I love arcade games. I love classic arcade cabinets, those mysterious boxes of wood and glass that house the circuits which make a game sing. And while I love playing these games on original hardware and in original housing… the fact of the matter is that a hobbyist likely does not have the space in their home to dedicate a huge chunk of to a single game that literally fit within a 32k ROM chip. Fortunately, 2017 has a solution — a custom arcade cabinet.
Using an authentic arcade housing, either refitting an old game (preferably a cheap one rather than some rarity) or creating a custom box in classic style, you wire up arcade joystick controls to a modern PC or a Raspberry Pi which then emulates any number of original games. The obvious advantage is being able to run thousands of games within a single cabinet… but a less obvious advantage is that if you’re using a modern Windows PC, you can also run any number of very appropriate indie games available on Steam. Since typical PC arcade joysticks work like a keyboard and trackballs work like mice, any game that works with a mouse or keyboard can work! And with a 4:3 aspect (square-ish) monitor you can even have a genuine arcade visual experience.
So in addition to developing Arcade Spirits, my visual novel of love and quarters, I’ve also got a custom arcade cab and I love testing indie games to see how well they work on it. I also maintain a spreadsheet to help others looking to load up on great games — not reviewing the quality of the game itself, but reviewing how well they run on this unique pile of hardware. This is in tandem with a (rarely updated) YouTube channel with lots of great tech info for aspiring cab owners. (I used to stream too, but man, I already got one giant creative fiasco to wrangle and didn’t need another. I’ll leave that to my co-author.)
Long story short, TL;DR… I’d like to review a game for you and talk about how well it runs on home arcades.
Specifically, the recently released Battle Chef Brigade. Let’s break it down. And we’ll use grade school ratings, because why not?
THE GAME ITSELF: A+. It’s an absolutely delightful combination of side scrolling brawler and match-3 puzzler, where you hunt monsters for their delicious, delicious inner bits and then cook ’em up during a massive competition of chefs, possibly of iron. The art is great, the music is wonderful, it’s an optimistic and pleasant experience overall. While it’s not a traditional arcade game, that hasn’t stopped me from playing other indies on an arcade rig, because why not? It’s fun!
GRAPHICS: A-. Visually it’s a treat, and actually plays well on a non-16:9 aspect monitor! It has some minor letterboxing, but it will display on 4:3 without squishing everything down like most games do. It’s very hard to find a game that works on 4:3, so even if this doesn’t completely work, it works better than most.
CONTROL REMAPPING: B. Critical for any game running on arcade hardware is to allow every single function of the game, from in-game controls to out-of-game menus, to work with any key on your keyboard you want. Arcade joysticks on PCs don’t always use Xinput / DirectInput, but instead mimic a keyboard, so you need to be able to remap every single function. I’m pleased to say that BCB does have good control remapping… with one exception. The Escape key. It’s understandable why they wouldn’t want you to remap the button that pulls up the menu, in case you mess up your game remapping it to something obscure, but it does mean relying on outside scripting systems like AutoHotkey to forcibly remap it.
CONTROL COMPLEXITY: C-. Okay, so once you have everything remapped… how well does it play? Well, this is a bit more frustrating. I have eight available buttons but they’re all generic and black, so knowing which one maps to which function is tricky. Particularly when the game rapidly switches between inventory management, side scrolling action, and match-3 puzzling. Sometimes, even both at the same time! Juggling your inventory while trying to remember what button drops in a new ingredient or does your special attack is a bit wonky. Now, in time, I’ll probably get the hang of this… but it made for a very confusing initial experience. I would’ve wanted more context-sensitive shared controls and a simpler inventory system.
LAUNCH TECH: C. Lastly, actually starting the game! Normally you click on it in Steam and you’re good, but arcade cabinets use front-ends like HyperSpin to launch games. Normally that’s fine, but sometimes Steam games get super confused when you just straight up launch the EXE instead of activating them through Steam. In this case, BCB fails, unfortunately. It throws an error when launched directly. It’s fixable through an AutoHotkey script, though, much like the Escape key remapping issue.
OVERALL… A! It’s a mixed bag, with half of it working just dandy and half of it having problems. But the sheer charm and wonder of the game itself, plus a little AutoHotkey script tinkering, helps me get past these problems and into what’s a terrific game as a whole. Very few indies run flawlessly on arcade cabs, so working around issues is common, and even a mixed bag is better than nothing.
I’m thinking of including a non-fiction guide to setting up and understanding home arcade cabinets in Arcade Spirits itself, hosted by Naomi, of course. (Thanks to Shadra for the suggestion!) So if you’re interested in having your own dream arcade machine… well, keep an eye out, because this visual novel will be more than meets the eye.