Raiders of the Lost Arcade
I miss the days when I could still stumble across arcades. A few machines tucked away next to a food court or in a train station. They were the most impractical of ways to play games. They were expensive, noisy, and sometimes just plain broken. However, I feel that an arcade cabinet gives its game a life of its own. This is Metal Slug. It lives in this bowling alley. Not a chunk of plastic on the wall, but a living monolith. Gosh, I even miss the Cruis’n USA that was in Pizza Hut.
It’s funny that the last safe place to experience an arcade is within a video game itself. We’ve had compilations lift the aesthetic and a few indie titles that try to capture that nostalgia, but Arcade Paradise is something unique. It tries to take you back to that time, only without the popcorn, chips with queso, and grape soda. All the neon visuals, the fingerprint-smudged screens, and the horrible radio playing in the background. The arcade is not exactly as you remember it, but Arcade Paradise certainly loves it just as much as you.
You’re a no-good, good-for-nothing young adult, freshly dropped out from University. Your eternally disappointed father has entrusted a neglected laundromat to you. Try not to screw this one up. Not far into the daily drudgery, you find the key to the back room, and within it is imprisoned two arcade cabinets. Encouraged by your sister, you build from those two cabinets to an empire.
Arcade Paradise presents you with some light management requirements. You need to keep the place clean, keep the machines running, and trade in those quarters for new machines. While you’re at it, doing people’s laundry is a decent way to pad your pockets. Everything’s a game, from plunging the toilet to picking up wads of gum. The games too. Those are games.
Each of the arcade cabinets you bring in can be played and are their own self-contained game-within-a-game. While some of them are extremely derivative of popular arcade games from a bygone era, others are pretty clever little creations. The thing is: you never really know what to expect.
A living monolith
I’m usually pretty wary of games that consist of games-within-games. Compilations of previously non-existent games usually don’t work out unless it’s Retro Game Challenge or The Dread X Collection. Indeed, you’re not going to find a game that can stand tall next to Final Fight in Arcade Paradise’s mix. However, I did discover that a lot of what is on offer isn’t nearly as bad as I feared.
Arcade Paradise exists in a nebulous time period. It doesn’t seem interested in emulating a certain point in arcade history. You’ll get an antique Pong cabinet and can place it beside what is essentially Dance Dance Revolution. There’s some indication that this is supposed to be the ‘90s, but really, it’s like if you took the ‘70s to the early ‘00s and blended them together. I’ve been in arcades where I could cross the room from Bubble Bobble and sit down at Crazy Taxi, but it’s important to note that you won’t get any direct historical perspective here.
There seems to have been a deliberate willingness to sacrifice an authentic arcade experience. Some concepts are contrary to the limitations of the arcade, such as progress. Some games allow you to buy upgrades and keep them permanently, essentially making the game easier over time. While a normal cabinet presents an endurance challenge that can only be overcome using skill, practice, and quarters, Arcade Paradise would rather you enjoy yourself.
The central money-making mechanic to Arcade Paradise is popularity, which is increased as you play them. You can complete goals to boost the cabinet’s fame, but simply spending a lot of time on them makes them more popular. The goals run from reaching a certain score threshold to pulling off certain feats.
Initially, this approach to the game is pretty cool. You try to juggle clearing objectives with keeping the place clean and the laundry done. New cabinets and building upgrades come pretty quickly. If you’re doing things right, you can sometimes finish days by adding two new cabs to your collection.
It starts to sag in the later sections. Eventually, laundry will just get in the way, but there’s no punishment for ignoring it. Certain goals are galling and require you to grind away at cabinets for far too long. 1000km in Space Race Simulator when the entire track is maybe 40km in total? It’s just not worth it. And you really must think I’m obsessed with Knuckles and Knees to think I’m going to level up every character to their maximum.
Chop all day long
To make matters worse, the release candidate that I was playing has a litany of bugs that get in the way. Certain goals would just not trigger, which is bad enough. However, there’s a second list of more general goals on your to-do list, and many of them just wouldn’t count properly. I had a goal for Vostok 2093 that wanted me to take out a certain number of enemies, and I guess I did that too well because it flipped over to something like -800. In Racer Chaser, it wanted me to clear all three mazes, but after clearing the last one, the count reset from 2 of 3 to 1 of 3. These seem like rather simple problems that can be patched up before the release, but they made my experience rather frustrating.
Even without the bugs, later sections of Arcade Paradise seem to drag. Ironically, there simply isn’t a lot to do around the arcade except bang away at goals, and that can get old. I finished Barkanoid and Bugai the first time I sat down with them, I don’t really want to keep playing just to clear some additional tasks. They’re fun, but not that fun.
Begging for chores
After I finally got things tied up at Arcade Paradise, the overwhelming feeling I had was that it overstayed its welcome. As it dragged on, it slid from an absolute joy to something of a chore. There are a few reasons for this.
The managerial elements to the game are decidedly weak. It’s obvious that the development team intended to focus on creating a slew of games, and to that point, they succeeded with over 30 of them. However, like in any arcade, the games are largely hit and miss. There are times that I wanted to step back from trying to complete goals on games I already conquered and maybe do some work around the arcade. No? There’s just emptying the coin hoppers and fixing bugged-out games? Okay. I can’t believe I’m wishing for chores to distract me from video games. What have I become?
I feel like the managerial side of Arcade Paradise needs to better inform the part where you just play games endlessly and vice versa. In the beginning, having to pull yourself away from your high score to move someone’s laundry into the dryer is a fun twist, but there’s nothing similar to that in the end game. You’re just playing games, waiting for the quarters to pile up so you can buy the next upgrade. Even if Arcade Paradise instead tried to present an authentic representation of the arcade experience, I feel that would have added more value. Instead, it sits in an uncomfortable middle ground like a directionless teenager.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]