British developer Nosebleed Interactive is interested in clashing juxtapositions — specifically, what happens when you jam classic, in-the-moment arcade gaming up against the long view and slow build of the management genre. 2017’s Vostok Inc. was an unholy but fruitful marriage of twin-stick shooter and exponential clicker in the name of galactic domination, and its two flavors turned out to be more complementary than you might think.
Now the studio gives us Arcade Paradise — which is out now on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch. It’s a management game about turning a shabby laundromat with a couple of arcade machines in the back into a video gaming haven, and all the cabinets you can buy are fully playable, original creations. (Well, fairly original, but I’ll get to that.) This game is simultaneously more ambitious and more humdrum than Vostok Inc.and it explores some more awkward tensions between its two halves.
The time frame is some unspecified period between 1987 and 2002 that somehow manages to be all those years at once. The menu is a monochrome PalmPilot-alike with a stylus, there’s a chunky dialup PC with instant messaging software on it, and the games range from vintage 8-bit to early 3D. You are a 19-year-old layabout and your self-made father has placed you in charge of one of his businesses, a laundromat, in the hope it will make something of you. Of course, you would rather make something of it: namely, a thriving arcade. But you’ll have to do it behind your disapproving father’s back.
There’s a lot of busywork. The laundromat, which you wander around in first person, generates the revenue you’ll need to build out the arcade, and it needs maintenance. It’s an endless grind of loading and unloading washers and dryers, taking out the trash, unblocking the toilet and fixing broken machines. The more of this you do, and the more efficiently, the more money you can bank to invest in arcade machines. It’s satisfying, up to a point, but it’s not actually fun. It’s work, and it’s meant to feel like work.
Managing the arcade, which is done via your PalmPilot, is a more sophisticated affair. Each individual machine has a popularity rating, which is affected by things like difficulty, price, the cleanliness of the space, and proximity to other popular machines. You can tweak difficulty and price per play, as well as placement, to try to optimize the profitability of each cabinet. Crucially, you can improve a game’s popularity by playing it, too. Each cab comes with a set of achievement-style goals which, when completed, will draw more players to the game. So you’re encouraged to play for work as well as for fun, which makes sense — know your product, after all.
I’ve only played for a few hours and sampled a handful of the 35 or so cabinets you can buy, but I already have a sense of how Nosebleed’s deep love of classic gaming is warmly and wittily expressed. Some of the games are funny, well-realized pastiches of classics like Pong gold Mr Driller; some are mashups, like the game that gives Pac man has Grand Theft Auto reskin. Some nail the surreal, throwaway, half-twee, half-deranged innocence of early gaming: There’s a game about having a job in a packing warehouse, and another — a ferociously compelling match-three puzzler called Woodgal’s Adventure — about battling slimes and baking cakes. They all play like the kind of well-meaning knockoffs made by talented bedroom coders that used to stuff the shelves of computer stores, and which gave half the games industry its start (especially in the home-computing obsessed UK in the 1980s).
Arcade Paradise is about balancing the tempting draw of another go on these machines against the beeping reminders to go unload the washers again. Play too much, and your income withers, but play too little, and the arcade will never take off as it could. You need the laundromat’s return to build out the arcade, but at some point you need to switch from grinding in the present to focusing on the future. What is the goal of this game, anyway? Enjoying yourself, or gathering the funds to acquire games you won’t have time to play? (Sounds familiar.)
As well as being a love letter to the 1990s arcade, Arcade Paradise is a game about work-life balance, and also the balance between different kinds of work: the work you do to survive, and the work you do for love. Like all management games, it’s inherently about capitalism, but in a way that’s both pricklier and gentler than the satirical, be-the-machine emptiness of clicker games like Vostok Inc.. This one’s about how to live within the system, and how to use it to build something beautiful.
Arcade Paradise was released on Aug. 11 on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Nosebleed Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.