Skycurser (Arcade) Review


Those of you who follow my blog should undoubtedly be aware of my unwavering support for the independent arcade game manufacturer. In an industry full of bland rail shooters and drivers from the same handful of companies over and over again, it’s a true breath of fresh air to see new talent emerge. Indie studios listen to the players, making the kind of “traditional” video game experiences we’ve been begging for for ages. Killer Queen, Cosmotrons, Tipsy Raccoons, and, yes, Skycurser...I love ‘em all. But interestingly enough, I hadn’t played a single one—until now.

During my trip to the Chicagoland area to interview the President of Namco USA for a Replay Magazine article (among other things), I visited the Galloping Ghost Arcade, which, as we all know, is the largest arcade in the world. With over 660 games, it was almost overwhelming just deciding what to play. However, one of the titles on my “hit list” was Skycurser, and by golly, I was gonna find it. Scouring the facility, I found Griffin Aerotech’s breakout Airframe hit in a back room, sandwiched in the corner between two other cabinets.

Even with hundreds of highly sought-after titles surrounding me, I played Skycurser three times during my seven-hour stay. It was new, different, and just plain fun. Something about it hooked me: something I want to share today. If you haven’t yet played Skycurser and you’re wondering what all the fuss is about—or you’ve played it and you just want more to engage with—I’d recommend reading this piece. I had an incredible experience with the game, and I’ve got some glowing things to say about it.

With all that being said, I think it’s time we jump into the review.

Skycurser

Developer: Blast City Studios

Publisher: Griffin Aerotech

Release Date: April 2017

Gameplay

Skycurser, at its core, has always been described as a “frantic, hard-action shoot-em-up.” Set in the year 1996, we players are thrust right in the middle of a cataclysmic plague descending upon the Earth. From there, you (the player avatar) and your dog (the, uh...dog) fight back in the face of adversity. Piloting your “prophetic weapon,” the titular Skycurser, you take to the skies to vanquish the Necrostar’s hordes of grotesque mutants and save the whole gosh danged planet. This bombastic horizontal shooter aims to recapture the glory of the 90’s—of over-the-top, in-your-face, meat-and-metal action. And to the uninitiated, it could very well come off an older title, especially in a venue like the Galloping Ghost.

But this isn’t a 90’s shooter. It’s brand-new game not only designed to sell itself but also the Airframe indie arcade hardware platform. And as a side-scrolling shooter—and all-around as game—Skycurser provides impeccably refined gameplay and whole lotta fun. It isn’t “just another shooter,” or “just another indie game.” I had consistent fun, from beginning to end, throughout three consecutive runs. The best part? I can’t wait to play again. Let’s explore this.

As I’ve said, Skycurser is a horizontal shmup. You fly around the screen shooting guys as the stage scrolls from left to right. This is, of course, an incredibly simple concept that we’ve seen enacted in countless other titles from Darius to Infinos. However, like light gun shooters, shmups differentiate themselves not by their most simplistic concepts but rather how they thrive within those parameters. Skycurser is a shooter, but it’ll likely feel pretty different from other examples of the genre. It’s got its own unique flair, exemplified by its speed, intensity, aesthetics, guns, bosses, and even melee attacks. Though my experience with shmups is somewhat limited, it’s clear that Skycurser is something unique.

During gameplay, you have two basic weapons to swap between depending on the circumstances before you. First is an auto-fire minigun that, as expected, doesn’t do much damage per each shot but makes up weakness in sheer rapidity. (I’m fairly certain we all know how miniguns work.) The second weapon is a considerably slower (though still auto-fire) shotgun that compensates for its molasses speed with huge splashes of damage. While I at first found it hard to see how a shotgun would help, I eventually realized just how useful it was. I used the shotgun for screen-filling, unrelenting hordes of enemies—clearing out spaces until the waves finally ceased—and enemies that soaked more damage than the relatively weak minigun could effectively handle.

The minigun, on the other hand, I typically used for bosses: enemies that moved too quickly or erratically for the severely limited range and speed of the shotgun. I could deftly avoid attacks while bosses soaked up bullets at pretty much all times. I would use the minigun for hordes of smaller enemies, as well, depending on how I was feeling. Both weapons, though very different in speed, range, and fire rate, served distinct purposes. As simple as it may seem in writing, the combination of minigun and shotgun gave me infinite room to experiment in execution. It’s not a constant “auto-fire while avoiding a screen of bullets” affair like some shooters. And I’d imagine players with greater skill than myself could discover even more exciting ways to utilize the weapon-swapping mechanic.

