Games Like 'Sky Rogue' Let Me Indulge in My Arcade Nostalgia

Bold, bright, and smartly designed, the best arcade games offered a simplicity I've missed for years.

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May 23 2018, 5:26pm

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Last Friday, thanks to some runway traffic and a technical problem, I spent an hour sitting in a plane waiting for takeoff. But I didn't even notice, because I spent that time doing loops and barrel rolls through the bright blue heavens of Sky Rogue, which released on Switch late last month and has been available on PC in various forms for the last few years.

I spoke about the game briefly at the end of Monday's Waypoint Radio, but briefly: Sky Rogue is an arcade-y flight sim roguelite that feels like a blend of the Ace Combat series and Sega's arcade output in the mid 90s, and I don't just mean that it reminds me of Sega's Wing War in terms of lighting, visual design, and music (but you know, that too).

You can check at the trailer above to get a sense of the vibe, which is important, because like a lot of old arcade games, Sky Rogue hangs a lot on "vibe." The game's structure is fairly simple: You launch from a SHIELD Carrier-style skybase, get assigned a target (land, sea, or air), take on its escorts, and then blow it up. Maybe you stick around to do some more damage and wrack up more points that you can use to unlock new equipment, but that's basically it. And that's not a criticism! Sky Rogue is about this one loop, and even as it gives you new jets to use, new weapons to choose from, and harder foes to take down, it never veers too far from this very simple setup.

That sort of design focus was at the heart of so many arcade games I loved, and that isn't a coincidence. It's easy to reductively summarize arcades as simply places where you once paid to play games, but that misses so much about "the arcade" as a very unique sort of gaming platform, with its own constraints and biases.

Above: Wing War, Sega' s 1994 arcade combat flight sim.

Arcade games were driven by the need to drag quarters out of players. In a sea of bright screens and loud sounds, they were forced to be eye-catching and distinctive, yet also easily understood. And restricted for years by the inability to save progress, arcade games needed to make every session its own reward. These and other factors meant that compared to the growing depth of home PC and console gaming, arcade games had a general character of slimness in design, clarity in direction, and boldness in aesthetic.

But once arcades left my life, the bulk of the games I played (and loved) were the ones that explored the breadth and occasional messiness encouraged by console and PC games. Deep skill trees. Slowly unfolding narratives. Complexity in controls and obscurity in mechanics. It's not that there weren't still "arcade-style games"—I love Geometry Wars too—but it felt like the games that made a big impact in our subculture were those that embraced the bigness of the format.

But playing Sky Rogue on that tarmac reminded me that the sort of tight, focused design I loved about arcade games is still totally around, it just shifted into a subcategory of independent games. For indies, the economic metaphor even holds to some degree: Platforms like itch.io and Steam are jammed with bright, loud games and it takes a lot of boldness and clarity to stand out. Even in just the last few weeks, games like Slipstream and Wizard of Legend feel like throwbacks in both art and game feel. Even games that don't have the retro look can fit this mold: It's so easy for me to imagine someone playing Beat Saber in a Dave and Busters, or to have people crowding around a Laser League machine in my local Tilt arcade.

So here's my Open Thread question today: What is your favorite indie game that evokes a classic arcade experience? And if you want extra credit: What's the arcade game you wish would make a return? Let me know over on the forums!