Judging games for review brings some challenges. How can a tiny indie game compare with a Nintendo-developed blockbuster? We thought about this a lot when playing James Montagna and Andrew Lim's Dot Arcade, a small, highly focused experience that keeps things simple in the name of fun and longevity. While there's not much to discover in Dot Arcade, its elegant design and novel yet accessible gameplay are extremely addictive. As a result Dot Arcade is easily one of the best eShop games released so far this year - but it's not for everybody.
Dot Arcade presents three "light dot" games, where the player moves their avatar (one of those light dots) on an 8x8 grid. The objective of each game is the same: get a high score. While there are no on-screen instructions, most players will automatically and instinctively know what to do. In Mr. Snake, you start with one light dot and collect any green that appear, which then attaches; as more dots are collected, the snake gets longer. If the head of the snake hits any other objects on-screen (represented by blue dots) or collides with itself as it wraps around the screen, it's game over. Mr. Snake is the most challenging of Dot Arcade's three offerings, but there's a strange satisfaction that comes with the "bleep" sound when you get a green dot. The obstacles travel vertically down the grid, so it's easy to predict when you need to high-tail it to the bottom of the screen or get out of the way on the sides, but the green dots appear randomly.
In Dodge Club, the player is represented by a yellow four-dot square and has to avoid the other square, which is made up of yellow and red dots. There's also a green two-dot line that moves around the border that needs to be avoided; the score is accumulated for each second that collisions are dodged. It's deceptively simple - at first it seems easy enough to avoid other objects on the screen, but sustaining your focus and not getting tripped up by the other yellow lights is a challenge.
Rally Driver, the final game in the package, has the player control a "car" (two yellow dots) on the bottom of the screen, avoiding the rails on either side in addition to other cars. The light dots move down the screen here, giving the illusion of racing past other cars; every time a car is successfully passed the border will flash green for a moment. The game speeds up after every ten cars passed, and before long it's a test of quick reflexes - multiple cars will appear, and some will actually shift to different sides. Of the three games, Rally Driver is the most fun and accessible, since the player only has to move horizontally and bypass other obstacles.
One of Dot Arcade's highlights is the "cabinet art" found on each game. The art, which appears on the left and right borders, feels like authentic retro arcade machine art and infuses Dot Arcade with a quirky, bespoke personality not found in most games. The art also lends it a bit of a meta-narrative; Mr. Snake's art shows a valiant knight riding a dragon-like snake, while Dodge Club shows two sparkly anime-style girls in what looks to be a dance club of some sort. In a time when games are released using free assets found in game engine templates, it's refreshing to see such lovely, handcrafted artwork. There are also some alternate cabinets, but we won't spoil how to find them.
The rest of the presentation is strong, as well. The lights really look like LED bulbs and are bright and smooth on the TV screen, as well as the GamePad. Players will notice upon booting up Dot Arcade that the start-up screen is different on the TV and GamePad, with the TV displaying "Dot Arcade" and the GamePad acting as a sort of back-of-box, with the three games listed. It's a small detail, but examples like this make Dot Arcade stand out. The sounds effects, consisting mostly of bleeps, are familiar and realistic, and the main theme song on the game selection screen is catchy and fun. Dot Arcade is a single-player game, but can easily be played in turns. There are no online leaderboards, which is unfortunate, but players are encouraged to post their scores to Miiverse.
Leagues ahead of most other indie eShop arcade-style games, Dot Arcade is a slick and professional production that bursts with personality and enthusiasm. It easily earns a recommendation, but your enjoyment of it depends entirely on whether or not you like quick, twitchy arcade experiences; its uniqueness is an important factor to consider. While this isn't the deepest game on the Wii U, its creativity and pure fun factor make it a slightly surprising must-own for arcade fans.