Place Your Quarter On The Cabinet
Long-time readers of 1UP Infinite will know I am no stranger to visual novels. Especially those of the romance variety. I've mentioned "otome" so much if I was asked to take a shot each time, it'd be a bad one. As much as I adore the VN genre, sometimes you just want to play one that speaks to you. As in, really speaks to you. This is what I felt as I wrapped up my playthrough of Arcade Spirits. Finally, a visual novel that embodies almost everything that makes me what I am as a fan of gaming.
Arcade Spirits was originally released on PC in early 2019, over three years ago. At the time of this writing, a sequel titled The New Challengers, referring to the tagline for Super Street Fighter 2. Those like myself who are afraid that they joined in on the arcade fun a bit too late will be happy to know that this is the best time to be invested. I played this over the weekend with the intention to take it at my leisure. What I experienced was a story that transcended beyond "gaming," but rather the concept of survival among other life lessons. Many things about Arcade Spirits hit me to the core largely due to personal life instances, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
You Are The Star Of The 'Cade
Every good story has a beginning and in Arcade Spirits case, it's a character creation screen. The customization isn't as expansive as, say, Nioh 2 or anything. For a visual novel, it's expansive enough to allow players to self-insert themselves as they wish. The protagonist has one general design but their hair, skin tone, and color of their outfit can be changed. Most importantly, the protagonist can be any gender the player desires. While these touches are minor, their effectiveness is greater in the bigger picture.
I literally saw myself in the protagonist I created. This first impression made me excited for the journey I was ready to embark. The heroine of Arcade Spirits is a 20-something redhead tomboy whose name is Ocelot Jhil. This is who I created, who I will be referring to, and I'll recount my decisions made during the playthrough. Due to the nature in which I usually dive deep into whatever game I thoroughly enjoy, there will be mild spoilers throughout the article. When I get to the "point of no return," I'll label the section as "heavy spoilers."
The story begins with Ocelot coming home after getting let go from their lifeguard job. Their roommate, Juniper, encourages her to try out a Phone A.I named Iris to help in looking for a new job. Iris is exactly the kind of helpful AI one would expect: A program with a chipper optimistic personality that has its user's better interest in mind. It also has a very abnormal penchant for Bagel Bites, often starting off with the iconic catchphrase before being silenced.
It's here that the game gives you its first taste of "freedom of choice." In "red pill blue pill" fashion, the player can decide not to engage in Iris's quirkiness and opt to look for a job in the newspaper. Doing so will confront the player with the "Are you sure?" prompt, in which will then lead to a resolution. The protagonist finds a successful stable job and grows up to raise a decent family that they are unable to fully enjoy. Some time passes and their former roommate will look saddened at their appearance, with the protagonist not knowing why.
This isn't the first time a prompt like this will occur and there are variations of this particular ending, some harsher than others. As I mentioned earlier, it's a red pill blue pill ordeal. You just decided to wake up from the dream and believe whatever you want to believe. Morpheus would be disappointed.
After deciding to trust the almost-sentient-it's-concerning AI, Ocelot is told what to expect during her day. This also extends as a tutorial for the player as they are told not to worry too much about dialogue choices. Arcade Spirits is a simple visual novel where your choices matter, but it won't lock you in a terrible situation. There are no "death" scenes, no grotesque imagery, or any of that nature. It's a game where the player can feel comfortable knowing that they are here to experience a story. A rag-to-riches one so to speak.
There are other options including the sexuality of the player, not so much their gender preference, but how much they're willing to look for romance. The player can decide to be a natural flirt or instead decide to focus on the task at hand and prefer friendships instead. There's also a middle ground, where the player would prefer to get to know the person first before developing romantic feelings. This was the option I chose for Ocelot and I felt this was the right choice for me. A different player may be a natural Cassanova and that's fine. I prefer building friendships first then relationships second. Some may not want any relationship at all. That's perfectly fine. This actually segues into some of the game's achievements but we'll come back to that later.
