In the Earth’s distant future 20XX of an alternate timeline, arcades remain a constant and popular presence within the gaming community, shaping the technological and cultural scenes in ways both familiar and nostalgic in scope. It is in this alternate timeline of what could’ve been that Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers comfortably nestles into. The world, UI, and sound bytes of this visual novel harken to the heyday of a bygone era in our world: with bright, neon colors and an aesthetic reminiscent of the eighties and nineties. The New Challengers manages to feel comfortable and familiar with its setting, though the true heart and soul of this charming game lies in its diverse and colorful cast.
In Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, you play a PC gamer with surprisingly little knowledge of the burgeoning arcade scene who dreams of making it big on a pro esports team for their favorite game, Fist of Discomfort 2. After your rival informs you of their recruitment to one of the top teams in esports, they suggest getting a personal virtual assistant program called Iris to help get you on the right track. Iris immediately begins setting schedules and helping you down your chosen path, guiding you to a laundromat-pizzeria-arcade in downtown Chinatown known as Good Clean Fun to assemble a team and make your esports dreams come true. But what secrets lurk behind the shiny exterior of the arcade scene? Can you live up to the challenges of suddenly being an esports team manager? Will your new, quirky teammates help you succeed? Could you possibly even find love and friendship along the way? The game’s narrative argues that the journey itself might be even more memorable than the esports tournament destination.
Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a highly interactive and choice-heavy visual novel that gives you plenty of freedom in how you want to approach its storyline. You’re allowed to create your in-game persona and choose both your pronouns and your destined rival’s from the get-go. After every completed story level, you can change your metadata profile as you see fit. Every level includes numerous dialogue options, each representing a different personality quirk that others will respond positively or negatively to depending on their personalities and the scenario. Iris helpfully monitors and tallies these choices at the end of each level, informing you which characters you have inspired the most at that point and how you’re coming across personality-wise based on your actions.
As team manager, you choose who participates in rounds and who your sponsor is, and which characters to interact with during your free time. You can skip playing the Fist of Discomfort 2 mini-game entirely if straight-up VNs are more your thing, and even decide to win or lose some matches, altering how scenes afterward play out. In addition, you can choose to focus on romance right away, start off as friends who might gradually fall into romantic love, or just remain platonic friends with everyone on your team instead. Of course, just like in real life, you can’t please everyone with your choices all the time, but The New Challengers never truly punishes you for decisions either. In short, there’s an impressive amount of interactivity to be found here!
In terms of gameplay, there isn’t much that Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers does wrong. This is a solid visual novel with a high degree of interactivity and replayability. The UI is colorful, easy to read, and can be tailored to your personal preference. You can save anytime you’d like, and clearing the game once opens up the helpful Rewind feature for subsequent playthroughs, allowing you to skip forward or backward in time and change decisions if you’d like to see different outcomes. I don’t feel the point scoring system is explained too well in the game itself, but I figured out what it meant as far as unlockable content on my own. Even the optional “game-within-the-game” Fist of Discomfort 2 is a fun and diversionary mini-game with a simple rock-paper-scissors mechanic. Overall, The New Challengers is a visual novel that is very easy to pick up and play!
Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers‘ true delight comes from the characters at the heart of the tale. Based on your choices, your character develops in surprising ways throughout the narrative when it comes to their views on winning, and I love how your rival can also develop throughout the game, especially if you opt to have a more friendly rapport with them. Iris is a sweetheart, always willing to help and offer support, and your ability to help shape her perspective is integrated well into the storyline.
The team you form at Good Clean Fun is full of likable characters who win over your heart if you interact with them enough. My best friend of the group ended up being the shoutcaster and team advisor Rhapsody, while light gun enthusiast Zapper’s dislike of the actual weaponry but love of fantasy violence made so much sense to me. Jynx is kickass-yet-thoughtful, and Locksley’s chivalric and Robin Hood-styled demeanor regarding things such as arcade practices and software usage was quite endearing. I totally related to Grace’s dislike of conflict and her inability to settle on just one creative project at a time even if that meant nothing got done, and I was surprised during my first playthrough that my kind personality helped my character and the cynical Domino grow closer together and even form a romance.
This core group of characters are the ones you interact with the most throughout Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, and you can choose to be on friendly terms with them at first or not. Personally, I love seeing how they develop into a true team of friends over the course of the game. Side characters such as the GCF managers Ben and Matt, Jynx’s sibling Jian, the professionally blunt esports streamer QueenBee, and the electronics-acquiring Hamza are quite memorable too. I love how accepting and inclusive everyone in the cast is of one another.
…For the most part, that is, as some of the antagonists fit the toxic stereotypes of gaming culture to a tee. They’re certainly not characters you’re meant to like though, and they work well as counterpoints to your team. However, beyond your rival, a troubled character named Coda later on, and a certain final villain reveal, the antagonists are perhaps the least interesting and least sympathetic characters in the cast. I do give Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers credit for having good redemption arcs if you pursue them for the three previously mentioned at least, but the other ones are just really unlikable tropes and, as a result, not exactly memorable.
Interacting with the characters and getting to know them better is where the writing and dialogue of Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers truly shines, and it shines brilliantly in those moments! Unfortunately, there is an almost awkward and clumsy manner in which the actual dialogue is presented. I found that certain scenes and talking points didn’t read quite as naturally or believably as they could have due to the constant use of net-speak and lingo throughout, which is quite a shame given how likable and relatable so many of the characters are. The meta-commentary on things such as nineties sitcoms (I agree: Monica and Chandler are the best Friends pairing!) and trends in current gaming were entertaining enough, but employed too frequently at times. Sometimes the main plotline also goes a bit off the rails, but I give the game credit for always managing to stick the landing. I’m not sure if the storyline involving a particular character was handled as well as it should’ve been. Still, I appreciated linking to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the game provides at a certain juncture involving them and the encouragement the game gives to people going through mental and emotional problems to seek help. There are important and positive messages that abound throughout the game, and I can appreciate that even if the writing to convey those sentiments wasn’t always the best.
The visual presentation is lovely, with even side characters having detailed and expressive artwork. I love how varied the designs for the main character and rival can be, and the backgrounds are quite detailed and eye-catching too! The colorful art is highly fitting for the game’s visual designs and the style of its subject matter. Unfortunately, thanks to the futuristic alternate setting but heavy eighties/nineties vibes, there’s definitely some odd visual and tonal dissonance that never really goes away as you’re playing. The sound effects and background music are also very appropriate and fitting for the game and its atmosphere, and I love the vocal theme song used for the end credits! Sadly, the voice acting is hit-or-miss at times, but it certainly isn’t the worst I’ve heard in a game either. I’m not sure if newcomers to the gaming scene would exactly be the target audience for this title, given its use of so many references and terminology. However, I give this sequel credit because it is easy to pick up even if you’re like me and haven’t yet played the original Arcade Spirits.
I adore so much about Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers. I love how choice-heavy it is, and the replayability it provides is phenomenal. It is an entertaining experience for fans of the visual novel genre, with a colorful cast you can’t help but root for and fall in love with. Playing it was a pleasure despite some occasional hiccups, and I’m going to be diving into my copy of the original game soon just to experience more of this zany and heartwarming series. That, to me, is the sign of a true winner!