This is Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, ‘It is the distant future year 20XX. Arcades and video gaming as a whole are a part of daily life’. What is this utopia? Arcades are part of daily life? Back in 198X (also a game!), that was the case; The Simpsons, TMNT, Vendetta, Out-Run… Alas, the scene has died (at least here in the UK).
Before entering this gaming paradise, you have to create an avatar. This is the fastest way to gaming second base with me; customisation is brill. However, to cater to the masses, the characters are quite… I don’t know – non-specific. Male and female characters are interchangeable, and there aren’t many options. There’s even a category for pronouns. That’s all great, but by having a broad approach, appearances are vague. In summary, I’m disgruntled that my character couldn’t have a beard!
Anyway, create your character, then pick a rival whom you have a friendly or hostile relationship with. You then have to download pirate software called Iris (what are you doing Fiction Factory Games and PQube? Encouraging piracy? Arrrr!). Iris is your personal assistant who adapts to your actions and general behaviours, allowing you to connect with people, make friends, and seek romance. Woooo!
Iris manages your traits into five categories:
Romance in Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is optional, and despite being a soppy so-and-so, I opted out and selected friendships only. One thing you can’t opt-out of (good) is the order and chaos actions. Iris will verify you as a disciple of one or the other for every weighted action. Perhaps you shoot straight down the middle? If interested, you can view your status and level at almost any point in the game, plus see how your relationships fare.
But this is all vague. What’s the point of Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers other than building wicked-good relationships? It begins with transitioning from hobbyist gamer to going pro in a specific game called Fist of Discomfort 2 (FoD2). After enlisting the assistance of your assistant Iris, you’ll head to a local laundromat/pizzeria/arcade and then befriend the local gamers in the hope of forming/joining their team.
Each character has a genre speciality, from FPS to driving games, and strategy to programming AI on retro devices. Not one of these characters feels like a stereotype and is unique in their particular way. I want to insert a vomit emoji here or similar, but there’s a real feel-good vibe in Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, though there’s a sprinkle of sensitive content included. I regretted opting out of romances as I was as smitten as I’m allowed to be with Zapper’s character.
What surprised and equally disappointed me was how quickly it was over. After forming a team, battling against my rival and winning, that was it. Only, there wasn’t a game over screen, and Iris allowed me to change my lame-ass appearance. I bit her digital digits off at the chance, swiftly finding out that I had levelled up and that the game was still very much in play. You unlock goodies in a sub-menu for each level you complete, such as artwork. And as a mid-footnote, it took me over 13 hours to complete my first playthrough, unlocking the option to revisit decision-making to unlock additional achievements.
Admittedly, I found it hard to connect with Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers at first. The artwork is fantastic, but the customisation options felt very restrictive. Though they were far from a stereotype, besides Zapper, it was hard for me to relate to them at first. Perhaps a generational thing. I was around during the arcade scene, and it was nothing like this. In short, the big kids tended to hog Mortal Kombat and Out-Run, while grown-ups used to show off on Super Hang-On. If only there were a community as seen in this game.
Like in real life, your interactions matter. During most of the conversations (it’s a visual novel), you’ll have the option to respond using one of those traits mentioned earlier. Some characters react in a particular way, and, reality check: you can’t please everyone, so make your allegiances…NOW! Often, responses can be nuanced, and you pick a reply that was nothing like you imagined. The language is crystal clear in Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, and I can’t recall when I selected an option thinking it was misrepresented.
Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is like its vaporwave(?) soundtrack: dreamy nostalgia that doesn’t necessarily reflect the era’s realities. Granted, this is set in 20XX, but the 80s influence is everywhere, only, like with most modern interpretations, everything is better: better relationships, better music, better fashion, and lots of misplaced neon. As I’ve repeated for a long time, I’m not the greatest fan of visual novels, but Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a benchmark for the genre (especially as you get to play retro games).
If you enjoy/enjoyed this, check out Blake: The Visual Novel, too.