Eventually, we arrive at the Funplex, a literal "hole-in-the-wall" arcade that is run by an elderly woman named Francine. It begins subtly but Arcade Spirits has an entire meta that centers around Pac-Man introduced as early as Chapter 1. When Ocelot is introduced to Francine, one of the most notable accessories she has is a pair of earrings. A Pac-Man earring and a cherry earring, the latter referring to the first fruit Pac-Man eats in a playthrough. The Pac-Man maze extends through several screens over the course of Arcade Spirits but the references have only begun.
It'll be cool to talk to the writers about the leniency of licensing because several iconic games are dropped casually by name. Joust, Q*Bert, and the EVO championships are dropped casually. Other games like Phrase Invaders are far more delicately handled. Regardless, shortly after the player is introduced to Gavin, the arcade's accountant and de facto leader. Here the player can have an attempt at cracking a joke, which will proceed to fall flat on its face.
One thing I forgot to mention is how affinity and personality are tallied, beginning with the protagonist's dialogue choice. There are five types, Kindly, Quirky, Gutsy, and Steady. The fifth type is a neutral answer, perfect for when you don't wish to raise too much of a specific personality. That's because depending on how high your given personality is, the more it will affect certain important decisions within the story. There are no right or wrong answers, but there are preferred answers for raising someone's affinity. Gavin, for example, is a serious person so keeping a leveled head is a must. Likewise, showing compassion to Naomi will yield a greater result than showing the same action to someone else due to their personality. It's a matter of being kind to others while also being genuine.
After the player is introduced to Gavin, they are introduced to Naomi, the arcade's tech girl. No one is as involved in preserving arcade games as Naomi is, much like no one is invested in cosplay and costumes as Ashley is as well. Ashley is the final worker introduced who dresses up as the arcade's mascot and runs the floor. There are three co-workers and there are three regulars at the arcade, all of whom are introduced shortly after.
QueenBee is a fierce competitor for the game "Fist of Discomfort," a League of Legends-esque fighting game in which she's a part of a renowned eSports team. Percy is a friendly guy from England whose main goal is to achieve the high school in "Mr. Moopy," a maze-like game with a design strikingly similar to Pac-Man... Told you this will persist throughout the game. Lastly, there's Teo, who is a rhythm game player that excels in a game similar to Dance Dance Revolution and Dance Rush.
Shortly after the pleasantries are out of the way, the first chapter's "boss" arrives. As a reminder, Arcade Spirits is a visual novel from start to finish. It doesn't stop itself from playing itself like an actual video game, with "bosses" in the form of obstacles and deciding on the best course of action. This obstacle is in the form of a group of snot-nosed kids at a private birthday party. Unsupervised, sticking gum in coin slots, arguing, bashing on buttons, and flinging joysticks. As someone who worked at a fun center for a Summer, I knew well enough the dangers of looking after a group of disobedient kids. Unfortunately, you can't be everywhere at once and this holds true in this instance.
In every chapter, there will be opportunities to help out your fellow co-workers and arcade regulars with whatever is going on at the time. The player may need to help Naomi deal with a kid sticking their gum in the cabinet while also consoling a parent using QueenBee as a backup. Usually, there are three tasks to choose from although the player can only select up to two. As each task is tied with an important character, it becomes a choice on what character to focus on as you cannot be there for everyone. Arcade Spirits drives this point home, that you're only one person. Therefore if you got a favorite it's best to stick to that person, followed by second best, and so on.
At the end of each chapter, there's a scoreboard that shows the character you have the highest affinity with as well as your most defining trait. There is a "score tally" but it has nothing to do with Arcade Spirits aside from the arcade aesthetic. Everything involving sound effects, the emotions of the characters, and other quips are paired with cliche arcade sounds. They strike up immersion and it's a neat aesthetic. If the player finds it distracting, they can simply adjust these in the settings.
