King of the Arcade review

Last summer Wired Productions released Arcade Paradise, a day-to-day laundromat sim where it was possible to slack off and play arcade games in the dank backroom. While reviews were generally positive – including an 8/10 from ourselves – running the laundromat hampered the enjoyment somewhat, soon becoming repetitive. Super Villain Games has seemingly taken note – this inexpensive Xbox release provides an arcade full of retro-inspired classics, each waiting to be playing entirely at your own leisure.  

Well, almost entirely. There’s a short optional story mode to tie everything together. You play as Mac, a gamer famous in the ‘90s for dominating the arcade scene. Now retired from gaming and looking for work, Mac seeks employment at one of his local haunts. The interview process just so happens to involve reaching level five in a Space Invaders clone, which alerts his former rival Jimmy Joysticks to Mac coming out of retirement. Displeased, Jimmy issues a hostile takeover of the arcade – which involves outlandish arcade champions hogging certain machines. To get them to leave, Mac must beat their challenges – with plenty of pop culture references and humiliation along the way.

This story only takes around 1-2 hours to play through, depending on your retro gaming mettle. You’ll have to beat the first stage of an awful, barely functional, side-scrolling brawler, complete two laps in a semi-realistic racer that looks uncannily similar to Switch eShop shovelware, and beat set scores in clones of Space Invaders, Burger Time, and Donkey Kong. The hardest challenge of all entails a low poly 3D Virtua Cop alike where enemy placement is randomised – meaning it requires luck over skill.

As well as the mandated challenges, a dozen other games can be played, some of which are simple rhythm action or timing-based affairs, such as basketball and whack-a-mole. Head into the basement and you’ll even find a console with some modern Flash-style games, including a side-scrolling shooter, along side a mobile phone featuring recreations of Snake and Breakout.  

But while this may sound encouraging, especially given the £6 asking price, the games themselves aren’t much fun to play, generally feeling and looking a little crude. Arcade Paradise was a hit because each playable arcade game had hidden depths and required skill; it was easy to tell that most had significant time put into their creation. The games here are a hodgepodge of assets, flimsy collision detection, and other peculiarities such as the Space Invaders clone having some sort of aiming assist. Assets from the developer’s previous release, Doug Hates His Job, also show up with the backdrops reused for the scrolling brawler.  

While I can’t be 100% certain, the voice acting appears to have been provided by a text-to-speech program too, with the pronunciation of some words slightly off. Adding to this general lack of polish, random words within the dialogue are capitalized. Weird, but not too detrimental overall.

The biggest problem here is that a handful of games show potential; you can see that they may have become worthwhile with more care and attention. Or, and as is more likely, a bigger budget and more time. The clones of Space Harrier and Golden Axe had me genuinely excited, only for that excitement to vanish upon realising the former had a one-hit death system and the latter is wave-based, taking place on a single screen.

I did manage to find a couple of diamonds in the rough, however – the Frogger clone is competent, closely mimicking the arcade original. There’s also a fully-fledged pinball game, with a sinister clown theme, that provides a reasonably accurate simulation. It’s on par with those standalone pinball games that regularly appear on the download services, at least.

Despite its pleasingly comical tone and alluring price point, King of the Arcade is ultimately the Xbox equivalent of those dubious faux retro handhelds commonly found in supermarkets around Christmas time. While there’s a generous amount of retro-inspired games present, and some are slightly better than others, none are particularly good. Chalk this one up as a case of quantity over quality.

Super Villain Games’ King of the Arcade is out April 12th on Xbox One and Xbox Series.