Video Game Review: Arcade Spirits

Naomi Fairchild – one of my favorite characters, personally – is a total sweetheart of a retro arcade cabinet repair nerd.

A few weeks ago, we posted that Arcade Spirits would be coming to consoles. That includes digital copies that were available May 1st, to the physical copies coming to North American stores on the 22nd. I received an email with the code for the Switch a few days ago, and since then, I’ve barely been able to put it down.

I must admit, I was super excited to get the chance to write a review for this game. Arcade Spirits has been on my wishlist for Steam since it came out, but I never looked deep into it. It isn’t common for gamers to go in “blind” with games these days, but I’ve always been a girl to trust my gut. In this case? Totally not disappointed. You can see plenty of the basic information on their website, here.

That’s where I fell in love with it by the premise, myself. The tagline reads, “A tale of love in a time of quarters” and it declares itself a Visual Novel of the Romantic Comedy flavor. Ever a fan of media that doesn’t take itself too seriously, I somehow knew that this game was made by a team of people I would feel comfortable hanging out with. That’s not something I feel very often, even with other games that I love.

I haven’t played so many Visual Novels outside of old flash Dating Sims that had a decent story (for what they were) and a few sparse ones that I picked up here and there. However, I have done a fair bit of reading in my life, and any story that captures my attention long enough for me to finish it is pretty good, by my measure.

Now, on to the various criteria. I’ll be outlining my thoughts on the: GameplayGraphicsStory, Audio, and more minor criteria like Replayability and Originality.

Gameplay

As most Visual Novels, Arcade Spirits is mostly played by the push of a single button. It is mostly reading a novel, after all. The difference is that Visual Novels these days are a welcome addition to the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) books and games that preceded them. The typical trope with Visual Novels is that they’re anime style, the kind of thing you imagine when you hear the word, “Otaku” if you’re familiar with Japanese culture. You can throw a stone in a Steam sale and hit a dozen of these games, but not all of them have the heart that this one does. You can see it in every line.

I really felt like this was written by people like me and that feeling is always so refreshing. To feel like a game is made by someone who shares your experiences is a form of representation I’m not all that familiar with, but glad to see. I’ve read stories and seen games made by teams with queer artists, and I see the glimpses of their input and flavor, but never have I seen it shine so brightly as I did in this game.

The choices were what took me the longest to deal with. I found myself actually caring about the story and the characters: My heart panging when characters were sad or upset or opening up to me about their less-than-stellar childhood experiences, feeling anger and resentment for the various villains, etc. This left me struggling to make choices because I actually cared about the results (and I’m not one to ‘save scum‘ with games like this).

The way you make those choices is customizable, allowing you to forego romance entirely or to get rid of the guide that tells you what dialogue choices have what effect. The main premise of how you interact through those choices is how you come off to the characters you’re interacting with. You have choices from Kindly, Gutsy, Steady, Quirky, and Basically. Naturally, every character has their own style from these choices, with not one single main cast character being basic. Being basic, in this case, means more like “playing it safe”, which doesn’t really score you any points.

Yes! You heard me! This game has a points system! Personally, I like it, because it associates forward progress with a classic reward, even if the game seems forgiving enough for them to seem arbitrary.

Overall, I was happy with the gameplay for a Visual Novel. There is a focus on the choices, but the game tells you through your personal AI assistant that your choices shouldn’t be a reason to sweat. As anyone with anxiety will tell you, this is like anyone who has ever told you, “Just be yourself!” and it can have the opposite effect. That said, I didn’t find myself sweating too much, even with how invested I was and how difficult I found the decisions sometimes. My end statement in every argument I had with myself ended with, “This is how I’m doing this playthrough. Let’s just see where this path goes.”

Graphics

QueenBee schooling noobs in the eSport-level competitive game Arcade Spirits features, Fist of Discomfort

I was absolutely in love with the art style from the moment I saw screenshots of the game. The characters all really look like they just stepped out an alternate universe near-future Earth where arcades and games, in general, hold a lot more focus than they do even today. I found myself soaking in the backgrounds and looking at the little details as if it was a point-and-click game.

The whole game is very nostalgic, in this way. A bright pink neon style sign for a title screen told me that I’d be having many flashbacks to my own time spent at various arcades in my youth. This was 100% accurate, but I’ll get to that later when I talk about the story. Every character that is visible is painstakingly made to really give off the vibe of who they are. Of course, as with all such media, every character is a regular person but exaggerated, and that is reflected in how they look.

