I see, a sword. Yes, that’s accurate… Are you doing anything four years from now? (laughs)
NESMITH: What, for the 20th anniversary event? (laughs)
Tsuyoshi Kan: We’ll call it the “Ness-Miss Club.” (laughs)
NESMITH: If it comes to that, I’ll bring along my instructor from dance school!
Arino: Please do. (laughs)
NESMITH: I’ve got one last personal question. Know of any games I could enjoy these days?
Arino: Hmm, for you? How about “Family Fun Fitness?”
Arino: It’s a game where you run in place on a mat.
NESMITH: Oh! Now I remember. You’re talking about that peripheral for the Famicom, the mat controller.
Arino: That one. I’m sure you could have a great time with it, since you’re good at dancing.
NESMITH: (laughs) Good idea. I never would have thought the “Family Fun Fitness” name would come up. GameCenter CX has been on for 16 years, and I’m sure you’ll keep on playing games like this into the future.
Arino: You never know! We might slowly morph into a music program. (laughs) But it’s fun to put on events and give kids who might just play games inside all day a reason to step outside. The “GameCenter CX Symphony” we did with an orchestra this year (April 29, 2019) was like that.
NESMITH: As always, video games are front and center. Finally, I’d like to ask you what you feel makes retro games great.
Arino: Ah, classic games, you mean? (laughs) What do you think?
NESMITH: I still play video games to this day, and looking back on the Famicom days, I feel a sense of nostalgia, analog-ness. Sure, sometimes I got scolded for playing video games too much, but I learned about things like friendship from them, and I can share in the memories with people from that generation. I feel like it’s an important part of our shared experience, a tool for communication.
Arino: Right. It’s become as big as music and movies.
NESMITH: And even now, it’s great that we can play them together. Playing co-op, teaching each other, there’s value in all that.
Arino: Plus there’s how old games, with their limited memory, stoked the imagination. You could argue with your friends about vague scenes like the bad guy kidnapping a princess– “I bet we have to go save the princess!” “No, that’s the main character’s little sister!” (laughs) It was fun having those kinds of conversations. These days, the graphics are pretty, there are voice-overs, and it’s like watching a movie, but in the old days, you had to imagine the visuals and story. That was something you could only do with just the A B buttons and D-pad. That’s not to say those were the “good old days.” Games nowadays are far easier to approach. “Thank goodness for autosave” and all that. (laughs)
NESMITH: That’s certainly true. (laughs)
Arino: Still, the games that teach us the value of a single chance, the ones that we feel most upset when we’re defeated… They’re important, and I think we really treated them that way back then. And it’s great to be able to share our experiences with them. Like, “what games did you play back then?” or about how we traded cartridges, and sometimes never saw those cartridges again. (laughs) Those are fun conversations. The generation from when the medium was still small. We treasured them in all their inconveniences. That’s the part I love about “classic games.” (laughs)
NESMITH: It’ll be a delight for me if you start using that term on the program. (laughs)
We would like to thank Mr. Arino for participating in this interview, and to Monthly EXILE magazine and EXILE NESMITH for conducting it! Although newer seasons are still Japan only, if you’re new to the series Season 1 of Game Center CX (Retro Game Master in the US) can be streamed now on Midnight Pulp!