New Retro Arcade: Neon is striving to be one of the most accurate recreations yet of the so called ‘Golden Age of Arcade Gaming’ with its heavy emphasis on ’80s and early ’90s nostalgia. Featuring a multitude of configurable emulator-based coin-op cabinets and consoles like SNES and Gameboy (respectively called ‘Cartridges’ and ‘Gamebro’ for obvious legal reasons) alongside a healthy serving of arcade classics like air hockey, bowling and skee ball—Neon has undoubtedly rebuilt an important piece of gaming history, and all beautifully rendered in virtual reality. But before you pop on your Power Glove and open up a can of Tab, there are some clear limitations to the platform that may hinder your on your quest to relive the Reagan/Thatcher era of arcade gaming.
New Retro Arcade Neon Details:
Let set some things straight. New Retro Arcade: Neon isn’t an improvement over the original 2014 tech demo when it comes to playing video games. In fact, it’s a clear downgrade in the overall ‘out of the box’ experience.
Before consumer VR headsets came out earlier this year, the original New Retro Arcade demo featured a smaller, albeit fully functional arcade, complete with automatically downloadable ‘game packs’, which plugged in appropriate emulator cores and a long list of popular MAME, SNES, Gameboy ROMs and the befitting cabinet/cartridge artwork—essentially everything you needed for a snag-free arcade experience from the get-go. All of this was back before developers Digial Cyber Cherries started eyeing the Steam distribution platform, that is, and understandably disassociated themselves with any source of abandonware IP before launching a paid game on Steam.
That older arcade space is included in New Retro Arcade Neon (called ‘Classic’), but like the new space, there is no longer the convenience of ‘game packs’, so you’ll be left to your own devices when it comes to replacing the contents of Neon’s mostly non-functioning stock cabinets with your own emulators and ROMs; an annoyance for anyone who doesn’t like fiddling with settings or experiencing the hair-pulling frustration of making sure a certain ROM will run on their chosen emulator core.
This is however likely the current legal framework that Digital Cyber Cherries must abide by if they want to keep offering their game on legitimate platforms like Steam, so that’s where I stop complaining and get used to the fact that I, the end user, have to take full responsibility for the ROMs I may or may not have obtained to get the game working as it should—and with that in mind, I can’t reasonably fault the game; I simply can’t ask a legitimate game to break the law to make my life easier.
For those into it, there’s a charm in installing your own ROMs to build your own arcade, and if you already have the ROMs on hand, it will cost you very little time to plug them in and get them up and running.
There is something I will whine about though, and it’s the fact that (at the time of this writing), ROMs are not ‘shareable’ across multiplayer mode, meaning that friends playing together through the game’s six player multiplayer can’t see anything displayed on my chosen cabinet, nor play with me, completely dashing all hope of playing Street Fighter (1987) with friends half-way across the world, or peering over my buddy’s shoulder while he tried for the high score in Ms. Pac-Man (1981). It was disappointing to learn that the tech demo I’d been salivating over for the last two years didn’t let me do the one thing I wanted it for: play video games with my friends in VR.
That said, New Retro Arcade Neon does come stock with two original multiplayer arcade games, a two player Area 51 (1995) style zombie shooter which uses light guns, and a six player GoldenEye 007 (1997) style FPS.
Beyond the cabinets, New Retro Arcade Neon fills out its online multiplayer with highly detailed physics-based games including air hockey, bowling, basketball, skee ball, a boxing game, and whack-a-mole, with the promise of laser tag coming soon. After a recent update, most of them work pretty smoothly too, but after playing each of them once or twice, it personally started to feel a little too kitschy and actually pretty boring considering just how much of the floor space was dedicated to video games. I look forward to revisiting when laser tag goes live to see how it changes the arcade’s overall dynamic, but still openly lament the fact I still can’t dual a buddy in game as simple as Joust (1982).
If you’re tired of playing around with the interactables, and there are a ton of them, (there’s even a playable guitar floating around that works with varying success), an adjacent cinema lets you watch your own YouTube videos—represented by a handful of VHS tapes—on a big projector screen, producing a grainy and washed out picture that completes the carefully put-together ’80s vibe. Loading up a random episode of He-Man (1983) I found on YouTube into the Arcade Builder, sitting square on my floor IRL, and popping in the corresponding VHS, I zoned out, dredging up some latent memories of when I faked the flu in third grade so I could stay home and watch shitty cartoons like He-Man.
The fleeting realness that the entire arcade offers is almost scary, like if you squint your eyes just enough you’d swear you were really there—a testament to just how slick the game really is, or rather, how slick it isn’t; deep scratches and surfaces blotched with pizza grease portray a realistic wear and tear of the whole place, the sort you expect from the dingy archetypal arcade of years gone past.
You can of course get a large helping of all of this through the free demo, so it will be interesting to see how New Retro Arcade Neon continues to differentiate itself and build more value into their premium game through further updates.
Teleportation is the standard movement scheme for the Vive version of the game—a fine way to get from point A to point B with nearly zero comfort issues. This however doesn’t ring true for the Oculus Rift version, which offers only gamepad and keyboard/mouse controls currently—not at all damning in its own right I should preface.
When playing on the Rift, you only have the option to smoothly pan using the left stick on the Xbox controller, or swiveling using the mouse however. Some people love it, and some people can’t stand the world-spinning turns of the yaw stick, but because there is no option to toggle a ‘VR comfort mode’ on—which usually allows you to snap your POV gradually so you aren’t subjected to any undue virtual movement—this may be nauseating for some on the Rift. I found myself slack-jawed in front of a cabinet for most of the time, a moment when the movement scheme seemed to fade away to the awesomeness of playing video games in a nearly real arcade.
Like the 2014 New Retro Arcade tech demo, locking into a game while standing in front of your favorite coin-op is probably one of the most immersive things about New Retro Arcade: Neon.
I mostly prefer the gamepad when it comes to playing coin-ops and console games in Neon, as it approximates button pushing much more reliably than the Vive controllers’ touchpads can. Then again, I vastly prefer the Vive controllers when it comes to interacting with in-game items like a drum machine and the cassette tapes that litter the whole arcade. In my perfect world though, I would probably do away with both of them (for the purposes of playing arcade cabinets) and opt for an arcade joystick set-up at the height of one of the cabs so I could really get into it, and have optical tracking like a Leap Motion to track my hand movements.
As for multiplayer, Neon still has a ways to go, since avatars don’t have faces yet, only floating Virtual Boy-esque VR headsets and a melange of stock hats to help differentiate one person from another. Being able to immediately relate to other players in a virtual space is imperative to the overall experience, so avatar customization is a must going forward.
While everything else seems to work well enough in the 6-person multi-user space now, Neon only recently rebounded from a complete melt down of their voice-chat feature, leaving online players completely mute for the first week after launch. This has since been remedied following a number of post-launch updates, which included patches for various problems like buggy controller support, unloadable VHS tapes, and some confusion as how to actually work the cabinets.
With most glaring issues resolved (you can follow bug fixes on their trello board), the game still very much feels like a game in Early Access (even though it isn’t listed as such)—a perception the team will have to continue to fight against if it wants to become a thriving VR social portal.