In vintage arcade gaming, few titles hold the mystique and rarity surrounding Sky Skipper. This 1981 arcade game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto – the legendary creator of Super Mario Bros. – is often referred to as the holy grail for retro gaming enthusiasts. Sky Skipper’s journey from obscurity to the collector’s limelight is nothing short of a remarkable odyssey.
Sky Skipper arrived on the arcade scene in 1981, a year that would later be dominated by another one of Miyamoto’s amazing classic retro games, Donkey Kong. The game was designed in collaboration with director Genyo Takeda and featured a unique premise. Players assumed the role of a pilot guiding a biplane through the skies, tasked with collecting anthropomorphic playing cards. The game’s visual appeal was undeniable, with a riot of colors and a screen-filling star explosion upon a crash.
Nintendo initially released Sky Skipper in limited quantities in Japanese arcades for testing purposes. The response, sadly, was underwhelming. Approximately a dozen cabinets went to Nintendo of America (NOA) for further testing, only to face a similar lukewarm reception. Howard Phillips, who would later become a spokesperson for NOA, recalled Sky Skipper as a “trippy” and “not very good” experience.
Sky Skipper’s complex and confusing gameplay sealed its fate in an industry where success was often determined by a game’s instant appeal and playability. The game was a commercial failure, leading to its unofficial retirement. Nintendo of America decided to repurpose the cabinets’ circuit boards for the 1982 game Popeye, a common practice in the arcade world.
With its official release canceled, Sky Skipper was on the brink of vanishing into obscurity. Yet, fate had other plans for this forgotten gem. In the early 2000s, a fortunate turn of events led to the game’s preservation and eventual revival.
In 2002, someone uploaded Sky Skipper’s ROM data to MAME, an open-source arcade emulator. While the origins of this upload remain shrouded in mystery, it was a pivotal moment for the game’s legacy. This act allowed collectors and enthusiasts to experience Sky Skipper, even though the original cabinets were scarce.
Enter Alex Crowley, a collector and retro enthusiast passionate about preserving gaming history. Crowley’s journey with Sky Skipper began when he stumbled upon a printed circuit board for the Popeye arcade game at an auction in Sweden. What made this discovery exceptional was that the Popeye board had initially been a part of a Sky Skipper cabinet.
Crowley and some friends embarked on a mission to explore old arcade warehouses, hoping to unearth rare gaming relics. It was during one of these “raids” that Crowley struck gold. Among the stacks of aging PCBs, he discovered another Popeye board. This board bore the crucial code TNX01, matching the code of the board he had acquired in Sweden.
Seeing the potential, Crowley enlisted the help of an engineer friend, Mark Whiting, to unlock the secrets hidden within these boards. This process involved Whiting meticulously deciphering the function of each chip on the board, all while bypassing the security measures meant to prevent such endeavors. Gradually, they recreated the original board, and the MAME ROM was finally brought back to life.
With the game revived, Crowley set out to recreate the original Sky Skipper cabinet. He used an old Popeye cabinet as a reference, although this presented challenges due to the scarcity of reference materials. Simultaneously, he sold the board from the Swedish auction to American collector Whitney Roberts, who agreed to contribute to the restoration project.
Roberts had an unexpected encounter with Billy Mitchell, the renowned Donkey Kong champion, at a gaming convention. During their conversation, Mitchell mentioned that Nintendo of America still possessed a functioning Sky Skipper cabinet at their headquarters. This revelation would prove pivotal in confirming the authenticity of the boards owned by both collectors.
Mitchell connected Roberts with Don James, the executive vice president of NOA, leading to a visit to Nintendo’s Redmond campus in 2016. Roberts laid eyes on the Sky Skipper cabinet that had eluded collectors for years, taking high-quality scans of the cabinet’s artwork to aid in the restoration project. Confirming that both collectors possessed the genuine artifact was a significant moment in the game’s history.
In the intriguing tale of Sky Skipper’s revival, one more character plays a key role – Julian Eggebrecht. Eggebrecht, co-founder of game developer Factor 5 and an avid arcade collector, made a unique discovery.
Eggebrecht and his team were working on the GameCube title Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. Nintendo agreed to lend them the Sky Skipper cabinet for display if they could complete the game for the system’s launch in 2001. However, when the cabinet arrived, Eggebrecht noticed an issue with the colors. Some of the colors appeared off, especially compared to older game photos.
Eggebrecht and his team were granted permission to investigate the cabinet, discovering that one of the chips responsible for the color palette had failed. In a stroke of luck, Eggebrecht reached out to Genyo Takeda, with whom he had collaborated while developing the GameCube chip. Takeda owned Sky Skipper’s original files and agreed to help Eggebrecht fix the machine.
Takeda sent the required color palette data, enabling Eggebrecht to repair the cabinet. During this process, Eggebrecht also downloaded the Sky Skipper ROM, a decision that would later contribute to the game’s resurgence. However, how the ROM ended up on MAME in the same year remains a mystery.
In 2018, Nintendo took a remarkable step by releasing an arcade-perfect version of Sky Skipper on the Nintendo Switch. This move allowed gamers to experience the almost-forgotten slice of Nintendo’s arcade history. Sky Skipper was packaged under the “Arcade Archives” brand and launched digitally for the handheld platform.
The story of Sky Skipper’s revival is an extraordinary journey driven by the passion and dedication of collectors and enthusiasts. Once lost in the annals of gaming history, the game now enjoys a resurgence that has captivated the gaming community.
Sky Skipper’s journey from a forgotten arcade game to a celebrated piece of gaming history is a testament to the dedication of collectors, enthusiasts, and a series of remarkable coincidences that breathed new life into this rare Nintendo gem. With its revival on the Nintendo Switch, Sky Skipper has a chance to captivate a new generation of gamers, ensuring its legacy endures.