How do we define ourselves? Are we defined by our actions as individuals or by the society that we participate in and contribute to? These are the most interesting questions that Skybolt Zack asks. But not intentionally, and not to its merit.
These are indeed strange questions for an arcade game to ask. It’s certainly not within the short narrative of the game that these questions are asked but in the gaps between the lightning-fast movement during levels.
Skybolt Zack is developed by the ominously named Devs Must Die studio. It’s an arcade game with branching level structures where players must defeat enemies by pressing the right button. It’s not so much a light/heavy attack dichotomy but a game where enemies are colour coded to the controller. Yellow enemies require you to press the yellow button, red button for red enemies and blue for blue.
It’s a simple premise where your chief concern will be in identifying what button to press next and avoiding coming into contact with the enemies. There’s a nice amount of choice in levels for what path to follow. There are between one and three possible exits ranked by difficulty. The hardest will, of course, require a near-perfect dance upon the controller. As you come to the end of a level you then mash a button to burst through a door. It’s a satisfying way to end what can be a precise couple of minutes.
You’re then ranked from the lowly plains of Ds and Cs to the lofty heights of S and even a Z. You get bonus points for not taking damage, hitting every button correctly and even for not touching the floor, which is a personal favourite.
The most impressive thing, though, is how the developers have managed to add mechanics upon a simple premise which explode the difficulty upwards. At its core, the pattern recognition between blue, red and yellow can provide a decent challenge for most players, especially at the speed the game operates at. But they start to add things like the direction the player-character moves after they have hit an enemy according to how the player has held the left thumbstick, enemies with two colours where the second colour is hidden until the first layer of armour is destroyed, and static enemies that when destroyed fire out multiple missiles which need to be piggybacked on to reach the next area.
The game is bursting with mechanical ideas like this but it is dizzying and difficult to keep up with when they are introduced so quickly. It sets a high bar where it feels like only those blessed with the dextrous touch of e-sports players can participate. It’s great that it poses this challenge to willing players but it might remain a little inaccessible for most.
For a time, though, that challenge remains alluring. There is a rhythm to each route in this game, one that you can pick up quickly thanks to the instantaneous restart time. But playing to that rhythm never feels repetitive. It’s always challenging and requires a constant state of alert for the next trick.
These routes entwine in a labyrinthine fashion which is quite impressive for an arcade game. It again staves off what might threaten to be a repetitive experience for some players as you might take a completely different route in comparison to a friend. However, it is disconcerting for a time to see your progress through the levels drag along the bottom of the world when you can’t quite reach the difficult route in a stage.
From a purely technical standpoint, Skybolt Zack not only runs well on PC but also the Nintendo Switch version in both docked and handheld modes – a relief, considering that some Switch ports have had framerate issues (Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a recent, notable example) which would have been a dealbreaker in a game so fast.
For a game to be named after the character you embody, however, it is strange that all of their meaning and agency is derived from the enemies you dispatch. Zack may be able to punch things quickly and in sequence but only when there’s an enemy of the correct colour around. Find yourself in an empty room and everything of interest drains from the game. Now, that is a harsh critique and true of many games but all the speed and energy is lost as soon as you find yourself dropped down a hole. The rhythm of the route is completely lost in these instances.
There are some characters that you can put in an empty room and their simple movements are a delight. Timing Mario’s jump in an empty stretch of Mario Maker 2 so you get that delightful float which transitions to a flip feels enjoyable. The audiovisual kickback of a vengeful spirit in Hollow Knight as it echoes through a chamber can be chilling. When a character only derives meaning through external sources the primal urge to play with the character is lost and that is tangibly felt here.
Outside of following these routes, Zack isn’t exactly a memorable or endearing character. And the routes themselves can provide points of frustration too. Certain enemies can be placed next to spikes or traps in a way that invites the continual and accidental skewering of Zack. The speed at which the dash movement brings you towards enemies is punishing when they can do damage from far away at times.
The challenge presented by Skybolt Zack is entertaining to a point. But there are performative barriers and embedded frustrations that can sap the motivation of players. It’s at this point where the upbeat background music ceases its arcade nostalgic tone and grinds down further upon the player.
Beyond engaging with Skybolt Zack on a performative level, it was of more interest to interrogate the gaps where the meaning of the game falls through – where a lot of players might find themselves residing.
[Reviewed on both PC and Nintendo Switch]
Ryan Young escaped from the PhD basement in 2017 where he worked on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative. He can be frequently found playing any genre of indie game he can get his hands on and yelling at people on the street about how cool ancient board games are.