XP Arcade: Sky Skipper
An early Nintendo arcade game that was nearly and completely lost to history, but is now widely available to anyone with a Switch.
This column is “XP Arcade,” in which I’ll focus on a game from the arcades, or one that is clearly inspired by arcade titles, and so on. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
Before Nintendo became a mainstay of the console market, they were a developer of arcade games. They still dabble in the arcade space on occasion — head to a place with modern arcade cabinets and you might find a Mario Kart GP machine, or Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, for instance — but arcade life used to be the primary focus for the company that’s currently enjoying the fruits of its best-selling home console. To the point that when the Famicom started to take hold in living rooms across Japan, and plans to expand overseas with the NES were laid, Nintendo still looked to arcades, creating the Nintendo VS. System, which had similar hardware to the Famicom, and played many of the same first-party games, sometimes changed up for the arcade space. And the debut of the VS. System in North America was actually used as a successful runway for the launch of the NES there, even.
Those days are behind them, but thanks to modern technology and development and game preservation, you can still experience the olden days of Nintendo: Arcade Developer, and from the comfort of your home. A number of the VS. System versions of Nintendo games are available on the Switch, through Hamster’s Arcade Archives service, like VS. Super Mario Bros. — which included what would become some of the “Lost Levels” of the originally Japan-only sequel to Nintendo’s breakthrough console hit — VS. Baseball, VS. Balloon Fight, VS. Excitebike, and even some third-party titles, like Konami’s VS. Gradius and VS. Castlevania.
The subject of the day is even older than the VS. System, though, and was nearly completely lost to time. Sky Skipper was Nintendo’s 1981 followup to the enormously popular arcade hit, Donkey Kong, but for the longest time, it might as well have never existed. More on that in a moment, though. Nintendo R&D1 developed Sky Skipper, and Shigeru Miyamoto is credited as one of the game’s designers, along with Genyo Takeda, whom you might better know from his R&D3 work in developing Nintendo’s hardware and later tech for it, as well as his insistence decades later, leading up to the Wii, that Nintendo stop trying to create the most powerful system on the market. Miyamoto has also accomplished some things. Like the art on the side of the Sky Skipper cabinets, for instance. That’s right, Miyamoto used to draw before he was a superstar:
Sky Skipper isn’t a bad game, and actually had some ambitious ideas that gave the scoring system some layers, but it wasn’t eye-catching for the right reasons — the character art is fine, even pretty neat when you’re talking about gorillas wearing sneakers and headphones and tank-tops and such, but the color schemes and foreground objects are not aesthetically pleasing in the least — and was maybe a little too complicated for 1981’s arcades to grab players in the way that, say, Donkey Kong had. It featured many, many ways for you to die, made it so high scores were difficult to achieve without doing things in a certain order, and because of that is probably better suited to the way you can play it today: in your living room, whenever you want, for $8 and then never another cent. This is also why it ended up with an Atari 2600 port in 1983, too, though, the $8 part didn’t apply.
This isn’t to say that 1981’s arcade gamers didn’t like a challenge or weren’t capable of dealing with a difficult game, but consider how comparatively approachable the most significant arcade hits of the year were (Donkey Kong, Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, Frogger, etc.), how they introduced the concept and then slowly led you to the more difficult parts while letting you enjoy the ride to them. Sky Skipper is Sky Skipper, good and bad, from the outset. Nintendo’s QA tester and warehouse manager of the time Howard Phillips, told Retro Gamer that Sky Skipper was, “a confusing thematic mess with sneakered hip gorillas, Skip-To-My-Lou music, and Alice in Wonderland card rabbits.” You see a weird arrangement like that, and then it starts eating your quarters before you start to enjoy it very much, and of course you’re going to walk away.
Sky Skipper didn’t get a wide release, with Nintendo quickly moving on to the next thing that they hoped would grab and hold the attention of the quarter-wielding masses. I mentioned that the game, for the longest time, might as well have never existed, and that’s because Nintendo only made an initial batch of Sky Skipper cabinets for testing in Japan — where it did not pass the test — and sent a dozen of them overseas to Seattle to see if it would catch on better there. As said, it did not. Nintendo would end up converting all but one of these test Sky Skipper cabinets over to play a licensed Popeye game (which tested far, far better) instead — goodbye, sweet Miyamoto’s Sky Skipper art — with Nintendo of America keeping just one of them around because hey, it was a Nintendo game, whether it was a successful one or not. And there it sat, packed away, for decades.
The existence of this lone cabinet was known, even if the game itself was not. Factor 5’s Julian Eggebrecht not only knew about it thanks to the time his company and Nintendo spent working together on titles like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, but requested that he get to borrow it for Factor 5’s own offices for a bit, should they manage to ship Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader on time for the GameCube’s North American 2001 launch. When the cabinet arrived in Factor 5’s offices, they realized it was broken: one of the color PROM chips was dead, and the colors weren’t showing on screen like they were supposed to. Eggebrecht reached out to Takeda to figure out what they needed in order to fix it, and that’s how the developer of some of the best Star Wars games ever ended up fixing a lost — and unique — Nintendo cabinet.
