The title that originally skipped the west has finally touched down in our territory.
One of the most exciting announcements out of E3 this year was the news that Arcade Archives Donkey Kong and Arcade Archives Sky Skipper were coming to Nintendo Switch. Both are significant for several reasons. Sky Skipper due to the fact that, while released in Japan, was only test marketed in North America. Only one official Sky Skipper cabinet remains in a Nintendo of America warehouse and this Arcade Archives version comes from this last surviving unit.
Additionally, like Donkey Kong, Sky Skipper was likely programmed by Ikegami. Ikegami was an outside company Nintendo used to help program many of their early arcade games. In 1983 Ikegami sued Nintendo for altering their code to make Donkey Kong Jr. without their help. Since then it's been rumored these early Nintendo arcade titles weren't re-released due to Ikegami owning the code. Since E3, it's clear some sort of deal has taken place.
Now that my brief history lesson is over, does Arcade Archives Sky Skipper hold up?
Upon booting up this version, players are met with the typical Arcade Archives options: Original Mode, High Score Mode, and Caravan Mode.
Original Mode let's players mess around with plenty of options, likely as if they owned the cabinet. A lot of customization is available, with options to increase the number of lives, when you'll get the bonus extra life, and more. A plethora of audio, visual, and control options are also available so that it's possible to get this game looking, sounding, and playing how you like.
One confusing option is labeled "The Original Game's Character Designs" with an On or Off toggle. Default is Off, but I didn't notice a difference while flipping the option to On. I'm not sure if the difference is the minor, or if this is broken. Maybe I'm just missing something obvious.
High Score Mode lets players duke it out for the highest score using competitive settings. Caravan Mode is similar, but only gives players five minutes to achieve greatness. Both modes offer online leaderboards and, like other Arcade Archives titles, are still plagued by it being too easy to accidentally kill a good run by pressing pause. Pressing pause in these competitive modes causes a menu to pop up that can't be backed out of so games must be reset. A potential fix could be to institute an odd button combo to avoid this issue.
Original Mode also offers an online leaderboard, but since that mode offers save states it shouldn't be taken seriously.
Now that the Arcade Archives wrapper is out of the way you're probably wondering about Sky Skipper itself. Players take control of airplane pilot named Mr. You in an attempt to save the royal family (and pets?) of the Wonder-Kingdom from a bunch of headphone-wearing Gorillas that have captured them.
Gameplay starts off with Mr. You taking off in the middle of a largely horizontal play area that spans a few screens in each direction. Some vertical height can achieved, but not much. Players can steer the plane in eight directions, drop bombs, and hold a button to speed up. The goal is to rescue the King, Queen, and one or two Jokers in each stage, in addition to collecting a bunch of animals. These animals each have a color and suit from a deck of cards assigned to them. So there are red diamonds, red hearts, blue clubs, and blue spades.
It's possible to figure out where on the map the remaining royal family members are located thanks to an indicator across the bottom of the screen. It shows what family members and creatures are left and their approximate location. This indicator is pretty useful, especially when learning the game.
Rescuing these family members is more complex than just flying to them. The Royals are all caged up and players must bomb the enemy Gorillas in order to stun them. Doing so causes the creatures to bounce out of their prisons for a short while. It's then that Mr. You can fly into the Royals in order to rescue them. The Gorillas aren't passive either. They can jump, walk around, jump up or drop down from platforms, or throw explosives.
While there is no traditional time limit, there is a fuel gauge which kind of acts like one. While flying the fuel gauge will tick down. The gauge will also deplete severely if you fly into a thrown Gorilla explosive or hit a moving cloud up in the sky. Doing so will also cause Mr. You's plane to dive straight down a bit. Players can refuel a bit once per stage by touching a flag in the area where they initially took off.
One frustrating gameplay mechanic is that if you stun a Gorilla on top of a cage, the Royal below can't jump through them. This will force players to wait for the Gorillas stunned state to finish, and then hope for the slow moving enemy to move away from the cage before its possible to free the creature below. In later stages this can lead to death by wasting too much fuel.
Scoring is a bit more complex. You get points for picking up different Royal family members, including the animals, but the order in which you do so starts to matter. There is a 400 point bonus for picking up four of the same suit in a row, a 150 point bonus for picking up four of the same color suit in a row, and a 100 point bonus for picking up one of each suit in a row. I don't think the King, Queen, or Joker play into this at all. Additionally, at the end of each stage, there is a bonus for how much fuel is left and another bonus if players didn't take the refuel flag.
This initially gives Sky Skipper a huge risk versus reward element to the gameplay. Should you shoot for taking more risks to rack up those bonuses, also while wasting more fuel, or should you just collect everything quickly to play it safe?
Players start with three lives and can earn one bonus life. Lives are lost by crashing into Gorillas, static objects, the ground, or by running out of fuel.
Sky Skipper features four unique stages that repeat once. The stages start easily, but by the end you'll have to navigate some narrow hallways blocked by Gorillas and the challenge clearly increases dramatically. The second round makes the Gorillas more aggressive, fuel drains faster, and some of the Joker placements are moved. Some stages on the second pass may be unbeatable without refueling.
The issue here is that once you hit the fourth stage for the second time it will repeat indefinitely without changes. Because of this, scoring well early on and taking risks before this point could lose a lot of meaning as high-level play will undoubtedly be focused on mastering the final stage. I've used some save states, offered in the Original Mode, to get extremely far and haven't uncovered a kill screen yet. So high-level play could eventually turn into a repetitive marathon gaming event.
The character graphics in Sky Skipper are fun to look at and have that classic Nintendo charm. The objects, however, look extremely crude especially when compared to the structures found in Donkey Kong which was released the same year. When a player crashes there is an impressive amount of flashing colored stars that appear and look cool.
The sound is very basic, but gets the job done. Don’t expect much more than a few short jingles as far as music goes which also seems to be comparable to Donkey Kong.
One reason I'm guessing this game failed in test marketing is because the first stage is incredibly easy, and one quarter can likely go a long way with low skilled players. Sure they won't be racking up the highest score, but I'm sure Nintendo would want people, and money, to on average be cycling through faster.
In general, Sky Skipper is fun to play and demands your concentration to be spread out. It takes some getting used to but can be fun and action packed. That said, with the final stage repeating itself, unlike in Donkey Kong, and only a few Joker placements changing in round two, it really makes me wonder if this game was a real finished product.
The Arcade Archives version of Sky Skipper seems to do a great job of recreating the experience, but there is no way for me to accurately compare it to a real cabinet for obvious reasons. The Arcade Archives brand carries with it the usual pros and cons, but it's overall a nice wrapper.
While Arcade Archives Sky Skipper may have some flaws, going for a high score can still be fun as long as you know what you're getting into. It's a game that likely wasn't fully completed, but I'm still really excited that this historical curiosity has an official release. I would still recommend it to classic arcade lovers, Nintendo fans, and anyone interested in gaming history. It's worth picking up just to keep encouraging Nintendo to go back to this well of titles we know exist but haven't been released in over three decades. If you're even slightly interested in Sky Skipper you should purchase the Arcade Archives version sooner rather than later since we don't know the specifics behind the Nintendo-Hamster-Ikegami deal so this game could easily just vanish off the eShop someday.