Arcade Spirits The New Challengers
In February, what began as a fun little article highlighting LGBTQA+ romance in video games for Valentine's Day lead to an opportunity that I was happy to embark on. For Valentine's Day, I made a small top three list of my personal favorite games that featured queer romance or gave the player an option to engage in romance themselves and Arcade Spirits was one of the titles that made the list. While finding love wasn't the primary focus, it was an option that was always granted to the player should they wish to pursue it. Part of my reason for including it on the list was that the player had as much agency to woo their love interest as they did in making things purely platonic. To this day I hadn't seen another game make an example of an aromatic and asexual relationship. Fiction Factory Games does a great attempt at doing this twice with Arcade Spirits The New Challengers.
It's interesting when this same option is given to the player in the beginning of The New Challengers, mirroring that of the first game. As I would quickly realize, there are many parallels between The New Challengers and the original Arcade Spirits. Both games feature an unemployed misguided protagonist who ends up in a chance encounter with a motley crew of individuals. Acquaintances and teammates become trusted friends, family, and with some, even marriage. Before I dive too deep into the romance, let's dial things back to the original Arcade Spirits. I want to give special thanks to Fiction Factory Games and PQube for allowing me a chance to review their sequel after already showing the original with much praise last year.
Arcade Spirits was a game that combined the romanticization of arcade culture with the melodrama of a dramatic plot. When my dear Ocelot (I am using the names I gave my protagonists from Arcade Spirits and The New Challengers, there's rhyme and reason for this trust me) became the manager of the Funplex, she knew nothing about running an arcade. Her co-workers and arcade regulars also doubled as confidants that she would build trusting relationships. It was due to her friendships and relationships that ultimately were keys to thwarting a multi-million dollar entertainment business scandal. In the end, Ocelot and her premiere arcade, Arcade Spirits, would remain a staple and an example of the "little guys" winning over "big corpo."
Several years after the events of Arcade Spirits and eSports has kicked off far greater than it did in the first game, where it was seen as an up-and-coming rise in gaming. In The New Challengers, "Fist of Discomfort 2" is the most popular eSport and our protagonist is a player who lives and breathes "FoD2". An unemployed 20-something with dreams of becoming the next Faker and Doublelift, our protagonist, who I've named Pluma, downloads the Iris app from the first game with the promise of "getting the player on the best FoD 2 team" according to their needs.
Already the callback to Arcade Spirits is set in motion as this was how Ocelot got her start. An unemployed 20-something who allows Iris to land her a job at bringing a failing arcade from the jaws of defeat. Rather than give the player a gargantuan task, fortunately, there are no arcades to save. The main arcade in The New Challengers is serving good business in Chinatown, run by Ben and Matt. In the first game, Ben and Matt ran an eccentric cafe that combined two unlikely things and made it a possibility. In the second game, perhaps being inspired by Ocelot (Or Ari if we're going by Arcade Spirits' default name for its protagonist), they start up Good Clean Fun. A laundromat, pizzeria, and arcade hybrid, Good Clean Fun is not only the home of "Team GCF," but it's also a neat reference to arcade culture in the 80s and 90s.
Fiction Factory Games had done a great job in subtly referencing old-school gaming culture with the newer nuances of PC and eSports gaming. The concept of a laundromat and a pizzeria combined makes sense as most locations had an arcade cabinet somewhere. Arcades and pizza pair well together as well as a laundromat when one had to wait for their clothes to dry. While not as extreme as an example of combining all three together, these relics exist back in the day and it's a location that I'd love to visit in real life someday. This cozy environment is the stomping grounds of "Team GCF," a group of friends who aren't obsessed with the thrill of victory, more so just enjoying their time away from the stress of life.
The central characters in The New Challengers I feel were stronger than the roster in the original game. Jynx alone was a very well-executed character as creating a disabled character with syringomyelia that feels more realistic and less of a caricature is always a powerful balance when used correctly. I felt like Jynx was that kind of character as it showed her being capable of being at the same skill level as other abled competitors while using modifications best suited for her. One of her specialties is racing games, meaning that one of the machines has to be specially altered to accommodate her weak legs by having the pedals operate separately from the rest of the machine.
Eventually, the main antagonists Play-2-Win, or P2W, appear to show how "charming" their team is by absolutely hogging the handicapped space and being full-on ableists. The protagonist of course doesn't take kindly to their friend being disrespected, yet even my dear Pluma knows when not to overstep boundaries. The first interaction with Jynx is "cringe," with the protagonist saying and doing all of the wrong things you shouldn't do to a disabled person. The protagonist quickly realizes their mistake and the friendship between Jynx and Pluma flourishes.
On the other end, Domino is a character that doesn't outright state it, but he makes a sound argument for others with mental disorders. His way of nihilistic thinking goes beyond the realm of merely "self-deprecation for laughs," but there are some underlying problems that Domino doesn't open up about unless he's able to trust the player. Much like Jynx, as will be a common thread among Team GCF, most of Domino's "issues" are internalized in a "the rest of the group will look at me differently if I address these issues" kind of way. Domino also hit a bit close to home as he reminded me of a good friend of mine I know in real life down to his shmup skills. Even those that don't appear to have problems, like Zapper, are the ones who deal with the most.
