The best and worst thing about New Retro Arcade is that it doesn’t really exist.
I mean, it kinda does. I certainly played quite a bit of it and enjoyed that time spent, but to me it’s an all-too-real glimpse at what could be done with game preservation and re-releases, not to mention what it says for immersion in VR, the ability to deliver us to a familiar time and place.
Though designed as an Oculus tech demo, New Retro Arcade plays fine on a 2D screen, still able to engulf you in the sights and sounds of a cramped arcade. It’s dark and loud, often abrasively so, your eyes unable to escape the combination of neon and scan lines wherever you turn, nearly tripping over empty pizza boxes and cassette tapes that have been thrown to the floor. As the only person inside, you feel less like a patron than an eccentric owner playing with his toys after hours, the aftermath of a long day of business left strewn around you.
That’s what the game is, in a nutshell – not only is it a playground, but it’s your playground, an open platform to be distorted to your will. The various arcade cabinets really just serve as an emulator front end, no different than the SNES console sitting near the back of the joint. The cassette tapes and boombox point to internet radio. Everything can be changed, from the games themselves, to the art of the cabinets, even the various movie posters that adorn the walls. It’s a fairly wide open platform for you to let your imagination go wild and create the arcade of your dreams. The sheer possibilities are only rivaled by the amount of work likely required to execute on them, which is why my fighting game haven has yet to make it past the blueprinting stages. In a related note, it’s way harder than it should be to find Mortal Kombat cabinet art on the internet. This and cat pictures are what the internet were created for, dammit.
Through a modest modding community, there are certainly still ways to customize the experience without too much headache, but the real draw for me is the way presentation is handled. Each cabinet feels like a working machine, glowing and ready even without you playing. When you step forward, you can look down and see the joystick and buttons click as you touch them. In an industry that loves its compilations and re-releases, this should be the way they’re presented from this point forward. With just a little bit of progression and context, New Retro Arcade could easily be a Namco collection, the story of you as a bright-eyed kid in the 80s determined to beat the high score of the punk that stole your lunch money and Iron Maiden tape. The next week, it could be your goal to impress Judy with your mad bowling skills or help her get through a stage in Galaga that had been giving her trouble. Instead of giving us simple menus and occasional glances at concept art, it’s time to recognize that the medium we’re working in can deliver us to virtual worlds, but doesn’t have to exclude ones we’ve been to before, even if it means we’re playing a game just so we can play more games.
All it would take is a little attention and a lot of care. This is why New Retro Arcade is so bittersweet. It’s the closest we may ever get, anything close to an “official” release working under the same concept likely nothing more than a pipe dream. Without that, we’re still left with this bit of clay to mold ourselves.
I have to admit, it’s an attractive bit of clay. Every time I look at it, I can’t help but think of all the beautiful things I’d like to create with it.