The new chapter begins and there's a bit of conflict. Turns out Juniper wasn't honest with the protagonist about a new job and that there was an opening available at her workplace. While there was no doubt that working at Juniper's office would have been a financially viable option, Ocelot's happiness is evidently working at the Funiplex. The player can decide to play it off, but they can also decide to rightfully state that it was for the best that they worked at the arcade. Or, the player can really rub it in that Juniper screwed up and elevate things further.
Doing so will again bring up an opportunity for the protagonist to quit their job and work a more stable one, armed with the information that they could have done so, to begin with. Before we start jumping ship, remember, that the ride has only just begun. Are you really going to throw away a potentially good thing just because your roommate is making more money? Read the room, she's not happy where she works and is actually slightly jealous. Play nice and be considerate.
Today's adventure involves the gang heading out to an undisclosed location to attend an arcade raid---auction? Raid auction. Ashley convinces Ocelot to go in her place as she would learn something from the experience, so she joins Naomi and Gavin on the excursion. There's also a moment where they go out for lunch as a way for Ocelot to meet the locals beforehand. During the Arcade Auction event, the player can decide to spend time exclusively with Gavin or Naomi. They can also split time between the two as well.
Something I wish I knew back then that I knew now is that focusing on one person isn't a bad thing, but it stunts your overall experience. The game doesn't ask you to invest all of your time with one person nor does it say you have to divvy between a group of people. Personally, I recommend sharing your time with as many people as possible until you become friends with them. This will make the game's ending more satisfying, but Arcade Spirits is a game with a ton of replayability.
At the end of the chapter, you are given a choice between three exclusive arcade machines. The typing shooter that's not a Typing Of The Dead mixed with Space Invaders, "Phrase Invaders." "Wyvern Keep", which is Dragon's Lair 3D but the princess saves the prince this time. Lastly, "Zombie Meltdown," which is a Midway lightgun shooter mixed with zombies and Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja. The choice of cabinet really doesn't matter. I just went with the quirkiest one to me which was "Phrase Invaders."
Another thing I noticed during each chapter was how self-contained they were. Called "Levels," each chapter is episodic and can easily be seen as something that's a part of a TV Series. The first chapter would be the pilot episode, the second is its own story and the third? The convention episode. The gang goes to PAX East. I'm sorry, MAX East. Ocelot is in charge of promoting a large tournament at the arcade and what better way to do so than at a gaming convention?
The writers have done their homework on all fronts when it came to capturing a con-goer for the first time. The atmosphere through its descriptive words sent me back to March when I experienced my first PAX. The description of games everywhere, the overwhelming amount of attendees, and the breath of relief in finding your allies. Supporting your best friend in their cosplay as they enter a cosplay contest at the Pac-Man Stage? Sure thing. Being kind of forced to get into cosplay to really support your friend? Not really an experience I experienced but it's endearing.
What about you and your best friend infiltrating security while in cosplay to hack the displays to showcase your tournament advert? Yeah, probably not. I spent most of my time with Ashley during this chapter and like many characters, she had hidden layers underneath. At first, I thought of Ashley as only this extroverted bubbly kindhearted young woman. Not only that, but she's a badass hacker who knows her way around a makeshift lockpick with a scene straight out of Totally Spies. Ocelot was literally the Alex to Ashley's Clover and it was so random yet so cool. It was here that my character began to flirt with Ashley, having spent some time prior. Would I find romance in her? Well, let's keep our doors open.
Advertisements for the "Five-A-Side" (the name I gave for the arcade tournament) ensured a huge crowd was going to attend just for humble old me. Thus begins Chapter 4, when Ocelot must do everything in her power to ensure the tournament, filled to the brim with competitors, goes off without a hitch. Much like Chapter 2, there are things that are going wrong in the arcade including players running out of drinks, and not enough time to attend to all conflicts. At this point, it's best to choose the conflict that features the characters you'd like to get to know more.
There are two major conflicts involving Percy, who desperately wishes to hunt down the world record, and QueenBee who is slated to face a famous "Fist of Discomfort" player from Japan. Nicknamed "The Demon," his attitude, appearance, and nickname appear to be a combination of two famous Japanese fighting game players, Daigo Umehara and Tokido among others. I was interested in her when I was first introduced, but I decided to double down and pursue the Queen Bee.
Some of the things which stood out for me was her incredible assertive nature, never one to back down and hold her tongue for anyone. Anytime there's any sense of injustice or egregious nonsense, leave it to QueenBee to shout out expletives and put people in their place. Even Ocelot if the time calls for it. In the beginning, Ocelot's personality was that of a quiet kind-hearted individual who relied on jokes to be friendly.
Meeting Queenbee, Ocelot slowly became a gutsy individual who learned to be confident in her words. Choosing the Gutsy dialogue around QueenBee made most dialogues fit like a glove, as two headstrong girls feed off each other's energy. When stress levels become too much, showing compassion and keeping QueenBee grounded is enough to show her that you care despite her reputation.
When "The Demon" shows up, QueenBee enters a whirlwind of emotions not due to her skill, but because of her placement in an esports team. Arcade Spirits does its homework and through QueenBee it addresses the controversy and difficulties of being a woman in esports. Double for being a POC woman on a major esports team.
She's well aware that she's better than anyone on her team and that she was only hired for her looks. She calls herself the "mascot" of the team because only her public image matters and not her skills. Losing to "The Demon" will be enough to put the nail in the coffin and her fears of getting cut and shunned from esports rings in her head.
Ocelot at this point showed interest in QueenBee, cheering her on and calming her down before, during, and after the tournament. Although she loses in the grand finals, the person she played against was impressed with her skill. So much so that she's offered a spot at Shadaloo---I mean The Four Heavenly Kings. Using this as a stepping stone to leave the esports organization behind, she's ecstatic that she's seen for who she is rather than what she is. At this point, my character began to openly flirt with QueenBee, a gesture that she was greatly amused by. First Ashley now QueenBee? Surely this is leading to something important yeah?
That's right, a beach episode! Now we're really reaching into "slice-of-life anime" territory. Chapter 5 has the gang drive down to the beach, complete with tasteful fanservice and beach activities. Before the chapter begins, Iris states that this will be the day that Ocelot will find romance. Again, it's entirely up to the player to decide if they actively want romance, but Ocelot already has her eyes set on someone... That someone, of course, is the feisty QueenBee herself.
QueenBee arrives and asks Ocelot out on a date, citing that her original plans bailed on her. It is here that QueenBee's real name is also revealed, which I will refrain from saying for obvious spoilers based on a character arc. The protagonist has the option to call her by her real name while in private. If the protagonist decides to do so, her name in the dialogue box will change from "QueenBee" to "REDACTED" respectively. A nice touch.
After QueenBee and the protagonist has their fair share of a good time, the former wishes to go steady in which Ocelot agrees. There's obvious chemistry but it's valid to not want to rush into things. It's all in good timing as the game's story takes a swerve for the tragic. Like most Beach Episodes, the plot begins to go a complete 180 after the "brief intermission." Arcade Spirits really is a slice of life.
Heavy Spoilers Moving Forward
Chapter 6 begins with Francine, a rare appearance, asking Ocelot to open a piece of mail relating to The Funplex. The arcade rival, Deco Nami, seeks to buy the Funplex and asks the owner to meet with him for a discussion. Throughout the game, he's seen as this big greedy villain and this is the first time the protagonist will meet him. I mentioned earlier how Francine is Arcade Spirits's "Pac-Man" and I wanted to come back to this. During the opening dialogue, we see her Pac-Man-based earrings which also foreshadow her fate in a way.
Much like Pac-Man, she is a respected piece of arcade history but the time had come, went, and moved on without her. She knows from the beginning that her time is running out and the protagonist is the last one to see her vision. She's able to leave behind a legacy that stays no matter the generation or location, much like our yellow pizza pie cutout friend.