Zapper was the one I ultimately chose as my love interest and she's a tomboy who is into lightgun shooters as well as fantasy violence. On the contrary, she doesn't like the extent of realism that games tend to go for, as the appeal of video games is the "gamey" aspect and not so much how close to reality it is. There are also internalized demons including being a hypocrite, a woman in a male-dominated space, and the authenticity of her personality. Everyone's insecurities actually serve as The New Challengers' "B-Plot" which ultimately leads to the "final boss."
Rounding out the characters that made a lasting impression on me was Rhapsody as their story was the most relatable to me and not just because they happen to be non-binary. From the beginning, Rhapsody's major insecurity is being able to cast and commentate on other competitors but failing to make the same success as their own. In my epilogue, they would become an eSports coach after overcoming the harsh thoughts that being a commentator or a coach meant you failed as a competitor. There are many ways to be involved in a competitive community and an example is what I do for a day job, writing about games. In Rhapsody's case, they help other players get better and it's not something a lot of people in the scene can say they do.
Before any of this, the game detects if you have a completed Arcade Spirits save file ahead of starting The New Challengers. Conveniently, in my Arcade Spirits playthrough, I had my arcade owner romance QueenBee, one of the most eccentric, unapologetic, yet honest characters from the first game as well as one of the best FoD players from the first game. Both characters make an appearance and both serve as "mentor" status to The New Challengers' hero.
While other side characters appear from the first game, unfortunately, none of the staff from Arcade Spirits return. It would have been cool to see what became of Gavin, Naomi, and Ashley. Sure characters like Percy is mentioned, mainly for his record-setting status, but their appearance in the second half of the story is even lampshaded as a "deja vu" moment.
The New Challengers felt more like a "choose your own adventure" than the first game did by offering branching storylines. The ever-popular "Polybius" urban myth returns in The New Challengers, this time as a potential central piece to the story. In the game's finale, the Polybius arcade machine can potentially become a major part in "saving the day," especially if the player had invested time in Locksley's route. Locksley is The New Challengers' version of a "gaming Robin Hood," taking advantage of illicit gaming practices and giving back to the community who have been victims of it. He has also investigated Polybius as it serves as a connection to Iris, the AI prominently featured in both games.
While I won't spoil the ending, compared to Arcade Spirits, I felt as if the stakes weren't as high in proportion to the number of crimes taking place. In the first game, Deco Nami was played to be a cartoon villain yet his goal was essentially a monopoly of the "family fun center" aesthetic. In The New Challengers, it's about a rival with a dream that aligns with the protagonist in being successful as an esports player, The rival's personality, depending on whether they are a friend or a hostile rival, greatly changes the game's ending as well as their motives for their actions.
While in some routes the player can even romance their rival, these are all options given to the player early on with no chance of changing these traits unless the player starts a new file. I understand the rival serves as a foil for the protagonist but I wish they were more fleshed out, maybe even having a change of heart, depending on how much the protagonist interacts with them. Much like the first game, depending on if the player had properly spoken to each character, they will ultimately decide to stay with the team or leave on their own. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to talk to others in this game as opposed to the prequel and the core gameplay remains the same.
The characters the player wishes to invest their time in, either romantically or as a gaming partner, will take priority over others but there's always a chance for the player to visit other characters during free time events. Most of the ending sequences, like the previous game, give the player a chance to make any last-minute adjustments before the final arc begins. I'm making a lot of comparisons to Arcade Spirits but that goes to show how high of a bar the original game sets. Arcade Spirits was an amazing game although it had its quirks in combining romance, a "video game" story, as well as casting a spotlight on the gaming culture. The sequel does a better job at showing the "community" aspect of the "fighting game community," yet the plot isn't always straightforward due to the existence of rogue AI and other character motives.
I don't exactly agree with the ending as the main antagonists got away with literal attempted murder, larceny, and other serious felonies and crimes, but it does have a "feel good" ending. The laundromat crew would go on to win multiple awards, in my playthrough the rival joins our team, and the secondary antagonist is ostracized by the community, rightfully so. I didn't get a chance to feel the closeness with the laundromat crew as I did with the arcade crew due to the pacing of the second game. The plot is far simpler than reviving a former arcade to its glory, but it also allows a dynamic cast to come forth rather than "these are my co-workers."
As it turns out, being player-manager of a team and having your lead sponsor be the successful arcade that the player helped develop in the first game was a great deal of accomplishment. It felt like I helped one protagonist with her dreams in the previous game, so she's able to help others in their dreams in other games as well. I love it when games do this as it keeps the connection of the original game alive in a way that helps the plot. The Atelier Sophie games are great examples of these as Sophie makes an appearance helping other young alchemists in other games long after her chapter is finished.
Overall, Arcade Spirits The New Challengers is an absolute must-play for fans of the original Arcade Spirits as it provides enough context of the previous game to enjoy the plot and the characters of the sequel. Referencing the player's own events from the previous game also helps with keeping a consistent world that I, the player, helped create. Part of why I adore Dragon Age is because from the first game to the latest, I created my world and I'm responsible for what may happen to those who experience it. It's also what made each subsequent run of Road 96 an engaging one. While I won't recommend playing this as a "standalone" title, as a complete "1-2 Package," both Arcade Sprit titles are well worth a weekend to put quarters up.
Arcade Spirits The New Challengers is now available on PC, the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 4 and 5.