Arcade Archives: Sky Skipper

Over the last eight years, I’ve watched some incredible indie developers pour their hearts and souls into their projects, often only to be met with tumbleweeds or apathy. Whether anyone believes it or not, it always hurts my heart to see a game fail to find its audience. I don’t personally understand the demoralization. I can’t. I’m not a creator of games. I put everything into my work as Indie Gamer Chick, but it’s nowhere near the artistic spirit that goes into so many games that never catch on. A lot of those devs go on to be my friends. Some of them even close friends. I try to be encouraging and comforting when the greatest of efforts fails, but more often than not it feels like my words fail me.

With that in mind, have a look at Sky Skipper. This is an actual Nintendo coin-op from 1981 that was designed by the man himself, Shigeru Miyamoto. Well, actually there’s a sticky bit a business involving a guy named Ikegami Tsushinki who claims he’s the real creator and designer of all the Nintendo games up to Donkey Kong, and possibly Sky Skipper too since it was developed alongside DK. There was a lawsuit. Nobody knows what the result was. Having played Radar Scope and Space Firebird on my MAME, I’ll say that the difference between those games and the 1981-onward Nintendo titles is night and day. I’ll buy that someone else programmed them at that phase of Nintendo’s existence, but the design of Donkey Kong and Sky Skipper seem a little too original compared to everything that came before it. And, let’s face it, at the end the day, Miyamoto is revered among his peers while Tsushinki is barely worthy of being the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. There’s always going to be people who say legendary creators didn’t really create their work. They say it about Shakespeare too.

Sky Skipper ain’t much to look at. In fact, with the jaggy straight-lines and overly bright blue background, I can’t help but wonder if the graphics were unfinished as well. It’s so.. ugly. Also, this picture shows what I mean about how sometimes the cards refuse to free themselves even if the thing guarding them is out cold. Yea, I think it’s safe to say Sky Skipper was unfinished.

Whatever happened, Donkey Kong was a big hit. Sky Skipper? Not so much. It was given a very limited release in Japanese arcades, where it was ignored by players and hated by operators. Ten units were made for testing in North America, but because the game air-balled in the Japan, the USA test was apparently cancelled and the cabinets were instead turned into Popeye units for distribution. A single Sky Skipper cabinet was saved and kept by Nintendo of America. After years of restoration efforts, Nintendo allowed the ROM of their cabinet to be dumped by Hamster for this Arcade Archives re-release. One that apparently few people bought. I’m currently among the top 50 on every online leaderboard in the game (#18 in Caravan Mode!) despite my skills leaving a lot to be desired, which tells me it sold about as well as the Pontiac Aztek. Maybe if Nintendo had actually put out some kind of “hey, check out this lost game rediscovered of ours by the man who created Mario and Zelda” campaign it would have gotten some traction. But Nintendo really doesn’t seem all that interested in promoting ports of their own work. How peculiar. Maybe they’re as embarrassed by the $7.99 price tags as everyone else is.

Now, I’ve played my share of lost games. More often than not, they tend to suck. That’s why they found themselves lost in the first place. Look at Star Fox 2. I imagine many a slobbering fanboy with an SNES Classic had to spin with all the fury of a tornado in order to convince themselves they were having fun playing that clunky piece of shit. But I’ve had a lot of luck in 2019 with games like Joy Mech Fight and Kid Dracula (both Famicom games unreleased in the United States), and now Sky Skipper. A lot of people are shitting on it calling it confused or directionless. But honestly, this was easily my favorite of the nine Arcade Archive releases of Nintendo coin-ops I’ve played. It’s still original in 2019. There’s nothing quite like it. I also totally get how a game like this could bomb in 1981. You can be too original.

This is not a photoshop. The game says “damn it!” I was ten times more excited over this development than anyone in their right mind should be. I was practically doing cartwheels. Look! It’s a 1981 Nintendo game saying damn it! That is objectively FUCKING AWESOME!

The basic idea is you command a biplane that has to rescue sentient playing cards and a royal family from the clutches of evil gorillas, some of which look just like Donkey Kong but are most certainly not Donkey Kong nuh uh no sir not Donkey Kong at all how can you even say that?

Sorry.

You have limited gas (though I only once in dozens of sessions came close to running out) that can be refilled by flying into the starting flag of each stage. The cards and royalty are stuck in little compartments and will begin to leap up and down if you incapacitate the Notkey Kongs guarding it. Flying into them rescues them (presumably, that or you’re purging the royal blood blind and shredding them in your propeller. This can’t be ruled out) and scores points. Rescue all of them to advance to the next level. There’s four levels total, at which points stages recycle, just like every other Nintendo coin-op. Of all the early Nintendo arcade games, Sky Skipper is the most complex. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t a hit. The levels are sprawling, the object not entirely clear, and sometimes it doesn’t work exactly the way it should.