As she gives her best support to the protagonist and they enter Deco Nami's arcade, there are several distinctive characters that are dressed color coordinated. It doesn't hit the player immediately as all five characters are introduced, but they are all a part of a gang. Regardless, the protagonist and a choice of any of their friends will join them in going to the arcade to "exact negotiations." In this playthrough, I chose Naomi because of her passion for arcades. Seeing how crummy and exploitative this arcade is would be enough to keep Ocelot grounded in their beliefs.
However, as Arcade Spirits gives a freedom of choice, the player can accept Deco Nami's offer. Francine did state that the decision was up to the protagonist and that she would trust their better judgment. Deciding to shake hands with the devil and work out a business agreement will end in several situations depending on who tagged along for the ride. Curiosity kills the cat and in this case, curiosity gave Ocelot a giant slap courtesy of Naomi. This was the cruelest thing the game had ever allowed the player to do up until this point; make Naomi cry.
The fun doesn't stop there as the following day, Ocelot comes to find that the Funplex closed down and sees Naomi and Ashley with tears in their eyes. They tell Ocelot that Francine had passed away in her sleep, which further hits home if you decided to agree to Deco Nami's terms. Speaking of the devil, he arrives to say that he was successful in purchasing the Funplex before any prices can be made. Turns out everything that belonged to Francine went towards her daughter and grandson, the latter being the same person who Ocelot replaced at the Funplex.
Since they owned the arcade, they quickly decide to rid of it, making Deco Nami the owner. The first order of business is to eliminate all of the staff while proposing an offer to the protagonist. He will have Ocelot work under Deco Nami, stabbing her former friends in the back, and find herself financially stable for life. Accepting his terms will lead to a spinoff ending similar to the first one. Ocelot is stable, she runs a successful business and is named heir to the Deco Nami franchise. The tradeoff is that she sold out her friends, lived a life of loneliness, and abandoned her dreams. This ending, in contrast to achieving it in the very beginning, stings the most for obvious reasons.
Orr you could decide to punch Deco in the jaw and get instant gratification from fixing his ugly mug. Look, he even says he won't press charges. Isn't that nice? But what's not nice is the depression spiral that follows afterward. Suddenly, Juniper's protection of the protagonist makes sense as they crash. Hard. In Ocelot's case, she becomes a shut-in with very grim dark humor. Enough is enough as she depends on her friends to pull her out of her rut and plan the next move. It's a simple one. Build an arcade of their own.
There are three categories ranging from funding, main appeal, and uniqueness of the arcade. There is no right or wrong answer, but I chose how I would like my arcade to function based on ones I've been to in the past. I wanted an esports-focused barcade with streaming setups on each major machine. Think Round 1 but on a smaller scale. Other options include a full-on restaurant, a retro-themed arcade, and a fun center. I think barcades are cool so long as the cheap beer is an option in some equation.
Here lies the penultimate chapter and the final group of villains introduced. Remember the color-coordinated motley crew of individuals? They show up at the grand opening of "Arcade Spirits" and cause mischief. Their Gamertags? Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde. Their leader? Sue. The name? Ghost Monsters.
News of Francine's death and the purchase of the Funplex all comes after the crew meets the Ghost Monsters. Not by name yet, at least, but formally through Sue. From a meta standpoint, the ghosts have defeated Pac-Man, if we still personify Francine as Pac-Man due to her earrings.
This makes the Ghost Monsters infiltrating Arcade Spirits more significant. These are the four ghosts who are sworn enemies of Pac-Man and they are scattered throughout the arcade doing nefarious things. Ocelot, who was once working under Francine, became Pac-Man herself. In essence, her passing and the start of a new arcade was a symbol of the torch being passed.
Suddenly an entire gang fight breaks out, which was something no one expected. Violence erupts, fists are flying, and a gun is pulled out. Mirroring the harmless scenario back in Chapter 1 where the protagonist defended her co-workers from a cupcake fight, Ocelot jumps in the way of a bullet, saving one but getting shot in the process.
