The new renaissance of arcade-style games

As someone who has been playing games for 30+ years at the time of writing, one of the things that has been most exciting to see over the course of the last console generation is the resurgence in short-form, arcade-style games — and the fact that there are publishers who take these games seriously enough to give them a full retail release rather than burying them in the depths of a digital marketplace.

For all the new and exciting things the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii generation brought to the table with their focus on online connectivity, one of the most negative things they introduced was the ghettoisation of short-form games. You had your Xbox Live Arcade/PSN/Virtual Console downloads, and you had your “proper” games that came on a disc in a box.

Arcade-style game The Ninja Saviors
The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors

Sure, there were breakout hits — Bizarre Creations’ outstanding Geometry Wars series springs immediately to mind when I think back on the furious leaderboard competitions that unfolded between me and my friends — but for the most part, digital-only arcade-style games became the titles you played between your “proper” games; when you weren’t in the mood for Oblivion, you’d fire up Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes for a few minutes. At least, you would if you had any taste; that game is outstanding. But I digress.

As the PlayStation 4 and Switch platforms matured, something changed, though — and yes, I’m deliberately omitting the Xbox One from this, for reasons that will become apparent. While there were still digital-only releases coming out, and while they were still ghettoised to a certain extent, we started to see a few companies starting to understand that there were people who enjoyed, appreciated and respected these short-form, arcade-style experiences. After all, one of the most common complaints among gamers of a certain age is “I don’t have time to play 100+ hour modern games” — to someone like this, a game that is over and done with in 20 minutes but eminently friendly to repeat play is absolutely ideal.

Arcade-style game Natsuki Chronicles
Natsuki Chronicles

In 2015, an American indie developer called Mighty Rabbit Studios set up a division called Limited Run Games, with an intent to create limited physical print runs for games that had otherwise been confined to digital marketplaces. In order to test the market, the company’s first two releases, Breach & Clear and Saturday Morning RPG, were developed in-house, but a positive reception to these initial releases meant that by mid-2016, the company was already pushing out a regular stream of packaged PlayStation 4 and Vita versions of games that had proven popular on their original digital release.

In the early days, Limited Run Games were already pushing out at least two games a month, often for both PlayStation 4 and Vita — and many of these titles were exactly the sort of short-form arcade-style experiences that had been missing from players’ shelves throughout the seventh generation of consoles, with notable examples including Futuridium EP Deluxe and Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype, as well as well-regarded retro-inspired titles such as Shadow Complex Remastered and WayForward’s Shantae games.

Shantae
Shantae

Initially, Limited Run Games’ releases were PlayStation exclusives due to the company’s troubles agreeing minimum order quantities with both Microsoft and Nintendo. It appears that the former issues were never solved, hence the fact there are no Limited Run Games releases for Xbox One, but the company managed to reach a compromise with Nintendo, and we started to see Limited Run Games releases on Nintendo Switch in mid-2018 — the same year that we also started to see certain Limited Run Games releases on retail shelves in Best Buy stores in the United States.

The success of Limited Run Games over the course of the last six years inspired a significant number of imitators, with notable examples including Strictly Limited Games, who specialise in beautifully elaborate yet affordable limited editions; Super Rare Games, who focus on indie titles for Nintendo Switch; and 1st Press Games, who concentrate on physical releases of Japanese digital-only titles.

On top of that, German company ININ Games has been doing a great job of bringing a number of otherwise digital-only titles to online retailers such as Amazon, allowing collectors to enjoy having copies of arcade-style titles such as The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors, Turrican Flashback, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends and Cotton Reboot on their shelves. And, notably, ININ Games has been instrumental in bringing Westone’s last ever arcade game Clockwork Aquario — a game thought lost for 30 years — to modern platforms.

Why is all this important? Because whatever you might think of the limited-pressing model of video game physical releases, these releases draw significant attention to games that might otherwise have passed a lot of people by. A packaged copy of a game still carries a lot more “prestige” than a digital-only release, and thus the assumption for a lot of people is that if a digital-only title has successfully “graduated” to a physical release, it must be worth playing and owning, even if it’s a short-form arcade-style game.

And that, in turn, has made the gaming audience in general a lot more open to the idea of ascribing value to short-form arcade style experiences rather than purely focusing on a meaningless “playtime to cost” ratio, as we started to do throughout the seventh generation. As a result of all this, we’ve seen a resurgence in a variety of genres long thought dead.

Arcade-style game Fight'N Rage
Fight’N Rage

The beat ’em up is back with a vengeance thanks to titles like Streets of Rage 4, River City Girls, Fight’N Rage and Scott Pilgrim.

Shoot ’em ups have never been healthier, with NIS America releasing the excellent Psikyo Shooting Stars collections a while back, Taito’s classic Darius series making a bit of a comeback, the triumphant return of R-Type, previously unlocalised or very rare titles like Cotton finally getting a western release — and, of course, brand new shooters such as Natsuki Chronicles getting the attention they deserve.

The Castlevania format is getting some love, too, with Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter-funded Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night getting a retail release, along with limited-run versions of its excellent Inti Creates-developed spinoff titles Curse of the Moon and Curse of the Moon 2. Hell, even Konami managed to wake up from their cursed slumber for long enough to arrange a physical pressing of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection through Limited Run Games — watch out for that one later today!

Even the light-gun shooter is coming back thanks to the rise of virtual reality as well as titles like Gal*Gun Returns!

Gal*Gun Returns
Gal*Gun Returns

There hasn’t been a better time to enjoy arcade-style games since the 16- and 32-bit home console eras, particularly if you own a PlayStation 4 and/or a Nintendo Switch. And I, for one, welcome this wonderful new age; I love me a good, long, girthy RPG — but sometimes you just want to play for a bit without having to think about the long term. Sometimes you just want to hack at a giant cyborg’s kneecaps as a female-presenting android, or blast a biological terror with your immensely fragile spacecraft before said terror breaks out of a block of ice, or punch electric cats in the face.

The wonderful thing about modern gaming is that you have that choice without feeling like one is a “lesser” option — and we’re approaching a point where all types of games, regardless of length from start to credits, are given the respect they deserve. That’s a great thing, so long may it continue!

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Pete Davison
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