To make things even more interesting, you also have a melee attack at your disposal. Slashing your sword can decimate close range enemies and deflect some enemy shots. During my first playthrough, it didn’t really occur to me to use the melee attack. It was, after all, not something I was used to in a shmup. However, by my second and third playthroughs, it became a necessity. While I was constantly shooting enemies, I always found opportunities to slash surrounding hordes or deflect blasts back at nearby mutants. The melee attack, though slow and deliberate, is imperative for survival when pushing through masses of mutants or a screen-full of bullets. I absolutely adore the additional strategy this mechanic provides.

As if that weren’t exciting enough, Skycurser ups the ante even further with a few flashy super attacks. If the super bar in the bottom-left corner of the screen is flashing but not entirely full, you can summon either another ship to shoot alongside you or perform a sword attack. If the bar is full, you can press all three buttons at once to activate a screen-clearing, 90’s-as-heck super attack. The attack, good humored as it is, will turn enemies into food that can be picked up to increase score multiplier. I will admit that I had some issues with the flashing bar assist attacks, as I would inadvertently summon them by inputting a button sequence I wasn’t even aware of, thus wasting an opportunity to later use the screen-clearing attack. However, once you get acquainted with the inputs (ABA for shooting assist, BAB for sword), it’s not as big of a deal. Additionally, the screen-clearing super is simple to active (press all three buttons at once) and very satisfying.

Boss battles, too, are absolutely fantastic. There are four bosses in the game: Gaki, the ravenous ghoul; Julio and Cesar, the boxing ghouls; Sebastian, the spectral ghoul; and Valga, the clairvoyant ghoul. Each boss deals out a unique set of attacks, enacting their own distinct scenarios. At first, I found the bosses slightly difficult to telegraph due to their more erratic nature, but I was eventually able recognize patterns and react accordingly. In reality, the nature of each boss fight can be reduced to “shoot the large guy and avoid attacks,” but each encounter plays out so brilliantly that such oversimplification would be a crime. Gaki, Julio and Cesar, Sebastian, and Valga all have their quirks. Engaging with those characters—enacting Skycurser’s epic, bloody boss fights—is a huge chunk of the charm. Once you learn their patterns, conflicts become an artform in motion.

You’ll actually come across mid-bosses, too. These aren’t quite as tough as the end-of-level but this make for super fun diversions. I think my favorite was definitely the turtle guy in Mission 2. He’s, like, part of a ship, and his neck expands and retracts repeatedly. It was pretty wild, man.

An early complaint some players had was that the player ship sprite was much too large. However, I can confirm that the most recent version of the software completely eliminates this issue. I found the ship to be the perfect size for weaving about hordes of enemies. Moment-to-moment gameplay is absolutely beautiful. (And as a brief aside: All the little touch-ups Griffin Aerotech has made to the software since 2015 is a prime example of why arcade games should do true beta tests more often.)

I tend to call a lot games “fair” on this blog, but most of those titles don’t hold a candle to Skycurser. In terms of difficulty, Skycurser is one of the most evenly balanced experiences I’ve witnessed in quite some time. And when I say it’s fair, that’s not to say it’s a particularly easy game. Rather, the difficulty curve is arched to provide the maximum challenge at the maximum reward. My first playthrough cost me 16 credits, which amounted to an average of a minute-and-a-half per “coin-drop” throughout the 20 minutes of total gameplay. My second playthrough, on the other hand, immediately slashed my total number of credits to only 10—translating to approximately two minutes per each credit. Obviously, the amount of gameplay per credit varied in practice, but the point is clear. By my second run, I had become so intimately acquainted with the mechanics and difficulty of Skycurser that I was able to blaze through with ease. (My third run required 12 credits, but we can call that part of the learning period.)

I guess what makes Skycurser’s difficulty so cool to me is its cost-effective, almost “quick-play” nature. It’s one of those games where you jump in and beat it with a five-dollar bill, you know? And with many current releases demanding $10 to $15 from blind playthroughs, Skycurser’s difficulty is really reassuring. For us dedicated arcade gamers, forgiving pricing feels nice.