Fortunately, the bullet only affected her thigh and not through any important arteries. At this point, QueenBee came to check on Ocelot, following an argument involving a rift in their relationship. After several instances of "Are we a couple or are we just friends with benefits," they finally become honest with their feelings toward each other. This segues into one of Arcade Spirits's coolest moments. Up until now, Ocelot has been running ragged trying to do everything at once.
With her being out of commission due to a bum leg, her closest friends are now called upon to find a way to get to Sue, the purpled-haired teen who orchestrated the chaos at Arcade Spirits. There are many proposed ways to do so, but as I was already a "Gutsy" protagonist, I went with QueenBee and Ashley to infiltrate the rival's hideout for information. Suddenly, the Totally Spies segment and QueenBee's brave personality made sense. During this part of the chapter, the player is in control of Ashley, with her thoughts and mannerisms. When it comes to making clutch decisions, she even admires Ocelot for being cool-headed. I wish there were more scenes where players enter the perspective of an ally rather than the protagonist. The connection between two unlikely allies is nothing short of endearing.
No matter what path the player choices, it's discovered that Sue is the daughter of Deco Nami, hence Sue Nami (and a terrible pun). With information about their hideout known, Ocelot prepares for a final showdown against Sue in order to convince her to turn on her father. They don't have the best relationship and all it takes is for Sue to be treated as a human to see reason.
This is dependent on a series of dialogue choices that correspond to the highest personality trait that Ocelot has. In my case, I had to fight Sue's fieriness with my own burning passion. It's pretty sick. It's decided that the "final battle" will be against Sue in the same game that defined Ocelot's childhood. "Phrase Invaders" live on!
When Ocelot eventually defeats Sue in the final showdown, it can be taken as Pac-Man ultimately prevailing against the ghosts. While Pac-Man lost a life, Francine's dreams, and everyone else's lives through Ocelot. Speaking of the Ghost Monsters, their lair is shaped just like a Pac-Man maze is a really impressive visual. There are enough references in Arcade Spirits to make any gaming nerd crack a smile yet groan at the puns amusingly. Thankfully it never gets to the point of Ready Player One levels of desperation.
In the end, Deco is arrested, the arcade is saved, and Ocelot ends up in a relationship with QueenBee. QueenBee manages her own team and for the next five years begins a winning streak that makes Doublelift look tame in comparison. Of course, her partner Ocelot is with her every step of the way. Two of my co-workers wound up in a relationship with each other and the core arcade staff stayed with me. Unfortunately, since I didn't spend enough time with Percy or Teo, they wound up leaving the arcade.
Heavy Spoilers End
But that's the beauty of it. Despite the game taking a mere three hours to beat, there's loads of replayability. The game ends with a sequel hook that allows players to export their save data for Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers. There's also an ability for the player to rewind back in time and go over a dialogue choice they made. This segues into the game's gallery mode. Unlocking achievements will unlock a piece of promo art relating to it. Clearing chapters will reveal concept art pertaining to each chapter while unlocking endings will reveal character art. There are also cheeky references to Big Rigs if you happen to get the "downer ending." There's even a DIP switch where the player can unlock the end game content early, much like actual DIP Switches at an arcade.
Arcade Spirits was originally a game I intended to spend a weekend enjoying but wound up becoming ultimately invested in it. The characters, the aesthetics, the love and care placed in its dialogue, and the history of gaming. All of these made Arcade Spirits worth playing at the end of every chapter. I always went "one more chapter," much like an arcade junkie would go "one more quarter" as they run to the token machine and make change.
Arcade Spirits is a title that's a no-brainer for fans of the arcade scene and gaming, in general, to pick up and play. It's an all-inclusive story that makes anyone feel like they can relate to one or all of the cast of characters. It's a feel-good, sometimes sad, sometimes encouraging story that sets the stage for the sequel. It's never too late to experience the epic visual novel and neither is it too late to put that quarter up.
Arcade Spirits is available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC.