When playing games in a genre you don't know, context is important. If you don't know the expectations that the genre sets, then you can't make an honest assessment. That's why people who watch musicals complain about singing and dancing, if they don't know that musicals are supposed to have that. When I was playing Arcade Paradise, I was interested in the premise as someone who loves going to arcades as a customer. We get to see the other side when you are the arcade manager, and one who is treating it as a side hustle at that.
Nostalgic players and the Steam audience at large took interest in Arcade Paradise long before its August release. It's easy to see why: the player character has a chance to control their destiny, and rise above the unfair circumstances that their parents force on them. People who grew up in the 90s also understand that you can change the daily drudgery, with the power of capitalism and videogame love.
Welcome to Dingy Paradise
Our player character is Ashley, a wayward teen who has just reached adulthood. Her dad, Gerald "King of the Riviera", claims it's not a punishment when he assigns Ashley to work at King Laundry, a laundromat that he owns. If she can turn a profit, then he'll reconsider sending her to a packing plant as "fresh meat" (we're not sure if he is joking). Ashley's older sister Lesley, which could be a boy or girl's name so I had to Google Lesley's gender, suggests another way for Ashley to rake in revenue: upgrade the arcade cabinets in the backroom of the laundromat in order to make daily earning, using not-eBay. Ashley considers this plan when facing the drudgery of moving baskets of laundry from washer to dryer.
Customers are dirty and neglectful. They leave trash everywhere, and gum stuck to every possible surface. You can tell that the creators have worked in jobs where customers demeaned them, and I felt a lot of sympathy for Ashley. It seems that few customers take pride in the laundromat, but leaving their trash around means that fewer regulars will come. The cycle can become self-perpetuating unless you pick up the trash and toss it in the dumpster like a basketball player. On the plus side, you get paid a lot for every piece of garbage you collect.
The game is gorgeous. We get a two-dimensional animated opening, as Ashley prepares to mount the bus while surrounded by the comfort of rock and rebel music. It contrasts the three-dimensional visuals that appear when we get off the bus and walk to the laundromat. The grimy floors and smudged mirrors indicate that the business has seen better days, and the dad acknowledges that he actually forgot he still owned the place. That detail implies that Ashley's family is moderately wealthy if not upper class and that her father runs a few businesses.
We also get a dedicated soundtrack. Each room in the laundromat, from the individual arcade cabinets to the office, has a theme for them. You can change the tracks simply by walking from room to room or emptying a laundry basket.
Ashley technically can play the arcade games at her leisure, but that time would cut into the cleanup needed or attending to the laundry. I had no incentive to play because her dad made quite an intimidating phone call at the beginning, saying that he would check on Ashley's progress and scold her if she failed to meet his expectations. Even though he didn't call on day two, I had no desire to risk that wrath. Experience has taught me that if your boss yells at you, it's best to not poke any bears. That goes double if you're related to your boss.
Theory: Ghosts Needing Laundry?
I felt better when watching some Let's Plays of the game, many of which noted that Ashley has no reflection in the windows and that the customers vanish as soon as you talk to them. It did feel very weird that you are working in a laundromat that has been there for as long as your sibling Lesley has been able to work, but you can't talk to any of the locals. Since profit and business simulators are new to me -- the last one I did was for a mandatory IT class in business school and it took me a while to figure out how to win-- I had assumed we could talk to the NPCs to get the lay of the land. We don't get any men playing dominos in the park, or teenagers talking about the new teacher at school.
Several friends told me, however, that it was normal for them to just do their laundry and go. They would not talk to the laundromat owner or any managers, even if said owners and managers do their laundry as Ashley does. This isn't going to be like the movie In the Heights where Abuela Claudia warmly greets the new organic dry cleaner and asks if he can do her doilies for an important dinner.
The lack of reflection is sus though, as are the customers disappearing as soon as you approach them. Sometimes even garbage would appear out of nowhere and I questioned why it wasn't there when I looked around the storefront.
My theory is that Ashley is a ghost, and what her father tells her is their last conversation before the bus ran her over. She has to go through the motions of her last few days and turn a profit because capitalism exists in the afterlife. Why else can we not talk to the customers? And how else does trash appear out of nowhere that we have to collect?
It also explains why Ashley is disconnected from her father and sibling. Lesley rarely communicates, at least on the first two days which was what I played. She mentions that she used to run the laundromat, and their dad gave Lesley permission to invest any revenue in the arcade.
Later plays may disprove this, as Forbes says that as you go on, you get to turn the laundromat into an arcade empire. All you need to do is choose the right games, and remember to literally remove literal bugs from motherboards as well as declog the toilets. If that's the case, then I'm happy to continue to get to the excitement.
I hope we also get more insight into the family's relationships. What did Ashley do to earn this punishment, and why is her older sister so inaccessible? In fact, where is Lesley now? It made me more grateful for cellphones and plans with unlimited texting in the 2020s, reminding me how 90s cellphones were there to help you make phone calls and that was it. While I doubt we'll get answers since the point is to turn a profit and not fix any drama in Ashley's family, it is nice to ponder what broke this family, and what could reunite the sisters.
All in all, Arcade Paradise was fun to play thus far, and I am interested in seeing where the profit -- and the story-- goes. Is it going to be possible to help Ashley bridge the gap or will she need to find all the joy in the videogames? They do provide joy, and Arcade Paradise was no different.
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