The fun doesn’t stop after one playthrough, though. During the credits, you can access a second, more difficult loop of the game by simply pressing a button. From there, you’ve got one credit to get as far as you can in an even more challenging game mode. But even apart from the second loop, there’s so much here to enjoy. There’s a lot of enjoyment to found in pushing for higher multipliers and chasing a higher end-game score. While not everyone fancies increasing arbitrary numbers—even when leaderboards are involved—I’d say Skycurser is kick-butt enough to warrant the extra effort. The scoring system truly is rewarding, making Skycurser feel like even more of a “classic video game experience” than it already was.

One thing I didn’t get to try out, despite my three playthroughs, was two-player co-op. (I suppose that was also because the cabinet at the Galloping Ghost only had one set of controls, but I digress.) Even so, I know it’ll be a big draw for those who appreciate the “social” side of arcades. After you’ve gotten familiar with the game yourself, I highly recommend bringing a buddy along for the ride. Skycurser is such a wicked gameplay experience that it needs to be shared with others. (Besides, everything’s better with a buddy.)

The culmination of multiple abilities, exciting moment-to-moment gameplay, and addictive challenge makes for a top-notch experience. The Skycurser ship is a mutant-mutilating machine, zooming around and chaining attacks with ease. Killing enemies has a real “umph” to it, and the overall feel is very refined. The time I spent with this title was some of the most fun I’d had in ages. And guess what? It just keeps getting better and better from here.

Content

When looked at from solely in terms of raw length, Skycurser isn’t too much to write home about. A single, beginning-to-end run clocks in at around 20 to 25 minutes. However, this relative brevity makes for a more tightly-packed, enriching experience in the long term. Like I said, it’s the kind of game you can beat with a five-dollar bill. While it does provide a meaty dose of fun, it also isn’t going to eat up too much of your precious time (or money). Allow me to illustrate Skycurser’s length by comparing it to other games.

After Burner Climax is a great Sega release that, like Skycurser, packs a lot of fun into a short span of time. However, it’s length is so short that it feels like the fun is sort of over before it even begins. However, some 45-minute or hour-long arcade games, no matter how fun they may be, can sometimes drag on a bit. These aren’t generals rules, naturally, but I find that Skycurser strikes a solid balance between the two extremes. It’s like the original House of the Dead, where the total amount of content is just perfect.

One minor complaint I have—as silly as it may sound given my immediately preceding comments—is that the game isn’t as long as it could have been. (I promise I’ll explain.) During the title’s beta/alpha stage, it was stated that the final release version would feature six to eight levels and an infinite “Meat Mode.” The promise of such robust content was very enticing. And while I was very satisfied with what we ended up receiving, I would have loved a fully-realized infinite mode and perhaps one more level. Unless we see another online update sometime in the future, I suppose we can only imagine what Meat Mode may have been.

Still, Skycurser provides a nice slice of game as it stands. The aforementioned (and super challenging) second loop is a delicious treat after a hefty four-course meal, and replayability in general is sky-high. Chasing higher and higher scores in the quarter-hour campaign is always a delight. As far as content offerings go, I can’t really complain. (But I do want that Meat Mode. Pretty please, Griffin Aerotech?)

Controls

I did actually like Skycurser’s control scheme quite a bit. There are three buttons: one for changing weapons, one for firing the selected gun, and one for slashing the katana. The way the buttons are arranged is very intuitive, as well. My index finger and middle finger rested on the gun button and katana button, respectively, and my thumb rested on the weapon-swapping button below. The three standard, circular arcade buttons were easily accessible and responsive at all times. Overall, it was a good feeling that lent itself well to dynamic control.

The in-game “Guy” behaves very naturally, too. As I said earlier, the ship responds precisely to player input, zipping around and ripping bad dudes to gory shreds. The only complaint I have—and a minor one at that—was that I occasionally activated special moves entirely inadvertently, pulling off a button combo and using up the charge bar. However, even if these accidents led to some slight frustration, I’m more than willing to chalk it up to inexperience. I hadn’t yet learned the special move combos, so I initiated them out of sheer ignorance. Because, besides that minor hiccup, I found the game to control like a gosh danged dream.

Graphics/Presentation

Like everything else, the graphics and presentation are pretty sweet. While Skycurser doesn’t boast intense raw power by any means, it does boast an kick-butt retro aesthetic. The sprite-work and animation are superb and capture the “1990s meat and metal attitude” aesthetic nearly perfectly.

One thing I love about Skycurser is that it's positively oozing with personality, from the epic attract mode to the insane in-game frenzies. Even the heads-up display, for goodness' sake, feels as it should. Unlike so many other modern arcade game developers, you can tell that Griffin Aerotech genuinely cared about the universe they crafted. And in my eyes, there’s nothing else like it. Skycurser really is its own beast.

