I don’t understand why it’s taken us until 2014 to get a PC game about managing an arcade. There was a time when it was basically all I wanted to do, and I STILL think, even in a time when arcades are basically dead, that I could make one work. Obviously, I had to buy Arcadecraft, just to see if I was talking out of my arse.
The game is based in the arcade boom of 1980-1986, an incredibly specific and important nostalgic period. Given that I wasn’t born until 1987 (Incidentally, also the year of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’), I shouldn’t have the kind of affection for it that I actually do. I’m a bit of a videogame historian, having gone back and played not just the popular games of the period, but also the ones just under the radar. Essentially, this means I’ve played a lot of clones of Space Invaders.
Presumably, it’s called ‘Arcadecraft’ because ‘Theme Arcade’ would’ve gotten them sued, in much the same way that in-game titles like ‘Crawler’ and ‘Gorilla’ are Please-Don’t-Sue-Me approximations of Centipede and Donkey Kong. Starting as an XBLIG title, I can understand the need for the ‘-craft’ suffix since I think the only things that once sold over there were sub-par rip-offs of Minecraft (and The Impossible Game).
Basic gameplay sees you purchasing, placing, managing, repairing and selling arcade machines and the premises you’re placing them in, trying to make a profit from all the gullible youths with too much of their parents’ money. There’s also little in-game events, one of which is the biggest power fantasy of all gamers ever: a ‘pro gamer’, who is SO good that people actively flock to your arcade to watch him play. You can also get the occasional import machine from a helpful Japanese guy, which are well worth investing in and have the distinctive ‘sit down’ style of Japanese arcade machines.
Within the first half an hour, I had the strongest sense of “buyer’s remorse” I think I’ve felt since paying £65 for the steelbook edition of Perfect Dark Zero. I was absolutely terrible at this game, and it seemed like I’d never get any better. How the hell, I thought, am I going to pay back a $13,000 loan (a LOT of money, in 1980) when my paltry three machines only make $500 each every five minutes, and I have to pay for electricity, new machines, rent and cosmetic updates to keep the place ‘popular’?
Then, something clicked and I had my ‘eureka moment’ when I realised that my approach had been all wrong. I was in the line of thinking that, since it’s a ‘management sim’ in Steam’s ‘Casual’ category, I could take it slow. You can’t. You absolutely cannot, for one second, take your eye off every minute detail of your neon playground or else you’ll spiral into poverty quicker than Ke$ha in a cosmetics shop. You have to work at it, as if it’s an actual job.
Emptying machines because they’re filling up too fast, tweaking difficulty settings and costs to maximise on popularity, unjamming coin slots, kicking out abusive assholes… You need to become the sort-of person you’d hate working for, an obsessive micro-manager who needs everything done five minutes ago. Worryingly, I found this all very gratifying. It’s a pleasing sight in the brief couple of seconds you have between needing to empty machines, when you spy a floor full of thirty bustling arcade cabs. Because you’ve done your job properly, the place is filled with little Xbox Avatar-styled people enjoying themselves, each one spouting ‘Winning!’ in little speech bubbles like Charlie Sheen with a Donkey Kong addiction.
Arcadecraft’s release came after a pass through GreenLight and a period of Early Access availability. I’m still dubious about Early Access – With a few exceptions (Looking at you, Starbound), I generally only purchase games before release is if they’ll arrive a day early through the post, or I get some kind of nifty physical object. You can’t sway me with in-game content or dressing up the ability to play a buggy beta version as “watching the game take shape”. This is important, because it frames probably my biggest criticism.
As you progress, menu options unlock and give you more freedom to do things. Stuff like hiring an employee who does less work than you do or getting ‘seasonal’ decorations, with the only two ‘seasons’ being Halloween and Christmas. There’s one more, “New Location!” (exclamation mark and everything) that, when you select it, tells you that you CAN’T move to a new location because it’s not in the game, instead being added in a ‘future content update’.
This leaves me confused. Your game was in Early Access because it wasn’t yet finished. Fair enough. You move OUT of Early Access because your game IS finished, and is ready to be sold as a game that is ‘done’. Well done on using the system for its intended purpose. Except your game ISN’T finished because part of it is still missing, while still being an option within the game. So, follow me here: If the game isn’t actually finished, why is it out of Early Access?
Annoyingly, the inclusion of blatantly ‘unfinished’ bits doesn’t end there.
Just as you’re riding high at the end of 1986, the game ends. Or rather, it doesn’t, because your secretary pops onto the screen to tell you that you can keep going if you want, but nobody is releasing new machines and that maybe the game will be extended properly into 1987 in a future content update. This is stupid.
Either end your game, or don’t. Have a strong “sell up and get out before the bubble pops” moment or make a point of the endless continuation being a positive, designed feature. Don’t go with “well, the game ends here because we’ve run out of stuff to do but maybe we’ll add more later on, I dunno”, because that belittles the player’s desire to continue and doesn’t leave them with any solid, ultimate achievement. The original XBLIG version forcefully ended after 1986 and featured an online leaderboard, comparing your cumulative profits against other people. This is a GOOD IDEA and one that is, for some unfathomable reason, not in the PC release. Probably reserved for a ‘future content update’.
Visual presentation is great, on the whole. The ‘people’ look like those plastic, Mii-influenced avatars that the Xbox uses, but there’s a nice variety of them, so you never end up thinking that your entire audience is just one guy with deep pockets. The surroundings are great, with lots of options for customisation (I especially enjoy the neon strip-lights, because those make everything better).
But the real graphical delight is the arcade cabs themselves. Each one of the fictional games has its own marquees and sideart, with a little digital display of what the game MIGHT look like if you were playing it (Side note: Developers, if you’re reading this, please actually go make these games. An arcade sim in which you can actually play the games you’re offering would be amazing. You’re welcome). Not that you’ll ever notice because of the blistering pace, but if you DO catch yourself with a couple of spare seconds, zoom in and have a look at a few.
The music is all over the place. The title screen has inoffensive instrumental ‘crap rock’ that sounds like it’s been lifted from one of those shovelware racing games on the Wii. There’s no background music within the game unless you purchase a jukebox which, it being the 80’s, you obviously do. The tunes that come out of it vary wildly from beepy-boopy pleasantry to more anachronistic ‘crap rock’ and while I can appreciate that the developers couldn’t afford licensed tracks, could we not have applied the same ‘similar but just different enough to be legal’ approach to the music as we did to the arcade cabs?
On the other hand, the rest of the sound design is on point. Machines make suitable ‘boop’ noises, creating a raucous cacophony of noise that simulates the audio atmosphere of a real arcade with annoying realism, and there’s a satisfying ‘thud’ noise while you’re banging a machine on the floor to unstick the coin slot. One particularly great example is the ‘Angry Star’ machine, which spouts synthesized threats of ‘INSERT COIN IF YOU DARE’ in a way that perfectly represents the game’s real-life terrifying counterpart, Sinistar.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about Arcadecraft. The gameplay is faster and more frantic than most management sims, and with each of the six playable years taking about an hour each, it’s neither too short nor does it overstay its welcome (even if it doesn’t end properly). It’s an affectionate game, taking great care to pay nostalgic homage to the period it represents with a pleasing mix of gameplay simplicity and a cut-throat fast pace to make you wish the crash never happened.
Bottom line: Early Access issues notwithstanding, a pleasant way to spend six misty-eyed hours of nostalgic longing.
The Proof Box
‘The Proof Box’ is a potentially spoilerrific section at the end of the review where I provide visual proof that I’ve played the game being reviewed for reasonable enough time to form a fair opinion. Click the link below to view images proving that I have, in fact, played this game.