Sky Skipper runs at what resolution? 512 by 448?! What hell kind of nonsense is that? Blimey. Old arcade games are weird In any case, we've had to shrink the screenshots this time. Click them to rebigulate them. Except the title screen. For some reason we never let you make that one bigger. Weird site tradition. I mean, it's probably to make the secret title screen images possi- wait, no! I've said too much!! Oh, and obviously, The Sky Skipper Project was very useful in putting this page together, so go and visit them. Or use one of the, what, five links we've actually put in the article.
So, if any of you had a Game Boy Camera way back when, you were probably mystified by this screen.
I know I was. What game were these characters from?
Like Space Fever also referenced in the camera, they come from the dim past of Nintendo's arcade years- they're from Sky Skipper.
There's a lot to be said about Nintendo's 'other' arcade games- looking beyond Donkey Kong, Punch-Out!! and the like, there's some true weirdness there, like Monkey Magic, Helifire and Radarscope. Sky Skipper, though, is the one that captured my attention the most, even though the way I discovered it was the way many people did, I assume- just looking at Nintendo games supported in MAME. It's just nestled there amongst their more famous games, and was dumped seemingly without much fanfare back in 2002. Hell, the whatsnew file for 0.62 doesn't even list who dumped it. It's like it just showed up, unannounced. A look through old message boards about it doesn't turn up much beyond a little speculation about it being a Donkey Kong prototype (and why such a rare arcade game got an Atari 2600 port in the first place) and people just asking but not really getting much of a response. Notably, one Usenet post has someone with a board after it was dumped, although this was the only example I could find. After that, Sky Skipper was just sort of... There. Hanging around in the MAME directory, finding a comfy spot between Sky Shark and Sky Smasher, not bothering nobody.
Around 2016, though, things get a bit more interesting.
Alex Crowley, a British Nintendo fan with an interest in their early arcade games, found an arcade board in a warehouse raid that looked like Popeye, but was actually a converted Sky Skipper, and with a lot of work, he was able to 'deconvert' it back to its original game. This started a project linked through the banner above to recreate a dedicated Sky Skipper cabinet (as much like Nintendo's other arcade games, bezels and sideart did exist) alongside fellow British collector Olly Cotton and American collector Whitney Roberts. Eventually, Whitney managed to visit Nintendo of America's archives in Seattle to see the one remaining unconverted Sky Skipper board in its original cabinet, that had been sat in their building for over thirty years, to scan and photograph the art (the photo of the cabinet below comes from their trip to NoA). Well, mostly thirty years- as revealed in Retro Gamer Issue 170's 'Discovering Sky Skipper' feature about their project, the cabinet was at one point loaned to Factor 5 for their personal arcade after successfully releasing Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader in time for the Gamecube's launch. Their contact at NOA did reveal something obvious but still a little sad- for the most part, Nintendo has little interest in any of their history before the NES, with a few dedicated hands at their Seattle building holding on to several of their arcade cabinets because of their own passion for it. Beyond nods to such things in games like Wario Ware and Super Smash Bros., that rings pretty true. In any case, in 2017 with the scans from the original cabinet, they were able to create two brand-new Sky Skipper cabinets for exhibition in the US and UK. Quite the feat, really.
A year later, on the third day of E3 2018, a Nintendo Treehouse stream announced two significant releases for Hamster's Arcade Archives series on Switch. The first was the arcade Donkey Kong- long-unreleased due to Ikegami Tsushinki, the contractor hired by Nintendo to code it, suing Nintendo after they reverse-engineered the code for Donkey Kong Jr.- but the second was Sky Skipper (it's been speculated Sky Skipper was also coded by Ikegami Tsushinki but unlike other games, there's apparently no evidence of their involvement in the code). Don James, who worked at Nintendo of America at the time (and still does) was present at the reveal and explained what happened with the game- 10 Sky Skipper cabinets showed up at their warehouse courtesy of Nintendo of Japan, were sent out for location testing, and it did poorly (the Retro Gamer article mentions it was tested at the Spot Tavern and in some 7-Elevens on Route 99, and that resident bow-tie-wearing nerd Howard Phillips described the game as a 'confusing thematic mess', and in a Hair of the Dogcast interview called the game, "trippy, LSD, hallucinogenic, not very good', whoof). 9 of those cabinets were converted into Popeye the next year (hence why so many Sky Skipper boards actually house Popeye), the remaining game was the one kept in their Seattle building. More interesting is that the game for this Switch rerelease was apparently dumped from that very cabinet. A more optimistic look at this would see the release of Sky Skipper as a demonstration of Nintendo actually being interested in their pre-NES days... Seems to me it's more a case of Nintendo noticing the Sky Skipper Project (they don't mention them by name but the stream reveal mentions 'sudden interest' in the game) and figuring they have the board at one of their offices, may as well dump it and sell it to people. What I'm saying is, I wouldn't expect Arcade Archives: Monkey Magic or Arcade Archives: Space Fever High Splitter any time soon, although if they do then this sentence is going to look very, very silly.
That's a big ol' lore dump for one game, but I suppose the point I'm trying to demonstrate here is that you have to consider, Sky Skipper is a known game by a huge company that was dumped years ago through apparent serendipity, and yet look at the effort that's been put into bringing it back into the limelight, brief that it may be. Yet still there's other Nintendo arcade games seemingly lost forever- not many of them that aren't Playchoice-10 or Vs. System games, but there's still things like Block Fever and Space Thunderbird which help to illustrate what else Nintendo was up to back then (read: what everyone else was up to, ripping off Breakout and Space Invaders). Then there's the myriad lost games by other known developers like Sega and Taito, lost games by developers you've never heard of, games that may not have even existed but only advertised... Of course, that's a big rabbit hole to fall down (one I fall down frequently and with great interest and glee) and not everything can be saved. Still, Sky Skipper's an interesting example of a game being exhumed in an official capacity, and more shockingly, a fan project somewhat, kinda, not officially but sorta being acknowledged by Nintendo and helping them preserve one of their earlier works in a proper capacity with the original cab, rather than Nintendo shutting them down with extreme prejudice.
Now we're all caught up with the deep, deep Sky Skipper lore...
What the heck is this game, and why did it divebomb so badly at location tests?
Designed by Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miyamoto (who also drew the main illustration for the flyer), Sky Skipper casts the player as Mr. You, the fearless airplane pilot, with an unusual mission to accomplish. The otherwise-peaceful Wonder Kingdom has been overtaken by headphone-wearing gorillas (I like to imagine they're listening to Dr. Dre, or for a more contemporary song, something from Iron Maiden) with the royal family kidnapped and imprisoned, and only you can rescue them. Across each of the four multi-scrolling levels (although they don't scroll infinitely and have definite end-points) are five animal hostages of each card suit (this is Wonderland, after all) plus the King, Queen and Joker, trapped in little pens patrolled by gorillas. Pelt a gorilla with a bomb to stun them and release the prisoners temporarily- they'll all jump out of the pens while a gorilla's stunned, so fly over and grab them before they stop. Rescue all the hostages before your fuel runs out to clear each board! However, the fact that gorillas will block prisoners from jumping until the next gorilla-stun if they're on top of them sounds like an interesting foible but becomes more annoying in practice- it also includes off-screen prisoners blocked by gorillas that you have no way of knowing about in advance. You don't quite have to wait for the stunned gorilla to get back up- hit another gorilla when there's space for the prisoner to jump and you can grab them- but the gorillas move as slow as molasses and it's pretty frustrating to wait for them to move, especially when they decide they just want to keep jumping instead. Gorillas will also jump up and down from ledges when they reach them, assuming they don't change direction, but they do so in a really odd and unnatural way, such that they'll blindside you by either smashing into you or ruining your chance to grab a prisoner, especially since they can zip up and down between platforms very quickly, regardless of how big the gap is, and smash into you.
In other mechanical aspects, the game is OK- it's a a bit slow-paced and plodding even if you use the turbo-boost button, mind, but at least the controls are workable. This isn't a Looping situation where you have to fight tooth and nail with your flying machine to get anywhere, Mr. You's little winged jalopy can move in all eight directions at any point (although trying to spin around clockwise or anti-clockwise will drop inputs most of the time) and also speed up by holding one of the buttons (at the cost of slightly faster fuel consumption- you get one refill per board by grabbing the flag at the start point, but run out and your plane drops out the air like a stone). The main control foible is that you'll move ever-so-slightly up or down when turning from straight from left to right, and vice-versa, which can make navigating tight corridors a little tricky, but it's pretty easy to get used to. More difficult to get to grips with is how the game handles collisions- smashing into a wall or a gorilla is instant death, but clouds and the exploding baseballs that gorillas throw can be survived... Maybe. They'll make you drop to the ground really fast (and also drain your fuel) but they feel really inconsistent, sometimes they won't affect you too badly, sometimes they'll hit you twice and guarantee a death, it seems a little all over-the-place. A mechanic like this would be iterated upon successfully a few years later in Namco's Sky Kid, which lets you mash the button to recover from a tailspin consistently (although this gets harder the more it happens) but here it's just a little flakey. At least gorillas telegraph their baseballs with a little target. If nothing else, the board layouts at least take advantage of your mobility, with some wide open spaces but also boxed-in areas to navigate, although there's not nearly enough of the latter if you ask me.
Probably the most interesting part of the game is the card suits, as getting high scores is tied directly to the order you rescue prisoners in. You get a small bonus (100) for grabbing one of every card suit, a slightly bigger one (150) for four cards in the same colour suit, and the biggest (400) for four of the exact same suit. In theory, this should be the game's big draw, making you plot out your route for the maximum score while also not using the refuel flag for an extra score bonus... It doesn't really work out that way though. Going for the proper card matches is absolutely the more interesting way to play, but it comes with the frustration of hoping the gorillas play ball and don't camp on top of the next card you need (this happened to me more than a few times) and depending on your play style, you may end up just giving up and grabbing the cards in any order (especially since, like Donkey Kong, there's only one opportunity for an extend, at either 15000 or 30000 depending on the dip switch settings). The King, Queen and Joker hostages also don't play into this system at all, which would've made things more interesting- perhaps having them serve as multipliers of some kind like the Special Flag in New Rally-X.
More pressing is the fact that the first board has a very simple pattern that you can easily route, and the ones that follow are a little more complex, but an opportunity to keep that momentum up is lost as repeated loops only change the location of one captive, the Joker (on the first board, he's moved to above and behind the skull castle, for instance). Even having one alternate set of captive locations would've done the job, as beyond that one moved captive, slightly faster fuel consumption and gorillas being more proactive in hassling you, it's very much the same from then on. This is in stark contrast to Donkey Kong, which doesn't increase in complexity as you progress (unless you count the gradual introduction of levels in the International version) but does increase in difficulty and intensity in different ways beyond a stricter time limit, with the Girder board throwing lots more 'wild' barrels at you to throw you off your rhythm and the Rivets board having much more difficult spring patterns to deal with. It feels like Sky Skipper doesn't try that, even though mixing up hostage locations would've absolutely worked- perhaps a sign that the game was released unfinished, as a few have said such as this review- but as it doesn't, your resolve to keep scoring high is a little dampened with this lack of ratcheting things up (although hey, at least it's way harder to marathon than, say, Mario Bros. with that lack of multiple extends).
What the game definitely has in its favour is charm, probably the part that had me interested in the first place. The hardware this board runs on is a step above what Donkey Kong was working with, offering a higher resolution for more detailed sprites. The approach here is actually pretty interesting- the environments in the game are very blocky but still recognisable renderings of things like trees, towers and castles (and even then they have little details like skulls and parapets) while the sprites are considerably more detailed, especially the gorillas who have some great expressions. It's an aesthetic that feels vaguely like the one seen in contemporary Bally Midway title Satan's Hollow and would later be iterated upon by Tapper and Rampage, and it works really well, complimenting the flyer artwork quite nicely. Since it was on the same hardware, Popeye later used a similar approach to make those characters look as close to their comic / cartoon counterparts to great effect. The main criticism for the game's look is that I wish there was more obvious colour differences between the Heart and Diamond hostages- they're chickens and rabbits respectively, both white, which are a little more difficult to discern between at a glance compared to the Club and Spade hostages, frogs and blue things. There's also the infrequent jingles, like the rendition of 'Skip to my Lou, My Darling' that plays at the start of each life, and at least one jingle adapted from Donkey Kong which are surprisingly catchy. Charm cannot save a game, though, but at least it makes Sky Skipper memorable.
Especially for a game of this vintage, it's vital to look at what else was on the market at the time- approximately, of course, given that so few of them have exact dates. With a bit of deductive reasoning though, we can infer Sky Skipper was location tested in the latter half of 1981 at the very least (Donkey Kong was June of that year, and its success emboldened Nintendo to pursue more game development, including Sky Skipper), meaning that it was tested a while after the release of two somewhat similar games, Namco's New Rally-X and Williams' Defender. For New Rally-X, both have a fuel meter, ways to refill it and a focus on picking up items and the order you pick them up- you have to pick up the Special Flag first if you want double points for all subsequent flags. As for Defender, both involve controlling flying vehicles, stages that scroll left and right (with Sky Skipper adding in vertical scrolling) and interacting with characters that need to be saved or protected (if anything, Defender does more with its rescuing mechanic, as keeping track is imperative to ensuring as few deadly Mutants are spawned as possible). Where both these games differ from Sky Skipper is in pacing- both have a much faster clip to them, Defender especially, and as a result feel a lot more intense and exciting, and in the arcade space where you only have a credit to capture the player's attention, that's really vital. Not that faster is inherently better, mind (although amusingly Nintendo themselves would offer official speed-up kits for Donkey Kong and its sequel!) but this just helps to at least partially highlight where Sky Skipper fit into the grand scheme of things at the time of its release, an important piece of the puzzle given how few people would've actually seen it back in the day.
I think from what we've seen here, one can make a few guesses as to why Sky Skipper tailspinned into obscurity. It's kind of a slow game in a market that had vaguely similar, but faster-paced and arguably better-designed games available. The laid-back approach isn't necessarily bad, of course, but in an arcade environment of this vintage, games had pretty much no time to grab the player's attention. If anything, Sky Skipper maybe came too early- its slower pace and emphasis on exploring a tiny world would perhaps have been better suited to a home console release. Unfortunately, as much as Nintendo did like to bring back older arcade / toy game concepts early in the NES's life (see: Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt, etc.), the system was, as is my understanding at least, not especially proficient at multi-scrolling in its early days- it was better at horizontal scrolling anyway, but could do one or the other, not both at the same time, at least until MMC / mapper chips became more commonplace on carts. A NES port of Sky Skipper released in a timeframe when the game would be relevant would have to be compromised in some way (especially the sprites- see what happened to the Popeye port for the system) and while one can perhaps imagine a Donkey Kong '94-style remake later on, who would've cared? Maybe the same staff who put that nod to Sky Skipper in the Game Boy Camera. As it stands, Sky Skipper is a bit like Rumba Lumber- an almost-lost game in the back catalogue of a big game company that helps shed light on their earlier work, but, uh, maybe isn't that great. Perhaps you, reader, can get more out of Sky Skipper if you give it a try on the Switch. Just don't expect much more from Nintendo's mysterious arcade past like this.
For being Nintendo in their early arcade days, Sky Skipper is awarded...
In a sentence, Sky Skipper...
Doesn't quite make the loop-de-loop but tries its best.
And now, it's that time, folks!
Just a quick few words about the only two home ports of Sky Skipper, and they couldn't be any further removed from one another.
First up, oh no, it's finally happened, we've had to cover an Atari 2600 game.
You may be asking though, what the hell? How did this game end up on the Atari 2600 when it had such little distribution in arcades, and why was it developed and published by Parker Brothers of all companies? An interview with former Parker Brothers designer Steve Kranish mentions that the company wanted 'access to future games' from Nintendo- with a rumour that they wanted the rights to the Popeye arcade game but had to take Sky Skipper too as part of a package deal. More interestingly, a Sky Skipper cabinet was available to the development team! It's not specified where they got it from, but it was a cocktail cabinet version of the game, and Kranish was the 'expert' of the game (in his words: "I was the only one in the office who was willing to play it", ouch). In any case, it sounds like this port was just done so Parker Brothers could get their hands on the Popeye game, so it's a formality, a job that had to be checked off the list.
... 'Port' is maybe stretching it though. This is the Atari 2600 after all, so it's less of a port and more of a, shall we say, adaptation, something that tries to evoke the spirit of the game. It tries, bless it, it really tries. The main points are that as you only have one button, your plane speed is always the same and only changes on different difficulty settings; the game now only scrolls vertically with no horizontal movement at all; and the animals are grouped together in threes with no King, Queen or Jokers to collect. It very much is what it is, but it tries to stick with the collection mechanics of the original- collecting one of each animal rather than all three of the same type at once will completely refill your fuel meter (a replacement for the fuel flag missing from this version). There's not much else to say beyond it being very much an Atari 2600 game, but it's an interesting curiosity nonetheless.
Of course, the real home port is the one mentioned in the opening lore-dump- the Nintendo Switch version.
Hamster's Arcade Archives series has been rereleasing arcade games since 2014 with games from a whole bunch of companies including Taito, Jaleco, Technos, Tecmo and Konami, with their crown jewel being as many Neo Geo titles as licensing will allow, but the Switch in particular has a bunch of games you won't see on any other system- Nintendo's arcade output. Sky Skipper probably would've been the most surprising inclusion in the series had Donkey Kong not been announced a couple of minutes beforehand. Oh well! In typical Arcade Archives fashion, this is pretty much just the arcade game with nothing too fancy, but there's a few extra modes at least with online leaderboards. Beyond the Original Game Mode which is as you'd expect, Hi-Score Mode records your highest score on one coin and default settings with no pausing allowed, and Caravan Mode challenges you to get the highest score on default settings within a five-minute time limit. There's also some basic display options like scanlines, borders and screen-flipping, and a strange option labelled 'The Original Game's Character Designs' which removes the black space that appears when character sprites overlap (this is easiest to see by stunning a gorilla then flying into him). An oddly specific fix to add, but extra points for the effort, Hamster.
Oh, that Game Boy Camera nod to Sky Skipper? The only time Nintendo's acknowledged it outside the rerelease.
Poor Mr. You isn't even in Smash, at all.
Anyway... At the time of writing, this is officially the oldest game to be covered on Gaming Hell.
How old can we go? Does anyone have a spare copy of Tennis for Two...?