Fiction Factory Games/PQube
Genre: Romantic Comedy Visual Novel
In the early 1980s, the Atari was king of the home consoles for video gaming. As with anything that turns a profit and is fairly innovative, everybody wanted a piece of the new “home gaming” pie and between 1982 and 1983, the home console market became saturated with more systems and titles than anyone could truly afford or have space for at the time. Believe it or not, the stories of cartridges of E.T. for the Atari 2600 being buried in the desert because retailers couldn’t hold them on their shelves and the poor quality due to rushed manufacturing times are factual, if not a bit inflated, and they were just one piece of the puzzle that nearly stopped heavy hitters like the Nintendo Entertainment System from reaching US shores.
But what if that hadn’t happened? What if the industry had practiced a bit of moderation with their excitement or retailers had sufficiently embraced this cutting-edge technology and had met the demand for supply? What if game manufacturers had been more worried about crediting their programmers and putting out quality product rather than rushing to try for the highest sales they could?
Wow. A lot of this is starting to sound kind of familiar…
In any case, my first introduction to Arcade Spirits was an explanation that it took place in a world much like you may imagine those “what if” situations could have produced. While it’s clear that the game industry is flourishing and not in much immediate danger of history repeating itself, how would arcades, now a bit of a novelty rather than commonplace as they were in the 80s and 90s, have fared if there hadn’t been a video game crash at all?
Well, the chance to see one potential outcome awaits you right behind the neon and brick title screens of Arcade Spirits.
(As a quick note, if you’d like to read more about the gaming crash in 1983, the Wikipedia page here has a ton of information to start with!)
It’s the year 20XX.
Living on your own, you’ve had a run of bad luck for a while. Your love life hasn’t been great, your recent employment history has been shaky at best, and your direction in life is, shall we say, aimless. With the most recent loss of work security, it’s been tough not to feel a bit hopeless in the situation.
Thankfully, your best friend and roommate, Juniper, is trying hard to help turn your frown upside down by helping you find your dream job. She introduces you to Iris, a mobile assistant who will hopefully help you get your life back in order and put you on the path to fiscal success. After a bit of discussion, Iris comes to the perfect conclusion and sets up an interview for you immediately at the local arcade called The Funplex. Despite your reluctance, she’s almost (99.7%) certain that this will be a great mesh with your personality.
After arriving and interviewing almost right into the job as a floor manager in the arcade, you’ll meet the colorful cast of employees and regulars that frequent the Funplex like Naomi, the quirky cabinet mechanic, Percy, the gentle British score-chaser, and QueenBee, one of the fiercest competitors to hit the scene. How you interact with them- among others- will determine exactly how your job and free time is spent. Of course with this being an arcade full of children, gamers in full aggro, and competitors from other arcades about, it’s safe to say that hijinks and heartaches are in store as you navigate the waters of trying to keep your business not only afloat but flourishing.
Who knows? You may even make some new friends- or more- along the way.
If it seems like I’m making this out to be more simple than it is, this is my attempt at explaining a visual novel for the first time on here, so I’d just like to take this from the ground up.
By definition, a visual novel primarily tasks the player with reading through a story and making choices when prompted. Much like a regular novel, the game is divided into chapters- in this case, 10- and in each chapter, you play through the plot as your personally created avatar (with the default name of Ari Cader, because the game revels in its cheese), interacting with the cast in a variety of ways that will either endear them to you or distance them. As you continue through, you’ll notice that characters remember things like who you interacted with earlier, what decisions you made, and even if you listened to their advice or acted in the best interest of the Funplex or the good of people you’ve come across.
Your responses in Arcade Spirits, however, will always fall into a category that is outlined by symbols placed just before each possible selection- a smiley face indicates a ‘quirky’ response while a red star means the response is ‘gutsy’. Not only are you gaining points depending on the characters you interact with and how you interact with them but you also gain points toward a particular personality type as you answer. What does this mean for you later on? In certain situations, Iris will pop up and let you know that you are in an emotionally intense situation so you can only respond or engage using your favored personality type. Your personality type will also help suss out who may be more interested in you later on in the game if that’s a path that you choose to go down in the narrative. Thankfully, if you have any question about your standing with either your friends or your personality type, there is an update screen between chapters so that Iris can keep you on track however you would like to proceed.
