Being born in the early ’90s, I have a vague memory of the arcade era of gaming. Though given the area I grew up in, I was never provided much opportunity to access a “true” arcade scene—the most I can recall were a few machines at a far-off Chuck E. Cheese establishment. So when I think of “arcades,” I have a limited interpretation of what that conveys. Button City is another stylistic representation of the colorful world that games can provide, and the relationships they can help forge. For that alone, it may be worth diving into.
Though it should be noted that this is every bit a “narrative adventure” as the term implies. Trailers will showcase a variety of different mini-games available to play, but when it comes to the main “adventure,” they’re only so relevant. A majority of the game will consist of the travel generally skimmed over in stories of grand journeys. Does this side content and generally-optional variety in gameplay serve as a conditioner for a walk-heavy escapade? The game’s writing becomes all the more crucial to holding the player’s good graces.
Story – All Manners of Life
Fennel is new to town and doesn’t have any friends. When he learns of an arcade in town named Button City, he races there immediately; the course of his life will change forever with that decision. Meeting with more knowledgeable peers, he’s quickly initiated into a group called the Fluff Squad, with their leader, Sorrel, showing him the ropes of the arcade’s premiere game: Gobabots. After finding his place in the world, disaster strikes: Button City is in danger of being sold to a big businessman by the name of Pepperbottom! It’s up to the kids of the arcade family to put a stop to his malicious profiteering.
Something that should be noted early on is that Button City is prone to a variety of different tones. Cute, goofy, wholesome, and vaguely dark, some may be surprised at the flexibility of the story’s writing. The writers may have been keen on showcasing life precisely as it can be, rather than a glossed tale of simplicity. This decision was one of a few surprises that met with me during my playthrough.
There’s also a substantial focus—though not obtusely—on underrepresented groups of people in society that gives the story a more inclusive touch. One major character is paraplegic; a character in a rival group is referred to as nonbinary; Sorrel’s parents are referred to as “Mommy and Mama.” Despite these differences to the norm, Button City never addresses these as anything outside of commonplace. It’s a nice approach to normalizing the implementation of alternative groups of people without alienating them as ostensibly “different.”
Most of the writing throughout is the same way. A gentle, nurturing approach to narrative that makes it easy to see this from a child’s perspective, given most of the characters. Though some humorous breaks can be found throughout, particularly memes, that provide winks to something more meta. Specific characters will twist the immersiveness of the world to showcase the writing’s partialness to breaking the fourth wall. If not that, it’s generally broken up into two primary foundations: rambunctious and somber.
Like The Goonies, except entirely different, the antics of the Fluff Squad are reminiscent of a picturesque Summer of fun and frenzy. Playing games, fighting over petty things, getting into trouble, and battling against the tyranny of unbridled monetary gain. A presentation of life that one can easily find fondness in, complete with endearing bombast and moments of clarity. There was never a moment I didn’t find endearingly precious.
Yet the same cannot be said about its deeper connotations. Occasionally, Button City will delve into subjects in a similar fashion to its treatment of underrepresented people groups. Troubled home lives, dream-like analyses on inner anxieties; these are supplanted with familiar bluntness, only they aren’t quite as effective for me. These are aspects of life that I would prefer to have more development on, with a few subjects coming across as done for the sake of it. The overall length of the game doesn’t do it any favors, unfortunately. Nevertheless, it’s a somewhat minor segment of the writing that doesn’t quite grip as well as it could.
Gameplay – Walk, Play Games, Then Walk Again
Prior to playing this for the first time, I admittedly had a narrow view of what it would consist of. Watching trailers, I had this preconceived notion that the game would be more varied in its gameplay mechanics. All the variety of mini-games on display, and the heavy focus on the arcade scene, I was looking forward to being treated to an everchanging landscape. In actuality, the game, I’d wager, is about 70% walking around and interacting with people/things.
This is my fault, of course. The “narrative adventure” label is something I should have placed more credence on. Within this field, it does exactly what it intends to do, along with a nice variety of things to spice it up. But for those not fond of what I describe as “the worst parts of Paper Mario,” Button City will not do much to dispel that preference. You walk around, you talk to folks, do some fetch quests, and watch some cutscenes. That’s a majority of what the game expects you to do to progress the main story. And per my view, it’s not particularly engaging.
Though one game in particularly is emphasized during the main “campaign”: Gobabots. A robo-battle game where two teams of four compete against each other in a small arena, with the objective being to collect berries and toss them into a blender in the middle of the stage. One will do this four or five times during the main story, with all other available games (racing game, rhythm game, non-integral Gobabots matches) being optional side content. Some story-specific, simple mini-games do occur that can’t be returned to, such as hiding from a meeting or making lemonade, that do offer some respite from the constant grind of travel.
Gobabots, specifically, is a decent encapsulation of a simplistic arcade game that kids would be into. Played just enough times to give it weight to the situations it’s brought up in, too. It reminds me slightly of Custom Robo, another dialogue-heavy game that involved a lot of running around. Where that game had a core gameplay mechanic built around the story, this is a case of a story built around a (number of) game(s). This distinction is key to whether or not you’ll find worth in the journey here. Gobabots is a fine alternative, though it won’t be enough to have people clamoring for more.
Other games, like the aforementioned racing and rhythm ones, are mostly optional and relegated to side content. One can play at their leisure, and can even challenge NPCs to matches for various prizes. Though I wonder if this lack of importance to them will incentivize players to peruse them at all. I did so for curiosity’s sake—after all, it’s an arcade. Why not peruse the goods? And they’re fun for a little while, but again, hardly relevant. One can play through the whole game without touching them. Incorporating some other way to tie them into the story could’ve been beneficial, if not better varietizing the gameplay aspects.
Otherwise, there are some light puzzle elements one encounters occasionally. These were, again, a nice change of pace, though not too prevalent in the whole of things. Text offers hints at what to do during via italics, so none are particularly complex or difficult. Another sprinkle to the proverbial ice cream flavor that the game provides, gameplay-wise.
Then there’s interacting with things itself. Button City doesn’t just have you interact with something with the press of a button when within a certain distance. Fennel needs to position himself in a certain spot before anything occurs, which can add a lot of empty seconds throughout. It may have exacerbated the feeling of being dragged within the confines of the main story, constantly re-positioning myself and waiting for the camera to pan to a specific position before the character talks. Many minor details that add up to a bit of a waiting game-type situation.
Graphics & Audio – Low-Poly Power
The term “gorgeous” is subjective, of course. Some consider the Mona Lisa gorgeous, others consider The Starry Night gorgeous. Button City is gorgeous to me, wonderfully displaying the powerful simplicity of low-poly, colorful games. Characters have splendidly unique designs and display a wonderful array of expressions and mannerisms. Half the fun of progressing through the story is seeing what kind of bizarre things the writers have cooked up, complete with bizarre imagery, team poses, and dynamic camera angles.
Similar can be said about the different games that come on display. While non-essential, there’s a spirited dedication to visually restoring the essence of the games within the game. The rhythm game is bouncy, chaotic, and borderline over-stimulating. The racing game is extreme, complete with over-the-top blue flames that surround the tires upon boosting. Due research was clearly done to fully simulate the times, and made all the more expressive from the low-poly aesthetic. In terms of visuals, I have no notable complaints.
Does it instill the same quality in terms of audio? Not really. Many of the tracks within the game are passable mostly, with a specific vibe to many tracks. I did enjoy the various beats associated with the games at the arcade, though the general life and overworld tunes were simply immersive enough. Gobabots’ main theme, specifically, was probably the highlight track from the whole game.
Button City was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A review key was provided by Stride PR.