Skycurser, Forgotten Indie Arcade Games, and the Modern Industry

April 10, 2017

As many of you all know by now, Skycurser preorders opened up last Monday, April 3rd. The rapid success of Griffin Aerotech and the Skycurser project in my opinion is a fantastic thing to behold, and I hope to see more indie developers succeed in the future. And though I could leave it at this and do some simple overview of the game, I believe this topic requires a discussion more in-depth than I have ever before attempted. Let’s hope I can do it, am I right?

            The very recent success of Skycurser and arcade indie developers in general (I’m looking at you, Killer Queen) says a lot about the modern industry. Yes, huge Raw Thrills, Namco, and Sega releases still dominate the industry. And you know what? I like Raw Thrills and Namco a heckuva lot. (Sega hasn’t done too well lately.) However, I believe there’s a sleeping giant among us. This giant hasn’t made itself entirely known yet, but believe me—it most certainly will. And if you’ll join me, I’ll explain exactly what it is through the story of Skycurser.

 

Read to the end the see the results of my first Twitter poll in weeks! Oh, and make sure to vote in this week's poll: Daytona USA versus Cruis'n USA.

 

In-Depth Skycurser Thoughts

Before we begin, let me detail exactly how I feel about Skycurser, now that it has actually been released. You may remember that my “Arcade Hype List” article went over Skycurser as well, but I believe I should comment on the full release. Besides, it’ll lead us into my thoughts on the modern industry.

            Skycurser, in a word, is wicked—wicked beyond belief. It’s been a little while since I’ve been so incredibly hype for an arcade release, and Skycurser sure did the job. Chris Cruz, Bradley Smith, and Phil Golobish clearly cared about their game and the arcade scene as a whole, and the end result really shows it. This is a modern release that feels like it came out of a dream: a hyper-violent shoot-em-up? In 2017? It’s almost unbelievable that it came out in today’s environment of rail shooters and racing games. Then again, this isn’t your average Dave and Buster’s game—not one bit. And believe me, we will be touching on that later.

            But more specifically, Skycurser looks fast, fun, loud, and action-packed. It’s exactly the kind of gameplay that I love. I know for a fact that on that fateful day that I eventually get to play Skycurser, it will be one of the best days of my entire life. And heck, it doesn’t stop at gameplay. The art in Skycurser is incredible, from the sprites to the backgrounds to even the amazing cabinet art. My goodness, how I love the Skycurser cabinet art. The attention to detail certainly shows. I liken it to the Gauntlet: Legends cabinet art in a way, simply because of how much detail was packed in, and how it all functions as one glorious package. Skycurser, though, is even better. But you get the comparison, right?

            One more appealing feature that I should touch on is the Airframe hardware. Griffin Aerotech has done what should have been done YEARS ago: they’ve released a unified development system that make it infinitely easier for indie developers to get a foothold in the arcade industry. No longer will we have to play “arcade-style” indie games. Now, we’ll be able to play actual arcade releases from these creative studios. And from what I heard in the most recent Griffin Aerotech podcast, you’ll have to really prove the concept and ability to complete the game to use the hardware, so that might end arcade vaporware—hopefully.

            In short, Skycurser appeals to me for its gameplay, art, unified hardware system, and distinction from other modern arcade titles. But of course, this isn’t a big developer distinguishing itself: these are three dudes running a company releasing indie games. So, how exactly was it so easy for Griffin Aerotech to succeed where many others have failed? What was the secret ingredient for success? Just keep following along, and soon you will see what I see.

 

In-Depth Airframe Thoughts

But for just a moment, I’d like to remark on the absolute awesomeness of the Airframe Arcade Operating Sytem (alliteration…sort of). Historically, it has been extremely hard for indies to gain much traction in the video game industry as whole—not just arcades. After all, they don’t have the financial backing of a large company, so how are they to pay for advertising? How are they to attract the attention of news outlets? Just making the game in the first place is hard enough! And though digital distribution has made it infinitely easier to get indie games on the market, it has also posed a huge problem. It is now so easy for developers to release their games that there are simply far too many games flooding the market for one indie to make any sort of noise.

            And if you thought it was hard for indies to develop for home consoles, then you better believe it is the most incredibly insurmountable (actual alliteration) task in the entire WORLD to develop an arcade game. Indie developers haven’t always been as lucky as Griffin Aerotech. Since it costs so incredibly much to develop an arcade game and it’s so incredibly difficult to land a distributor, an independent developer who might want to make an arcade game probably just couldn’t do it. Besides, arcades are “dead.” They probably didn’t want to spend all that money producing an arcade game and then lose it instantly. But guess what?

            Airframe has provided the solution that the industry so sorely needed. Since half the battle in arcades is developing your own propriety hardware for the game to run on, it makes sense that someone finally made a consistent hardware solution for indies to use. Sure, there’s been Atomiswave and Neo-Geo and whatnot in the past, but that wasn’t a solution for indies like this is. By removing that barrier, we can finally fill the void of creative independent spirit in the arcade sector. And since it still requires the purchase of hardware and proof that a developer will actually follow through with producing the game, Griffin Aerotech has struck a perfect balance. It’s easy enough that quality indie developers can work their way to it; but it’s also prohibitive enough that we won’t see a flood of garbage like we’ve seen on digital distribution platforms. If I had a quarter for every game that blatantly ripped off an art style or gameplay mechanic…well, hot darn, I’d be able to start an arcade!

 

Indie Games of Arcade Past

Anyway, on to the meat of the article. Skycurser, as you may be well aware of, has not been the only indie arcade game to pop up in recent years. It has, however, been one of the most successful. “But, Dustin,” you may be saying. “What about Killer Queen? Hasn’t it drawn quite the crowd as well?” Don’t fret, people—all in good time. But first, let’s look at a few indie arcade games that…well, just didn’t make the proverbial cut.

            First, let’s travel back in time to 2007. What were you doing then? I was being a 6 or 7 year old, so yeah. I was at Godfather’s Pizza playing The Fast and the Furious: DRIFT or something. Anyway, this was the year that one of the earliest indie arcade arcade games I even know of was “released.” (That’s not me being derogatory. The game seriously just went on loctest and then sort of disappeared.) This game is one that may be familiar to a few of you due to its compelling story: The Act. The Act was an incredibly unique undertaking—one that was almost to unique for its own good. Developed by Cecropia, it was an interactive movie game, much like Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace. Unlike these games, The Act used a knob controller that controlled the intensity of emotional responses and/or certain actions. What made it even more incredible was that the game used hand-drawn art from many former Disney animators. And like I said, this insanely unique game went through a few location tests. So, what happened?

            Well, it was cancelled the same year that it was released. And it really pains me to say this, too, but Cecropia shut its proverbial doors the next year. There was some good news, though: The Act was ported to iOS and OSX by React Entertainment in 2012. But wait, there’s more—it disappeared from the App Store just a little while later. The Act was unfortunately the star of one of the most saddening stories ever.

            Now, let’s fast-forward just a bit to the year of 2011. By this point, I had truly lost my way from the world of arcades (but that’s not the point). Let’s instead focus on a completely and totally forgotten game: Friction. Developed by Friction Game Studios (repetitive redundancy), this was a light gun rail shooter released as a kit for nearly any other CRT-based rail shooter. I sure do like CRTs, you know. So, what went wrong this time? A real laundry list, that’s for darn sure.

            Unfortunately, Friction suffered from a case known as “no one even knows this game exists.” Though Friction was a rail shooter (a surefire genre in 2011), it just did not get anywhere. The only coverage on the game that I could find was from Arcade Heroes, which is a given for literally any indie arcade game. I couldn’t find a website or social media of any kind. In fact, just trying to buy the game is incredibly difficult. Friction was cursed with being distributed by Coast to Coast Entertainment, which in my opinion was an iffy match. (Then again, they distributed ReRave and a few other rhythm games, and I think that worked out.) Coast to Coast does not typically dabble in video, and they aren’t (as far as I know) that well known. To make matters worse, Coast to Coast told Friction Game Studios to include a gore setting in the game. Hey, Coast to Coast—I get that you don’t do anything outside of claw machines and rhythm games, but this isn’t 1992. Gore doesn’t instantly sell a game anymore. Later, a Chinese company made a dedicated cabinet for the game, but that also seems to have gone nowhere.

            In my opinion, there were far too many forces working against what would have otherwise been a pretty cool rail shooter. For one, it was only released as a kit. I’m sure that was meant to keep costs down for both the developer and the operator, but it just did not work. For a game to make any sort of mark, there’s got to be some sort of visual you can associate with it, like a dedicated cabinet. Besides, not everyone wants to install kits. Next up (besides the cruddy distributor) is what really SHOVED the final nail into the coffin: zero coverage or Internet presence whatsoever. Just like The Act, this game is another unfortunate tale of past indie developers disappearing from the arcade scene just as soon as they arrive.

            This screenshot comes from Friction's YouTube channel. It's one of those instances where you have no idea that it's THE Friction channel, because the channel name is just the name of one of the dudes who worked on the game. Did you know that this game existed? Would you have ever found it on your own? Would you have even bothered looking? The answer to all three of those questions might just be no. And you know what? That's perfectly understandable. Developers have to at least try to get noticed if they want to be noticed. You know, this game did look pretty cool. In retrospect, it wasn't the most visually stunning game, but it sure did look fun. It's a darn shame. However, I think a converted Friction cab still resides at the Game Grid Arcade, so there's one way to play it, I guess.

            Though I chose only two indie arcade games to focus on, there’s really not much more out there. There was Flytrap, created by Adam Coate, but I don’t want to get into that one. Very few people took that entitled man seriously. Besides, it was be almost too redundant for me to write more about these kinds of games. I think you all get the point, right?

            But just what is that point? What is the recurring theme here? What has been killing indie arcade games for so long?

            The answer: player outreach.

            If the past 10 years of arcade games has proven anything, it’s that you can’t rely on the old model of “player outreach” anymore. The old model could also be known as “completely nonexistent player outreach,” because that’s just what it was. Developers would make a game, it would go through a few super-secret location tests, and then it would just show up in arcades one day. There were a few exceptions like the Mortal Kombat 4 road tour, but that was Midway. They were entirely different beast, after all.

            Luckily, things have changed in recent years. Every major arcade developer has a social media presence, and Namco (and to a lesser extent Raw Thrills) has been especially good at providing players with location finders. But you know what? The Act and Friction didn’t have ANY of that. Though The Act got some nice press coverage, it just wasn’t enough. Though it was bit less common for brands and projects to fully utilize social media marketing back in 2007, The Act could have done something, I suppose. And Friction—I can’t even try to defend Friction. In 2011, not even attempting to promote your company or game beyond a few YouTube videos is rather…disappointing.

            And it’s not like I disliked these games or what they were trying to do! That’s not the case at all! I just find it so incredibly disheartening that valiant indie efforts completely disappeared because, well, no one knew they existed!

            Of course, I’d never leave an article at just that. You and I both know that some indie efforts didn’t die, and now, we’re going to take a look at their success.

 

2014: The Year it All Clicked

You may be wondering, “Why 2014? That’s when Flytrap got an arcade release, and that clearly didn’t go anywhere.” Well, it’s also the year Killer Queen was released, and that ended completely differently.

            Killer Queen is another game that was on my Arcade Hype List, and I’m still waiting for an opportunity to play it. It’s truly an experience that just wouldn’t work outside of the arcade setting—something that kept the game from dying off with little to no fanfare. What is the magic component in the success of Killer Queen? Community. Starting out, BumbleBear Games already had the advantage of the community that had been built around the field game. Then, all they had to do (besides create the arcade version, of course) was transition that highly dedicated community to the arcade. A 10-player team-based game simply would not work outside of arcades. Yes, there is online gaming on consoles, but this doesn’t foster a truly connected community in the same way. And to add to that preexisting community, Killer Queen has a website and an active social media presence.

            Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Raw Thrills picked up Killer Queen and helped it gain a little exposure, heh-heh.

            But either way, Killer Queen shows that simply alerting players of your existence goes a LONG way. Developers can’t just location test, release, and expect everything else to work out. Sure, it worked for Raw Thrills and Play Mechanix, but that was completely different. It was A) 2001 and 1995, respectively, and B) companies made up of ex-Midway employees.

            Does this online presence also explain Skycurser’s success? Oh yeah, for sure! Griffin Aerotech never let us down. They continually updated us through their website, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. But beyond that, Griffin Aerotech has built a strong community around Skycurser by targeting the “barcade demographic,” as I might call it—a group that loves Skycurser for being a perfect recreation of a game that could have very easily come out of the 90's. And it’s not just people that go to barcades that love this game. In fact, anyone who frequents a local traditional arcade is likely to enjoy Skycurser, because it’s a brand-new game that feels just like many of the classic games they already enjoy.

            This is the only thing that concerns me about Strike Harbinger. It looks like an absolutely fantastic game, but so far, it doesn’t seem to have a huge online presence. It does have a website, though. Then again, the game is super early in development, so it’s good that they aren’t promoting it TOO early. While Strike Harbinger was placed in the Galloping Ghost Arcade for a bit (and subsequently covered on Sega Bits), I’m afraid this coverage is all too fleeting. I’m telling you all now: Play the arcade version of Strike Harbinger when it releases this year!

            Before I move on, I’d like to mention that I sincerely believe, had it been released 10 years later, The Act would have been just as successful as Skycurser or Killer Queen. Why do I say this? For one, it recreated 1980’s gameplay in a very modern way. And secondly, it pulls at two nostalgia strings: classic arcade gaming and classic hand-drawn animation. I know that I would have absolutely loved this game, had I been able to play it. Though I can’t really say the same for Friction, I can almost completely ascertain that The Act would have been much more successful if it had been released at the right time and had much more of an online presence.

            Now is the time, people. Arcades are coming back in a big way.

 

How Skycurser Could Be Even More Awesome

No, this isn’t a section for criticism of the game; rather, this is a section for criticism of the industry surrounding the game.

            As many of you may know (I sure have said that a lot throughout this post), Dave and Buster’s is one of the dominating venues in the modern arcade industry. I love it, because unlike Chuck-E-Cheese’s, DnB is much more willing to support modern video releases, rather than just videmption. Walking onto the game floor at DnB, you will be greeted by some of the biggest games to grace the industry within the past 10 years: Stars Wars Battle Pod, Jurassic Park Arcade, The Walking Dead, Time Crisis 5, Pac-Man Battle Royale, Galaga Assault, Mario Kart Arcade GP DX, H2Overdrive, Dirty Drivin’, Batman, and plenty more. However, Dave and Buster’s doesn’t seem to support indie developers, or perhaps it's just reluctance to get too far outside of the racing and rail shooting safe-zone. After all, have you seen a pair of Killer Queen cabs at your local Dave and Buster’s? I think not. In my opinion, a pair of those massive cabinets would fit right in with the other huge attraction pieces DnB has on display. But alas, DnB seems to be lacking in that department.

            So, you know what would make Skycurser even more insanely awesome? A spot on the Dave and Buster’s game floor. I know the community is a little different at DnB, but I find it extremely hard to believe that modern arcade gamers aren’t capable of doing anything more than pointing and shooting or steering. Think about it: If Griffin Aerotech solidifies a connection with Dave and Buster’s, they can achieve an almost instantaneous spot among the big three (Raw Thrills, Namco, and Sega). From there, the sky’s the limit. We may finally see a little variety in the industry, and the ultimate arcade resurgence will be upon us.

            Now that I’ve made all of these bold statements, I’d like to clarify something. I have absolutely nothing against the current top dogs in the arcades. After all, some of my favorite games are Terminator Salvation and Time Crisis 5, and those sure as heck weren’t made by indie developers. However, I believe that there is still so much that can be done to bring arcades back to their peak, and it may just be up to creative indie teams to do so.

            On the bright side, I hear Raw Thrills will be location testing Nex Machina. I would literally FLIP OUT if we got a new twin-stick shooter. Here’s to the future! (But then again, I can't seem to find the source where I read that. It's probably not happening.)

            Keep it real, ya sweaty nerds.

            Oh, not to interrupt my signature closing or anything, but I found something really cool while doing a little research for this article. There are apparently two more titles in development for the Airframe hardware: “…a patriotic beat ‘em up calling Founding Force and untitled sports game similar to old Windjammers.” (Adam Pratt, Replay Magazine) I’ve already called it: Griffin Aerotech is going to be the next Raw Thrills. Watch out world, because there’s a new developer in town.

            It’s high noon.

            I really like Gun.Smoke.

Twitter Poll

Oh, hi again. I'm really bad at this "ending and article" thing, aren't I? Well, believe me, this is the last thing I have to say. This week, I ran a Twitter poll about which Pac-Man game was the best. The feedback was better than ANYTHING I had ever seen before. I'm pretty sure it was because I happened to post on Pac-Man Day, which is apparently a thing. Here are the results:

Like I said, make sure to vote in this week's poll! The two 1994 arcade racing giants are pitted against each other, which is certainly fitting given that they both received a modern revival at the same time. See ya later, people. I'm out for good now!

 

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