Not only do they have that real spirit about them, as good art should, but the art itself is crisp and clean. For the most part, at least. I noticed a few little issues with some background characters or side characters, but nothing worth nitpicking over. If anything, such imperfections are what give the art its charm. Again, this is a theme that will become relevant again as I get into the story.

One of my favorite aspects of the art was the use of what I consider to be the game’s unofficial mascot, a cute little penguin that shows up in various places and forms. I first saw him in my apartment on a shelf, and then later at the arcade on a motivational poster that reads, “Penguin There, Baby!”, he’s even the face of the accountant’s favorite pinball game, Pengy Pinball. Needless to say, I love penguins! Every time I spotted him, I smiled, and that’s a common theme I found in this game.

The expressions on the characters, even, really show you not only how they feel, but subtly shows you how human they really are. The voice actors really capture this and add punch to the art. Speaking of, let’s get to-

Audio

The moment I heard the title music, I knew I was in for good background music and nostalgic arcade sounds. It took me a mere second to pick the sounds of Galaga in the arcade you find yourself in by the first chapter. The game has always been one of my favorites, and this really hit home for what an arcade feels and sounds like, to me. I’ve long believed that if an arcade doesn’t have a Galaga machine of some variety, it’s no good. The only worse sin for an arcade, by my measure, is for that Galaga machine to be broken somehow (I still resent you, faulty ‘fire’ button…)

Anyway, I digress. For the most part, my initial thoughts were right about the music. I loved it all. It reminded me of Com Truise, an EDM artist, but if he was paid to make background music for a Visual Novel. It isn’t spectacular, exactly, nothing you’re likely to pay to download or have physically, but it is thematically appropriate and pleasant to listen to.

The biggest issue I had with such music was that it would cut off as scenes transitioned in a jarring way, leaving me wondering why the music suddenly stopped as if something bad was about to happen. A new song would start, but the gap and the lack of a fade took me out of my immersion every time.

Related to this, I had an issue with the volume level for most of the audio on the Switch. I can’t speak for the other versions such as PC or anything, but even at max volume, with and without headphones, I had to really listen to hear properly. It worries me that maybe someone with hearing issues would be unable to enjoy the audio due to this flaw, but I also listen to music quite loudly in my headphones. I appreciated that the music would turn down when the characters were speaking, but I kept finding myself wishing that it was louder overall so I could really feel more immersed since low volume can make it hard to hear the depth of all the sounds.

The worst part of this was one particular sound effect in the final chapter. It was so loud (thanks to my volume being all the way up the whole game) that it startled me and hurt my ears. This seemed like an oversight by Quality Assurance and made me more frustrated about the volume levels and equalization than I would have been otherwise.

Voice Actors

Now, the voice actors? Amazing. Charming. Beautiful voices, all of them, and well-performed. Whether the performance is thanks to the talented voice actors themselves or the Voice Director, Jacob Burgess, who also plays a side character named Matt (one of my favorite characters and voices), I’m not sure, but I assume it is a combination of both.

There was not one single line of dialogue spoken by the VA’s that left me thinking, “That could have been delivered better.” I often find this issue with cartoons and even in high-budget movies. I have a knack for telling when someone sounds genuine or not, having an auditory focus when it comes to most things. Music is what I consider my religion, after all.

In particular, I really enjoyed the work done by Nazia Chaudhry, who voiced the character I ended up romancing, QueenBee. She is a firecracker! Full of passion and guts, driven by competition and struggling in a man’s profession thanks to discrimination, swearing up a storm, but still having this really well-portrayed softer side that was tender, human, and caring.

Overall, I really enjoyed the voice acting. As with all the things I enjoyed about this game, I wish there was far more of it, but that just speaks to how well it was done. I want more music, more voice acting, more story, more graphics, characters, and backgrounds! But ultimately, that comes down to budgets, and for this small team’s first real game together, this is truly a gem that has me wishing for more from them, sequels to this story or not.

Story

Now, the most important part: Is the story engaging and worth exploring for the cost of the game? My answer is a resounding absolutely. Of course, that cost differs depending on how you choose to buy it, with Steam’s PC version being half the cost of the version I played on the Switch. That said, if you don’t have the option of playing it on PC, this game is still worth that increase in cost if you only have a Switch or another console, considering the depth and the replayability alone.