And hey, it’s good that they did, because it’s the only original, unmodified version of boardset for the game that exists. There are some replica cabinets now, since Nintendo of America opened up their doors to Alex Crowley and Whitney Roberts to allow them to take scans of and photograph it, while also allowing them to use one of the remaining arcade boards as the source for the game needed for the replica cabinet — Roberts recounted the whole deal at a website dedicated to the project back in 2016, if you’re interested in all the details and photos. But as for the real, authentic thing? Just the one.
Until the summer of 2018, anyway, when Nintendo of America copied the ROM from this one genuine, unmodified board, and sent it along to Hamster for release in their Arcade Archives series. Now, as said, anyone with a Switch can download this game that used to just sit in Nintendo of America’s building, that was used as the focus of a bet between Eggebrecht and Nintendo, that was so hidden away that a few people devoted themselves to preserving and replicating it so that it could be experienced by more people than Factor 5 employees and whoever walked into the 7-11 near the Seattle airport during testing in 1981. Pretty nifty, if you ask me, regardless of where you might land on the quality of Sky Skipper itself.
Most of the Arcade Archives titles are not console exclusives, but Nintendo is in a position that Sony is not, in the sense that they have a history of arcade games that fit the series: those remain Switch exclusives. Generally, that doesn’t bug me too much — leave non-mobile Mario games on Nintendo platforms, keep what was thought to be the potentially lost to legality, original Donkey Kong for yourself sure, whatever — but no one’s decision of Switch vs. Playstation 4 is going to come down to Sky Skipper, so, you know. Get it out in front of the most people! Listen, I get it, but I can still be annoyed by it.
So, now that Sky Skipper is available, should you bother playing it? That depends a lot on your personal tolerance for the games of 1981. Sky Skipper is not an attractive game, as said, not even taking into account the year it released in and the hardware it released on. It is also not particularly easy to play correctly, so if your patience is thin, you probably aren’t going to enjoy it. If you want to challenge yourself a bit, though, and maybe compete on the high score leaderboards — of which there are now three different ones to compete one, since Hamster instituted the original game, a Hi-Score mode, and a Caravan mode, all with their own leaderboards — then Sky Skipper can be worth the $8, sure, and more than just a cool story and inexpensive curio.
You are Mr. You, a pilot who is attempting to rescue the king and queen, as well as their various subjects and the joker. Those subjects (frogs, birds, you know, normal populaces for kings and queens) are emblazoned with a suit, like playing cards: heart, spade, club, diamond. You score points for every successful rescue, which is as easy as crashing into the subject to collect them, but you score more points if you string together multiple “cards” of the same suit. The levels are designed so that this is not a simple task: you are rarely going to find four spades in a row, for instance, not after the early introduction to the concept, so you’ll have to fly back and forth across the stages to find all the spades in order, then diamonds, and so on, in order to maximize scoring. But don’t take too long, because you need to refuel in order to avoid crashing, and you get a higher score bonus the more fuel you have leftover. And simply staying in a level longer increases the chances you will crash, or be attached by a gorilla, ending your life, too.
You can attack gorillas with bombs from your plane, which will temporarily stun them. You need to be aware of a couple of things while doing these bombing runs, however: for one, the gorillas can land on top of the prisons of the very subjects you’re attempting to rescue, so they won’t jump out to be rescued when their guard is knocked out, if the exit is blocked by their unconscious body. And second, the gorillas throw projectiles at Mr. You’s plane. You can see where they’re aiming, so they’re easy enough to dodge, but sometimes gorillas are clustered together like mobile anti-air cannons, so, watch out for that.
If you fly into a cloud, it will disorient you and send you flying at high speeds downward: you might not recover control of your plane before crashing. Don’t hit walls, don’t crash into gorillas, don’t get by by their projectiles: there are lots of ways to injure yourself or die in Sky Skipper, and you only get the three lives. You can shove as many credits as you want into the game by pressing the L shoulder button, sure, but high scores are on a per credit basis, so if you care about the highest score more than just completing the game, you’re going to want to try to avoid dying.
Once you’ve rescued all of the subjects, the joker, and the king and queen, the level ends, and bonuses, if earned, are awarded. Then it’s on to the next level. Rinse, repeat, rank. Simple enough, but as said, you can see just by playing this game why it didn’t catch on in 1981’s arcades, not when what would turn out to be some absolute legendary games were the competition.
There are certainly better games in the Arcade Archives series that you could spend your money on, too, but if you’re curious about a piece of gaming history that was nearly lost to us, well, $8 is at least not too high of a price to experience it, and being able to just boot it on your Switch whenever you’d like is easy enough, too. Consider that you don’t even have to develop a much-anticipated sequel for the launch of a Nintendo console to get your turn with the game, nor convince Nintendo of America to let you into their offices for preservation purposes, and, well, it almost seems wrong to not just see what’s what with the ease that you could. Almost.
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