It’s the early 1990s, and you – a college dropout – have been tasked with babysitting your chronically disappointed father’s launderette business. It is not an exciting job. You pick up rubbish, you unclog the toilet, you load laundry into machines and take it out again. But in the back room, there’s a small collection of arcade machines to help customers while away the time as their shirts dry, and there’s enough money in their coin hoppers to buy a whole new cabinet. And so you begin the slow process of secretly transforming your father’s business into a thriving arcade, reinvesting the cash you make from washing people’s dirty underwear into buying more video games.
Arcade Paradise is a low-key management simulator that goes at its own, fairly languid pace. You don’t have an enormous amount of influence over how much money you make or how fast you can expand; you do the laundry, and play games, and wait for money to accumulate. Dealing with customers’ clothes quickly gets you bonus cash, but why would you sit by the washing machine when you could be playing on the arcade cabinets round the back? There are more than 30 of them to collect, all charmingly inspired by 70s, 80s and 90s classics: there’s a cross between GTA and Pac-Man, a couple of twists on Space Invaders, a match-three puzzle adventure game, a zombie shooter. Frustratingly, they tend to require more time from you than the average wash cycle, so you have to choose between competently running the laundry and spending a satisfying amount of time with a game.
Earning new games is the motivation for persisting with the day-to-day menial work, but unfortunately, most of them are disappointingly average. The old arcade classics have endured because they are masterpieces of game design, with just the right balance between the one-more-go frustration of failure and the dopamine hit of success. Most of these tributes don’t come close to the real thing, and so after a few hours, I was left wondering why I was working so hard to buy them. They do nail the look, though, whether vector graphics, 16-bit sprites or early 3D colour – right down to the cabinets themselves, and the in-game posters that advertise them. The feel of early 90s gaming culture is lovingly recreated here, and it’s endearing.
Completing daily arcade-machine challenges earns you money on top of your laundromat income, letting you buy upgrades that make your work easier – such as, scintillatingly, bigger rubbish bags. But man, does it take ages to earn enough for significant improvements. I sank into Arcade Paradise’s rhythm pretty quickly, only to find that after a few hours’ play, EVERYTHING started to feel like work – including playing the arcade games. Trying to win a game of frustratingly imprecise digital air hockey to earn some cash while your watch is constantly beeping at you because it’s time to empty the dryers is not much fun. I never found a balance that let me properly enjoy either the laundry management or the arcade games. You’re always splitting your attention between them, and neither is interesting enough on its own.
Arcade Paradise comes across as a little confused, sometimes: if the premise of the game is that you’re running an arcade in your father’s laundromat in secret, for instance, then why is your dad the one paying you bonuses for those daily gaming challenges? It has the feel of a game that changed shape a few times over the course of its development. Nonetheless, it is more than a collection of average arcade game tributes. Intentionally or not, it captures something of the ennui of young adulthood and 90s Gen X disillusionment with menial work – and how video games have always been a colourful escape from the boredom of everyday life.
Arcade Paradise is out now; £15.99