Were there a few moments in the story where I struggled to accept the characters, the dialogue, etc.? Of course. No game has ever really gotten a perfect score from me, personally, because, like the accountant character, Gavin, “my standards are impossibly high”. However, as I said above, the imperfections are what give this game its charm, and it is very self-aware about that.

One of the big messages I got from the plot was that most small-time folks who really have the heart and passion to do things right often don’t get the chance to truly shine because they’re overshadowed by bigger companies, conglomerates that sacrificed their soul a long time ago and never looked back. Its a story about chasing dreams over profits and that is something that really resonated with me. Without getting too political, it discusses heavy topics and issues with our society through the various characters, who all really embody their characters through their personal struggles with that society.

The story, as I briefly mentioned above, is set in an alternate universe Earth where the dates are not concrete (the date reads 20XX, as if it is redacted). The alternate universe is based on, “What if our world never suffered the big gaming crash of 1983?” which is a quote pulled from the site and descriptions of the game where it is sold online. It even mentions E.T., an infamously bad game, but not by name.

In the world of Arcade Spirit, arcades are still alive and well, while in our world they are declining more and more in popularity. Especially now, I can’t imagine many arcades will make it through this pandemic except for those owned by big companies, which circles back to the message this game holds at its core: Big companies are the true villains where artistic expression is concerned, using it as a means to further their capitalist pursuits of monopolizing entertainment.

On that note, I’m gonna digress for a minute and talk about how great indie games and the people that make them are:

That’s what is so great about indie games. They don’t need to have big budgets and teams. They prove that just a small team, even a solo person, can put together an enjoyable experience that has meaning, allows them an outlet for self-expression, and allows others to see them through the world they’ve created. Artists can be strange folks, but I believe that most of us have some degree of desire for artistic expression, even if that amounts to performative storytelling for your friends and family and nothing more.

Retro arcade games capture that spirit and stand strong as solid pillars of the foundation of gaming even to this day. It can be surprising for someone younger than you to enjoy a game that came out before even you were alive, but that’s how gaming works. They may play on emulators or they may not appreciate it in the same way that you did, but they still put that time into the things they love to do. And that’s what gaming is for many of us, isn’t it? An escape. A way to forget about other things for a while and get involved in a world that is different, or as a different character in our own world.

Artists, where it comes to games, have a much harder job than most artists who focus on other mediums. They are limited by budgets and technology both, as well as the constraints of the markets, pressured to craft an experience worth paying hard-earned money for while accepting a compensation that is typically not enough, at least in my opinion. Not only that, but as many articles have talked about over the past several years, “Crunch Culture” was a dirty secret swept under the rug for a long time. The exploitation of the game designer was leveraged with the idea that anyone who makes games for a living “should be so lucky”.

Okay, now back to the story!

Overall, I was caught up in the story and really felt like the characters mattered to me. I enjoyed the way each of them was written, even while noticing a few things I personally disagreed with about how this or that character should respond. But that’s my own taste as a writer, and certainly not any reason to take away points from the game or the story. Again, my biggest complaint is that I want more. The game ended too soon but had a cohesive plot that made sense and took me on a journey, a rollercoaster of emotions.

The foreshadowing, the small details, and throwbacks to gaming culture and gaming history, all really give this story depth and accuracy. There were several times as I was reading that I found myself thinking back to my own experiences with arcade games and the various fun and strange characters I’d met in them. I’ve met the DDR fanatics who could ace top tier songs, impressed by how well they could play a game I found so difficult. I’ve met the super-competitive types who were sore winners, hating it when I would beat them in a head-to-head game. I’ve met skeeball masters and pinball wizards, beaten The Simpsons game, and the TMNT game both with friends and so much more!

Truly, anyone who has missed out on the classic experience of the arcade has missed something I consider an integral part of my gaming career. This game made me remember that and truly realize it, remembering how my mother would take me and my friends to an arcade at a mall almost two hours from our house because it just had the best games available in that radius. It was sadly replaced by an aquarium years later, and I have to say I resent that.

The ending, the real ending (not the fake-out ending I was shocked by), is satisfying and leaves me wanting more. Even better, it teased that there may be more, offering to export my data to allow me to use it in any future releases. I have to say, I was excited at the prospect of a sequel to this game that allowed me to keep my character and my choices. It isn’t unheard of, but it was certainly a nice touch that made me hopeful. Hopefully, that hope doesn’t turn into disappointment. Then again, how could I be disappointed with such a charming, refreshing, immersive experience of a story? If it ends here, then it ended on a great note!

Replayability, Originality, and Other Notes

Replayability is a solid 10/10 for me. Not only was this a game I picked up and wanted to finish as soon as possible, but one that I look forward to replaying. Let me tell you, that almost NEVER happens to me. Not only do I have an issue finishing games, but wanting to play again as soon as I’m done with one playthrough? Unheard of. The amount of choices you can make is nothing to scoff at, and the way that you can experience those choices is customizable, as discussed above. Maybe next time I’ll try a totally different path, try to find a different ending. Or maybe I’ll try to go in with no dialogue markers to shake things up a bit more. Maybe both?

As for originality, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard such messages in a story, right? I mean, even Wreck-it Ralph, a movie made by a multi-billion dollar empire, has such a message, even if only a glimpse. The premise of the story and the game itself, however, left me surprised with how fresh it felt. I loved the twists and turns, the handmade and homemade feel of it, the ambiance, the style. It comes together in a package that turns surprisingly deep as soon as you get into it. It feels real and relatable and captured not only my mind but my heart.

I’ll admit, I’m new to reviewing games, and I hate to sound like I’m rambling, gushing about this game, but that’s exactly how it felt every time I would show my wife something going on in the story, or talk about it with her. I wholly fell in love with this world and its characters. I want to work at an arcade, even if it has to be one of those newer model “barcades“, and I really can’t thank the team that made this game enough for giving me this experience. Needless to say, I recommend this game to anyone who enjoys Visual Novels and/or Romantic Comedies. I recommend it to just about anyone who enjoys games, to be honest, but as this game shows, that crowd is vast and varied, and I know that while this game got (mostly) high scores all around, not everyone is bound to love it as I do.

My last note is that I was definitely disappointed that you don’t get any way to play any of the retro games. I know this is a limitation they would have likely loved to overcome, so I can’t blame them, but it was definitely an itch I wanted to scratch, feeling immersed in the arcade setting the game accurately portrays.

Lastly, before I reveal the overall score I give this game based on the criteria listed above, I’d like to do another shout out!

Trans Shout Out!

Today my shout out goes to the Narrative Designer of Arcade Spirits, Aenne Schumann! By self-description, they’re a non-binary/genderqueer person that loves butts, sharks, and identifies as pansexual. They’ve worked on other projects such as World Next Door, has a Twitch channel, and has even worked as a game journalist for Press2Reset in her past. I am new to most of the people on this small team, but you can call me a fangirl of their work now, for sure! Go give them many follows and many thanks, they worked hard to make their dream a reality and inspire others to do the same!

Final Score

Okay, now, the final answer. What is the score I give this game, out of 10? It is worth noting that this game has earned several awards (prominently and rightly featured on their site), has received overall good reviews from what I could find, though I did notice some others criticizing the writing for being groan-worthy and having dialogue that doesn’t have enough polish for them. Those may be fair criticisms, but I certainly didn’t feel that the experience overall was made that much lesser than if it had more polished writing.

That said, I had a few issues with the overall quality of the game, but nothing I consider a huge sin. Is it a perfect 10? Definitely not. I can’t even give it a 9, myself. But I still consider an

8.5/10

a great score! All things told, if I hadn’t experienced the audio issues and seen as many errors in the text, I would have been happy to give this game a 9. As I said, an 8.5 is still a definite recommendation from me, no matter what flavor of gamer you are.

But I can’t lie, it was hard to fault this game because of how good it made me feel as I was playing it. That’s the point of games, in general, and while my purpose here is to basically tell you whether it is worth buying or waiting for a sale or not buying it at all, I have to tell you that supporting this team fully to experience this game is worth it. Obviously, not all of us are capable of shelling out even 10$ for a game when times are hard as they are now, but this is an art piece formed by the combined hearts of the team that worked on it, and that value goes far beyond our concept of currency.

That’s all from me, thanks for reading!

About BaileyQG

Bailey started gaming under the wing of her grandmother who played RPG games on the Sega Genesis. Her first actual console was the N64, where she played games like Smash and Donkey Kong, but she really got into gaming with the rise of the PS1 and Dreamcast consoles alongside her trusty GameGirl that was always running Pokemon Blue (the first game she ever beat). Since then, she's played through 3 Xbox 360s, several Gameboys of different gens, a PS2, and a few PCs! Now mostly on PC and Switch, she spends her time at home when not at work, taking care of her disabled wife and their precious cat-baby, Tart.

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