America’s arcades have lost almost all their luster. Restrained to the recesses of bowling alleys and multiplexes, these recreational spaces have becoming a dumping ground for rigged redemption machines and the light-gun shooter with only one functional firearm. But it wasn’t always this bad. During the eighties and nineties arcades were a dimly-lit asylum for gamers, offering fleeting doses of euphoria for twenty-five cents a play. They were sacred spaces, where we would break through the cacophony of flashing lights and juke box music to immerse ourselves in an epic battle that pitted human against machine.
Sure, arcades still exist. Head to Japan and Shinjukuminamiguchi Game World, GiGO, and the Hirose Entertainment Yard (HEY) will undoubtedly devour any hundred yen coins in your pocket. And there’s a growing number of cities that are building “Barcades”- establishments that mix classic coin-ops with cocktails. While these upstarts should be commended for returning gaming into public social spaces, they’re not quite the recreational retreats of old. Those it seems, have largely abandoned the analog world.
But, thanks a dedicated indie team in the UK, arcades now exist in digital spaces. What started as a freeform project was grown into a Steam-based product that might lack polish, but does offer nostalgic promise. Leap into New Retro Arcade: Neon and you’ll be able to walk around a pair of sumptuous, Unreal 4-powered recreations of American arcades. Turn down a brick-lined hall in the Classic room and you’ll discover a faithful creation of a medium-sized recreational center lined with twenty-eight upright cabinets, neon signs, two bowling alleys, a dart board, and a pair of hoop-machines. Save for the lack of an attendant who’d kick you out for throwing the basketball down the bowling lane it’s all remarkably lifelike. Perhaps the only visual signifier that you aren’t in an earthy realm is your dawdling, dream-like movement speed.
The Neon room is a bit more spacious than the Classic arcade, with a separate VIP zone, a screening lounge, Skee-Ball lanes, an air hockey table, and even a Whack-a-Tyrannosaurus machine. Like the Classic Room, everything is fully functional, so you can play a few frames of bowling and watch as your score is shown on an overhead monitor. Or you could just be a trouble-maker, tossing donuts and darts around with mischievous intent. But New Retro Arcade’s interactive elements won’t support long-term play value. Each machine or item is fun to experiment with, but once you’re played with it for a bit, the novelty quickly wears off. Even with support for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the activities fall victim to familiar VR deficiency- feeling like a tech demo rather than a fully fleshed, game with a palpable goal. Similarly, there are two playable arcade cabinets in Neon– Aimbot and Zombie Problem II, which respectively offer a Doom-inspired diversion and a competent light-gun shooter. Neither will attract attentions for long, but they offer an immediate demonstration of New Retro Arcade’s capabilities.
Dig into forums, FAQS, or even a handy subreddit, and you’ll discover Neon’s nascent ability for adding actual arcade and console games into each room. Understandably, Digital Cybercherries wanted to divorce themselves from some of the legal and ethical issues of emulation. As such, adding the Libretro Cores for MAME, Super Nintendo, NES, Genesis/Megadrive and Game Boy Color play requires manual file fiddling. And even when directions are fastidiously followed, compatibility isn’t as strong as standalone emulators, with glitches common, especially with the Genesis core. On the upside, Neon does extend flexibility, allowing players to upload custom marquees and cabinet art to build their very own dream arcade within Retro Arcade’s preconfigured coin-op layout.
Much like the current state of emulation, Neon still feels like a work in progress. When using a controller along with a mouse and keyboard default key bindings are unintuitive, poised to cause player frustration. Even reconfiguring those bindings is a chore, with players required to operate a digital light gun on an arcade machine to adjust settings. When using the Oculus, control is only marginally improved. Sure, exploration of the two arcades feels thrilling, transporting players to a near-photorealistic mecca of arcade machinery. But actual play can feel clunky and most score-chasers will surely trade VR novelty for intuitive, organic input.
New Retro Arcade: Neon’s biggest transgression of that of most VR applications: it’s far more proof-of-concept than playable in the traditional sense. The title does an amazing job of creating an imagined space for players to explore, but when it comes down to interaction, Neon exhibits little nuance and polish. Promisingly, Digital Cybercherries is responsive and fast in fixing elements and accommodating audience request. If the developers are able to realize the vision or having a fully customizable, intuitively controlled arcade where each cabinet is playing its own attract mode then the application will receive an unconditional recommendation. As it stands right now, Neon is suited for players with patience, a bit of technical expertise, and an inclination to justify that recent VR purchase.
Developer: Digital Cybercherries
Publisher: Digital Cybercherries
Release date: August 1st, 2016
Price: $24.95 via Steam, currently on sale for $22.45