Although some have compared Skycurser’s art to old Neo-Geo classics like Metal Slug, I personally wouldn’t go that far. Don’t get me wrong: it’s some of the best art I've ever had to pleasure to witness. But the team of animators at SNK were on an entirely different level.

Even so, you should be duly prepared to be sucked into the world of the Necrostar.

Sound/Music

As if the rest of the game weren’t cool enough, the synthwave music just had to be amazing. (Dang it, Skycurser.) Since my musical vocabulary is incredibly limited, I’ll just say this: The Skycurser soundtrack is action-packed. Each track takes on a life of its own—representing perfectly its respective stage—while still remaining sonically cohesive in regards to the entire package.

I like every song—no joke—so I can’t pick a favorite. The Skycurser soundtrack is a delightful journey from beginning to end, so I highly recommend you check it out on Soundcloud. (I want an official CD release, yo!)

Cabinet

The cabinet experience, for better or for worse, will vary from location-to-location. Griffin Aerotech design the Airframe hardware with versatility in mind, and that means that Skycurser comes in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes. Perhaps your local arcade has the dedicated cabinet, or a custom-built cabinet, a converted Dynamo cab, or even a candy cab setup. The possibilites are endless. However, since I can’t exactly speak for all Skycurser cabinets in existence, I'll instead discuss the three different packages the game is available under.

At only $899.99, the cheapest option by far is the Pro Kit, featuring the Skycurser game software, Airframe hardware, a Wi-Fi adapter, and A4 poster and movestrip artwork. As much as I dig this upgrade kit, I do think it’s odd that a marquee isn’t included. Movestrips and A4-size side-art are nice, but marquees are necessities. While the marquee is available separately (for $49.99), I still found its omission from this kit somewhat odd. Either way, it’s a solid bundle you can get on the cheap.

Those looking for a more inclusive package will likely prefer the Deluxe Kit, featuring the Skycurser software, Airframe hardware, Wi-Fi adapter, full-color vinyl side-art, kick plate, marquee, and control panel overlay for the reasonable total of $1,199.99. And for those looking to convert an empty cabinet over to Skycurser for under $2,000, you couldn’t get any better. The Deluxe Kit is quite honestly the perfect option for those who want some “identity” out of their kit while still avoiding the full expense of a dedicated cabinet.

The Dedicated Cabinet, on the other hand, is a real whopper. For $3499.99, it comes outfitted with a 19-inch LCD monitor, deluxe artwork, Skycurser software, Airframe hardware, a full set of controls, and JAMMA wiring. Although I haven’t seen the dedicab in person, it looks absolutely stunning in photos. It may be the most expensive option, but it’s an absolute must for operators who can spare the cash.

Griffin Aerotech has provided three top-notch setups for purchasing Skycurser. You’ve got the real cheap end of the spectrum (the Pro Kit), the middle-of-road option (the Deluxe Kit), and an absolutely remarkable dedicated cabinet. Even if Skycurser is rather basic compared to most modern games—a small display, limited lighting, and no force feedback—but it’s darn effective in its own right. From an operator’s perspective, I can say all cabinet options work great. From a player’s perspective, I can say just the same. (But I’d still like it if the marquee were included with the Pro Kit, heh-heh.)

Though it probably doesn’t make for an entirely “unbiased” review—a mythical concept in and of itself—I feel it’s necessary to contextualize Skycurser’s release to really understand just how awesome the game is. In 2015, even though we had already been privy to The Act (not really), Friction (kind of), and Killer Queen, the “indie arcade game” was relatively new to us. And Skycurser...it was special.

Writing this conclusion now, a year after I started writing the review (which I, bizarrely, never published), I feel exactly as strongly about Skycurser as I did when I began. Maybe it’s not as humongous as Killer Queen. Maybe it’s not as unique as Cosmotrons or Retro Raccoons. But by golly, Skycurser did what it set out to do. Griffin Aerotech couldn’t have picked a better title to headline their Airframe Arcade Operating System.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard from some arcade operators that Skycurser didn’t perform all that well on location, so a sequel may never come to fruition. But sometimes, that’s okay. Skycurser is the perfect standalone package—something I’d never want sullied by a follow-up we may not even need.

I loved Skycurser more than any other game I played in 2018, and nothing I’ve played since has topped it yet. If that’s not a convincing recommendation, I don’t know what is.

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