Edit: This review was written before being informed of the horrific abuse and assault allegations against the game’s composer Pedro Silva (fka Slime Girls). You can read the Button City team’s statement here, which addresses that they have employed Silva in 2019, prior to these allegations being made known in 2020. In addition to severing ties with them, Silva will not earn any profits off of the game. The Games and Online Harassment Hotline provides confidential mental health support in relation to games. If you are based in the US, you can text SUPPORT to 23368.
It isn’t escapism, until you come back – and then in its wake, escapism becomes adventure. Sure, we’re a bunch of kids playing games in a silly arcade, and maybe we’re feuding over a plastic toy that doesn’t really mean anything outside of our group, but us being together and goofing around is not trivial! Our fun is our community and it’s worth protecting. The designers of Button City fundamentally understand games as totemic, with its ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ stylings, short playtime, and a tightly curated selection of mini-games that work together to target a 90’s nostalgic audience. Button City is a brief hug of an afternoon adventure game. Soft, comfortable, and completely normal in both subtle and easily appreciable ways. Side-by-side, it makes Animal Crossing look almost manipulative and nihilistic in how that series pushes you to never ever stop playing.
In Button City you play as the new kid in town named Fennel, who finds an arcade named Button City within his neighborhood. On arrival to Button City, Fennel finds a bevy of other kids currently embroiled in a rivalry over a MOBA-styled arcade game called ‘Gobabots’. Here our shy, sheepish fox protagonist shines as he is suddenly enlisted to help his new team win the Golden Gobabot. Things get tough for Fennel and his new friends when Button City closes and you find out a greedy fat cat named Peppermint Pepperbottom is buying Button City to replace it with a big-box department store. This is the classic 90s teen-movie premise, and over the 5 hours of playtime there’s little in the way to challenge the protagonist more than sassy teens and moustache-twirling capitalist greed, but that’s totally okay! Button City has the intensity of fleece blanket, and at almost no point do they try to dramatize things beyond that point – in that way I’d liken it to if Donut County was made for kids. It’s cute!
I think it’s easy to write off Button City as a twee little Animal Crossing styled game just based on screenshots or the soundtrack, but that reduces a lot of the incredible presentation of this game. Easily the strongest part of Button City is its bold 3D dioramas and character animations which are simple but impactful. There are no wasted shapes or colors within the cell-shaded pastel palette, as this game shows exactly enough as needed, without a single vector feeling out of place. There are also a few interstitial cutscenes styled like 90s cartoons that bring fresh flair to the game each time they happen. On top of that, the UI for moving around the world by ‘teleporting’ between zones is so seamless and fun to use, that it even becomes a rather funny plot point later on in the game. I know game designers who avoid diegesis, and they’re all cowards! These moments really make the game stand out on its own when you play through it. My only problem with the presentation is that I wish there was a run button (or a ‘skip-merrily’ button) to give a little variety to how Fennel moves around his world. It can get dry moving at one speed on every screen, and anything to break that up would be nice.
There’s something special in the way that no part of Button City overstays its welcome. Despite everything in the game being so soft, there isn’t one part of the game that outshines any other. Outside of doing tasks for people along the main storyline, there are sidequests that let you get to know the characters more, playing Gobabots which has multiple heroes you can try out and build teams with, a racing game inspired by Initial D, and a rhythm game inspired by Dance Dance Revolution. All three of these mini-games understand their genres well enough to emulate them in fun ways while adding some nuance that made them all increasingly fun. By the last time I’d come back to the racing minigame I’d learned how to practically always be in a drifting position, and my best time dropped incredibly low! Normally, I’d expect folks to like or dislike certain mini-games or sidequests more than others, and maybe a game with less technical craft would have that, but there’s clearly a deft hand behind the scenes making sure each subsystem within the game has a little TLC without overdoing it in any one part. Nothing steals the show and gets overemphasized, and neither does anything ruin the game and make me want to stop playing, all playstyles are validated here. Button City really does just want you to play this for a bit and then afterwards go do something else, and I think that’s admirable.
Not that there isn’t some difficulty to pressure you, but this game is largely unchallenging. Both emotionally and mechanically, there is almost no friction to the game in any way whatsoever. The few characters that have some development encounter barely any strife, including the protagonist, whose life seems pretty idyllic outside of one plot point with Fennel’s mom that goes unexplored. The stakes to anything happening are extremely low and as soon as you are given a problem you are almost always immediately given a solution as well. I wouldn’t say that the frictionless play of Button City is a bad thing, however I feel like it could be a missing ingredient to take the game to the next level! Currently, the only friction that exists in the game is when you click on interactive objects it takes Fennel about 1.5 seconds to get to the specific spot in front of the object that lets the interaction happen. This means almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, but when it’s the only tiny bit of friction in a game that is otherwise unchallenging to the player, it becomes super noticeable and frustrating all the time. I love Button City insisting on simple moment-to-moment plot structure to emulate a 20-minute TV show structure, but I think if there was just a little more teeth to the overall plot of the game, it would add that seasonal-arc feeling that is missing.
That said, after the credits roll, there is one special moment in the postgame that really gets to where I wish more of the game would go. Button City absolutely has a ‘superboss’ that gets introduced within the Gobabots minigame, and earning that final Gobabot to play with was a highlight of my time playing through. It’s not like I showed some kind of mastery of a complex system, but beating this game’s version of a superboss still felt important and impactful proportional to the short amount of time I played through the game. I’d love to see Button City expanded along these lines, because there is so much room there for it to grow!
Over the last year the label of Wholesome Games has brought many games including Button City into the spotlight. However, Wholesome Games’ aesthetic-based curation also runs the risk of flattening certain styles of games, and Button City is firmly in the crosshairs for that kind of flattening. Through it’s adept presentation and careful design considerations, I’d say it manages to escape the gravitational pull from being ‘just another Animal Crossing looking Wholesome Game for Switch owners’. There’s more than just uwu cute heart furry feelings inside of Button City and it all comes from underneath the hood of the game.
A MOBA That Isn't Evil?
Button City is more than a cuddly and nostalgic aesthetic, it contains smart and subtle design choices that make it a memorable experience while not over-indulging itself in any way. Great for kids and adults!