For example, sometimes the cards won’t start to jump even after their guards are temporarily knocked out. Other times, they’ll jump even when the patrolrillas are active and right above them. It makes me think the game wasn’t ever properly finished, because it’s never consistent from one round to the next and makes trying to shoot for high scores in the five minute caravan mode a chore. If it were finished, it’d actually be a nice gameplay style that features a deceptively complex scoring system build around the order you rescue the cards. Getting all the matching suits in a row scores extra points, while getting cards of matching colors in a row scores lightly less extra points. In theory, the royal family should act as wildcards, but they don’t seem to. Still, the relatively complex scoring was ahead of its time. It was even adapted to the Atari port of it.

Yea, if the name sounded familiar to older gamers, it’s because Parker Bros released a port of Sky Skipper for the 2600. I don’t think they actually wanted it. The deal they made was for Popeye (which Coleco, normally Nintendo’s partner during this era, passed on because of the cost of licensing the Popeye character). Nintendo threw Sky Skipper in with it. This was the first time I played an emulator to check a 2600 version of a game. It was fine. The cards are replaced with animals and the level design and enemy danger is toned drastically down, but it certainly passes for what they were aiming for. That really had nothing to do with this review, but you try making an interesting article out of an unreleased 1981 arcade game that was skipped for a reason.

This is the Atari 2600 version. Honestly, it’s no worse looking than the VCS version of Donkey Kong.

Actually, Sky Skipper is genuinely fun. I can also totally understand why this wouldn’t fly in 1981. Defender had already reached arcades by time Sky Skipper was ready for release. Defender, which I still hold up as the gold standard of arcade games, was fast-paced and white knuckle. Even with the throttle up on Sky Skipper, the pace is slow and plodding and the combination of Pac-Man style mazes and cutesy graphics with flying and a bombing giant cartoon gorillas just doesn’t seem like the type of thing that would catch attention on either side of the Pacific Ocean. But still, it’s a crying shame that a game with real entertainment value was trashed while actual garbage like Donkey Kong 3 was given a green light. Don’t get me wrong: Sky Skipper isn’t exactly incredible. It’s just alright. If the situation where the cards jumping to be rescued were fixed-up so that they behave more logically, it might even be a good game.

The gorillas throw baseballs that explode at you, but these don’t kill you directly. They cause you to lose control of the plane and crash into walls. Actually, the most lethal objects in the game, for me at least, were clouds. I lost more lives flying into them on accident than anything else. What kind of airplane can’t survive a cloud? Hell, what kind of pilot wouldn’t thrive on flying into clouds?

The Arcade Archive package isn’t exactly stellar either. I’d go so far as to say the five-minute Caravan Mode is functionally useless as a measuring stick of ability. There’s a lot of downtime between levels in Sky Skipper, but, the timer doesn’t stop between levels or when the plane is taking off at the start of new stages. It easily shaves a minute off the time and is so painful to sit through. In fact, most Arcade Archive games don’t stop the timer. Only Mario Bros. does as far as I’ve noticed, where the timer stops during the explanation screens. But in other games, like Vs. Super Mario Bros. the timer runs even if you’re not in control between stages. The obvious explanation is that Hamster has gotten lazy and complacent since Mario Bros. was released in October of 2017 and maybe some effort was made, while everything from Vs. Super Mario onward (with the exception of Donkey Kong, which has extra ROMs) was phoned in. Why bother with special features when anyone who would buy the port would do so either way, right?

As much as I’ve hated on Hamster and the Arcade Archive series (seriously, it’s 2 for 9 following this review, and the only other game in the series I actually liked was the universally hated Urban Champion, go figure), I really like what this release represents. In fact, it’s the first Arcade Archives game where I’m okay with the $7.99 price tag. I’m all about preservation and giving gamers and game developers access to lost or unfinished games to take apart like a digital autopsy. Maybe in the future, developers can finish cancelled games, BUT, also include things like the last stable build before it was cancelled. Imagine what students creating new games could learn if they had the ability to play the unfinished parts of Duke Nukem Forever or the original tech demos of Mario 64 or Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Weirdly enough, nowhere in the advertising does it mention the game’s lost status. That’s strange, because it’s literally the only reason anyone in their right mind would want this. I mean, I had fun, but it’s not even that legendary. I hadn’t even heard of Sky Skipper until last week.

You see, we’re all products of every game we’ve played up to this moment, and the same goes for developers. All of them are inspired by their favorite games, but the best of them learn from their least favorites and study those that they know to be bad. If every game is an opportunity for education, having access to the unreleased failures of those who came before them is invaluable to their progress. There’s lessons to be learned in them. So on this, my 30th birthday, I want to share this advice with everyone: you will fail sometimes, and that’s okay. Shigeru Miyamoto probably felt dejection when Sky Skipper was ignored by players and loathed by arcade operators. Look what he went on to accomplish. Dreams are always out of reach to those who quit. Not everyone who perseveres will find success, but you can be proud of yourself knowing that you didn’t fail you. And, if you press on, maybe one day a future generation indie critic will look back on your early work and say “well, that sucked, but I’m happy they didn’t give up.”

Arcade Archives: Sky Skipper was developed by Hamster
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$7.99 took the sky from me in the making of this review.

Sky Skipper is Chick-Approved. Non-indies and retro games are not eligible for the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. BUT, the IGC Retroboards are coming very soon.

%d bloggers like this: