In a lot of ways, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a very different beast to its predecessor. The first was a funny, heartfelt, optionally romantic visual novel about the daily lives of a game centre operator and their eccentric regulars; The New Challengers is all about arcade esports: competition, tournaments, and the community, friendships, and rivalries that build around a game like Street Fighter. But for all its fighting game community influence, it’s still an Arcade Spirits game at heart, with the charming characters, thoughtful reflections, and pop culture-fuelled humour that comes with it.
In The New Challengers‘ alternate reality where arcades still thrive, a game called “Fist of Discomfort 2” (ahem) rules the competitive scene. With a huge following, an annual pro league, massive tournaments broadcast worldwide, and lucrative sponsorships there’s a whole lot of fame and fortune waiting for those who make it to the top. And that’s exactly where your player-created character wants to be—only, it’s a team game, when your best friend/rival gets headhunted by one of the top teams, you’re on your own. One illegal AI assistant-powered search later, you find yourself recruited by… a ragtag bunch of misfits who hang out at a cozy little arcade/laundromat/pizza restaurant, none of whom have particular ambitions for Pro League glory. Huh.
But that’s exactly the sort of place where a reclusive gamer with an unhealthy obsession with winning can find friendship, love, and—perhaps most important of all—perspective. Winning isn’t everything, and this unexpected encounter with Team Good (pizza) Clean (laundry) Fun (games) is exactly what you need to learn that lesson.
Which, in practice, means spending a lot of time with the charming, eccentric crew of GFC. A lightgun game-obsessed firebrand who could almost match NieR’s Kaine when it comes to swearing and master of rigged prize games who lives in a permanent state of Robin Hood roleplay are just a couple of the folks you’ll meet, but caricaturish first impressions give way to deep, complex companions who have a lot going on. They’re a lens through which Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers explores range of topics, from predatory monetisation in games to the challenges of navigating an inaccessible world with a disability. But more than that, they’re the heart and soul of a game that, at its core, is about friendship, with rich, relatable characterisation that drives those emotions home.
But nor does The New Challengers settle for saying the real victory is the friends we made along the way. Winning certainly isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing, either, and that’s ultimately the game’s point: a self-destructive, obsessive need to win at any cost can be toxic, but victory can be worth fighting for, so long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. And uniting behind a common goal as a team, encouraging and helping each other to improve? Well, that’s as good a reason as any. With its esports premise, The New Challengers examines both sides of that coin, from the most toxic drive to win at any cost (and the pressure that comes with that) to the sense of achievement, accomplishment, and community that can come from healthy competition.
The New Challengers also touches on a wide array of other issues—or at least, it tries to. Pretty much every capital-D Discourse in game culture (and beyond) from the last 10 years gets a mention, from politics in games to copyright issues to the gig economy to “censorship” to actual censorship… you get the idea. But in trying to cover so much ground, the results often feel superficial: a brief mention of a topical issue, maybe a dialogue choice that lets you plant your flag, and then it’s forgotten about. When The New Challengers does take the time to go deeper, it does so with nuance and care—its reflections on disability, poverty, and familial pressure through some of the main characters are particularly noteworthy in that regard. But too many others feel like they’re just there for the sake of being there: not to make a point, or change anyone’s mind, but just to make sure no topic gets left unmentioned.
Which brings us to… memes. A game like Arcade Spirits is always going to be full of references to other games and pop culture, quotes, and nods to various moments of game industry history. It’s a style of humour that fits the theme and contextually appropriate, and the gags often quite funny—assuming it’s a reference you understand. But at the same time, there’s a point where diminishing returns kick in… and when you’ve got two “I want to be the very best, like no one ever was” Pokemon jokes within the first half hour of the game, you’re past that point. Despite some genuinely funny jokes and character-building moments, The New Challengers overplays its referential humour, often to an annoying degree. It’s okay to go more than two lines without name-dropping some famous game or movie, I promise.
On the contrary, The New Challengers shines best when it leans into what makes it unique: the characters, obviously, but also the game at the centre of this whole story: Fist of Discomfort 2. Though it’s a fighting game of sorts, Arcade Spirits itself is a visual novel—so how do you go about including it? You distill fighting games to their bare essence, and turn that into a minigame you can play through dialogue choices. At the most fundamental, a fighting game match is a series of unequal rock-paper-scissors games, where each option is worth a different (and variable) number of “points” (in terms of damage) depending on various factors. Throw beats guard, but the reward for a successful throw and the risk of trying it all vary depending on character choice, individual playstyle, position on screen, how much health each player has, and so on. The Fist of Discomfort 2 minigame within The New Challengers is exactly that: rock-paper-scissors played through dialogue choices, but where each option is worth a differing number of points, those values change over the course of the game, and opponent AI means they have patterns to read and anticipate. It’s a rather genius way of incorporating a playable form of The New Challengers’ central esport without building a whole, separate minigame.
It’s also optional—if you want, you can skip all FoD2 matches, and even manually choose the outcomes for the sake of role-playing and story direction. In a single-player, story-centric game like this, giving players that degree of control, instead of forcing them to play (and possibly struggle with) some minigame is welcome. If you want the version of the story where you win every match, go nuts. It’s also just the logical extension of Arcade Spirits‘ approach to player direction: it’s an authored, broadly linear narrative, but with a lot of scope to role-play, a lot of different branches based on the choices you make, and the freedom to customise your character and decide whether or not you want the romance aspect.
As a sequel to Arcade Spirits, The New Challengers hits just the right spot: the same sense of humour, energy, and delightful characterisation, but without simply being more of the same. The esports plot takes it in some wonderful new directions, both narratively and thematically, and there’s a clever riff on fighting games in a fun little minigame. The meme-fuelled humour might be laid on a little too thick this time, but endearing, layered characters are still the heart and soul of the game.