Games that trade on nostalgia are ten-lives-a-penny on Xbox Live Arcade, a service named for the branch of old school gaming it arguably helped to kill off - but in ArcadeCraft's case, the rosy, backward-looking glow is pervaded by threat. As you go about the business of raising an arcade from dust, stocking it with the choicest cabinets and milking the neighbourhood kids dry, shadows wind ominously across the chequered floor. The bewitching, flickering twilight of the arcade here becomes the twilight of the idea of leaving your house to play a videogame.
That's apparent, too, in the way the games you offer eventually leech into home console waters, killing their popularity and forcing you to buy in ever-pricier hardware, fighting the march of history one beautifully adorned bezel at a time. ArcadeCraft is more of a eulogy than an elegy, in the end, and a fine, cheap Indie sim to boot, but there's a lot of sadness at its heart. It's perhaps more than coincidence that the Xbox Live Indie channel currently faces extinction itself.
Most painful are the occasional power cuts, which oblige you to pick up and drop all the machines on the premises to get them working again. Charming as the simple, nicely-lit visuals are, ArcadeCraft's highlight is its soundtrack - each and every arcade machine you can buy has its own distinct chipset refrain, and once you've got a few in action, the result is a gorgeous cacophany of explosions, high score warbles and staticky catchphrases, interwoven by the jingle of coins. When the electricity goes, so too does the ambient score you've been unconsciously layering up over the past few minutes, and the silence is vaguely frightening.
Production values are what'll get you into ArcadeCraft, but the game's pacey, lightweight strategy mechanics are worth sticking around for. The inspiration here is the browser-based time management genre on PC, and the challenge is thus to keep up with a bombardment of tasks while planning ahead. The game's dozens of arcade machines are fragile things - they'll break if you let an over-stimulated player knock them around, their coin slots will jam under pressure and you'll need to empty the coin box at regular intervals.
The controls, thankfully, are a piece of cake, if slightly unresponsive. You move the cursor with the D-pad or analogue stick, and pick up and place machines with the A button. X button flips open a breakdown of the game's earnings, and lets you fiddle with the price and difficulty at the risk of riling customers. Start button fires up an overview of your business where you can buy new machines (providing you've the space and electricity), hire staff and change the deco. The all-important popularity star rating is visible in top-left whenever the cursor rests on a machine, letting you respond quickly when games go out of fashion.
There's some pleasing depth to how popularity is calculated. Simply changing the wallpaper or adding a soda machine is good for demand, but you should also be careful to offer a range of genres - as in modern times, overdosing on shooters is a good way to turn the audience off. There are randomised events to help things along, like power stars that appear on certain floor tiles - plonk a cabinet on top of one, and people will all but fight for the privilege of touching it.
From time to time, a celebrity pro gamer might offer a popularity boost in return for monopolising a particular machine, or an obscure manufacturer might show up touting an exotic, expensive rarity. It's not all about the New: elderly cabinets sometimes attract the attention of vintage game collectors, making it worth your while to keep one or two knocking around when they go out of fashion.
Besides the aforesaid browser sims, developer Firebase's model appears to be Kairosoft's cult hit Game Dev Story for iOS and Android - and as with much of Kairosoft's output, it doesn't take long for the basic monotony of the experience to soak through the glitter. Once you hire a member of staff to take care of coinbox-emptying, you'll find yourself with little to do save brood over the Avatar clientele and snap up new machines as they're announced.
But also as with Kairosoft's games, the price tag makes up for the lack of replay value. If you pine for the rasterized worlds of the 1980s, and you've got reasonably quick fingers, this is a lovely, melancholy way to rediscover them - and for not much more than the price of a credit.