The Good, The Bad, And…
At the forefront of the good things that Arcade Spirits does is in its character creation and respect to its audience. From what I’ve seen, a lot of visual novels put you in the shoes of a character and send you on your way to live out their personality as you see fit. While creating your avatar and before you jump into the story, you are asked a number of questions by the game and then Iris including your pronouns and if you want the game to be romantically inclined or you just want to make friends with the cast. Not only does this make the game easy to recommend to just about anyone remotely interested but it’s also about as inclusive as it can get which is refreshing in this genre and this current gaming clime.
For all of us who are ridiculously interested in gaming history and trivia, this game is packed with it and tends to present it in a natural manner, usually through local arcade whisperer, Naomi. While the game’s premise lends plenty of room for fictional games like “Moopy’s Magic Maze” and “Fist of Discomfort”, there is a rich history of gaming that the game draws off of that pulls in references about a number of high-profile titles from Death Race to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and even reference to the “urban legendary” Polybius. Even as someone who studies up on these things at times, I learned a lot going through Arcade Spirits while I was enjoying the story.
I guess if there’s any “downside” (if you can call it that), it’s that the game might be too “easy” for veterans of the genre. Between the post-chapter updates and the fact that it doesn’t really feel like you can “lose” without really going out of your way to do so, the game feels more laid back than I expected. Even this is a stretch for me to call a bad thing, though, since the game’s pacing and ability to save at any point in the story- a factor that I think is prominent in visual novels anyway- makes it easy to go down different paths and try different responses without it feeling like a slog.
The ambient music in Arcade Spirits is wonderful. Alongside the appropriate emotional beats and tracks, it features plenty of strong 80s-type synth and bass with a variety of beeps and boops that make the game’s quirky setting and characters feel right at home. The voice acting is fun and includes a couple of higher profile talents than I would have expected from an indie including one of my personal favorites, Stephanie Sheh. Selfishly, I wish there were more of the voice acting as it tends to cover a few lines of dialogue before giving a couple of lines without dialogue than goes back to voicing full sections in some areas. The game is a treat to listen to all around, though.
Visually, the game is colorful and fun to look at, too. Every scene felt like it evoked the arcades I remember growing up in (which I’m sure was the goal) and even the ventures outside of the arcades are well drawn and incredibly fitting. The character designs are fun and distinct without going too over-the-top unless it fits the character in question, and they all brim with personality. The cartoon-y style fits Arcade Spirits perfectly and it’s clear that the artists cared to make each of the people your avatar interacts with feel unique and to purvey a particular personality.
When I saw Arcade Spirits at PAX this past year, it seemed cute and was a bit outside of my usual gaming habits. It was charming, though, and clearly had a lot of care and enthusiasm from the developers even just considering the first chapter demo that they had available. The fact is that the “enthusiasm” that I felt from the first chapter carried on throughout the entire game, never letting up until the final credits. Even the cast members that don’t seem likable at first show plenty of facets whether you follow their story or not and the alternative history take on the video game crash is not only interesting but not something I’ve seen held at the forefront of a game with narrative like this before.
The game is available on Steam and itch.io so it hasn’t hit consoles as of the writing of this piece. It seems to go for about the same price as plenty of other visual novels so your mileage may vary on when to pick it up- but I would definitely recommend keeping an eye on it if you’re even a little interested in becoming a fan of visual novels or fancy yourself a gamer who would just love to learn more about arcade gaming and see what could have come to be in a world where the video game crash was avoided. Whether you want romance or just a fun story that will make you roll your eyes, laugh out loud, and tug at your heartstrings, Arcade Spirits is a title that is worth investing a few hours in to get from digital cover to cover.