Let me keep this brief, as I have a wash on – a wash full of briefs! Arcade Paradise is a game about running a laundrette – at first it is anyway. It’s one of those jobs a lot of us start out in even if you don’t, as is the case here, have a family in the laundrette biz. You run the laundrette, day by day, bussing in and out. You collect trash, you wash and fold clothes, you unclog the toilet and empty the coin hopper in the tokens machine. You put the laundrette’s income in the safe and you chat to your friends on a messenger app accessed via the 56k set-up in the back office.
But in another back room there are arcade games – cabinets with playable games! It’s like opening a door and finding that aliens have landed. You can play these games – play clever spins on match-three, on Mr Driller, on plenty of others – but you can also earn money from them too. You can collect the money in their coin hoppers and whack that in the safe. And what if all this money you’re collecting, what if you used it to expand? To buy new cabinets, to create more room to store them in? Onwards.
So Arcade Paradise moves on, in step with the rolling Katamari of commerce and capitalism. More, brighter, shinier. But also quicker, more efficient. More free time in the day is opened up by the right upgrades, so that the time, along with the money, can be reinvested.
The cabinets, of which there are dozens, first seemed to be the clear attraction here, and they’re beautifully designed, walking a neat line between parody and reverence. Did you know that the original GTA was based on pinball? I suspect that the makers of Arcade Paradise know – maybe they worked on it – because here, top-down GTA is blended with Pac-Man instead, in a pairing so sweetly balanced I could play for hours. That’s just one of the games, and the only one I will even partly ruin. So yes, this is the core appeal, right? Slowly turn the laundrette into an arcade and rake it in. (Just playing the games and ticking off achievements helps make them more popular with punters.)
Yes, definitely. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was to be so in thrall to just, you know, running a laundrette in the first place. For the first few hours, this is the main game here. I love to pick up trash, fill the bin-bag and then lob it into the target that appears in the dumpster outside. I love the stretchy micro-drama of pulling away an old piece of gum. And I really love the timing challenges of washing clothes, tumbling them, and stacking them to be picked up. The sheer ostentation with which I fling the laundry basket away at the end of it all reminds me of the pride David Lynch took in his paper round. All of this stuff is a matter of button-presses and lovely feedback. (Not talking about the paper round any more.) In its own way it speaks of the shameful pleasures some of us have found in drudgery over the years.
Where did this game come from? I’d call this a work of nostalgia if it wasn’t so unflinching with the grime of the details and the steady tap-tap-tapping of commerce. Instead, let’s call it what it is: a game shaped by nostalgia’s less compromised sibling, memory. Arcade Paradise is fiction and abstraction that feels like memory. Maybe this is because it understands the way that memory also fictionalises and abstracts.
What it’s getting at for me is a way of seeing games that’s rooted in age and circumstance. Arcade Paradise, particularly in the early hours, is constructed in such a manner that it delivers a sense of games as something you steal time for – steal minutes and even seconds in amongst the other things in the world, like washing and drying, the need to pick up trash and do the finances. And compared to that world, games are lurid and vivid – bolts of rainbow amidst the threadbare textures of work.
And more than that, it hints, games can be a way of seeing the world. The laundry quickly becomes a game here – an S-rank in tumble-drying is as satisfying, in its own way, as an S-rank in a Platinum game. Later, the arcade as an entity becomes a playful fixation too: where best to place the machines? What’s the best price and difficulty? And hey, what’s business, the buying and tweaking of machines, the expanding of premises, the search for the optimal circumstances to coin it in, if not a game anyway?
What a thing. Arcade Paradise made me think of Outrun and GTA and Mr Driller, and also my own working life in my teens as a dishwasher and a double-glazing salesperson, sure. But it also made me think of those mazes tiled on the walls of Warren Street tube. Warren Street! Get it? Little puzzles made to be solved between trains, but tricky enough to encourage you to miss your train in the first place. Then you solve the maze and you’re off into a wider maze of the underground network. And maybe, who knows, there’s a maze beyond that too.