An arcade force to be reckoned with, Namco graced the Famicom and NES with impressive cartridge conversions of quite a few of its enduring coin-op classics. From Dig Dug and Pac-Man to Galaga and Xevious, Nintendo's console quickly amassed a collection of A-list arcade hits, and — along with the heavy hitters and household names — a respectable selection of hidden gems, including an unassuming aerial ace from 1986: Sky Kid.
In this side-scrolling dogfight on rails, players take control of Red Baron — infamous German fighter pilot from the first World War, sworn enemy of Snoopy, and (in Sky Kid at least) heroic, anthropomorphic bird — flying from right to left (!) through twenty-six stages, shooting for top scores and saving the peaceful country of Bird Land from evil invaders. It's a quirky little title that's definitely a product of its time, but it's still a lot of fun, and well worth a shot for anyone with an appreciation of early arcade artistry.
Sky Kid is a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up at heart, but unlike most games in the genre, there's more to the missions than simply blasting everything in sight. You'll also need to retrieve a bomb and drop it on a stage-specific, big-ticket target in each area — a battleship or base, typically — and when the damage is done, land safely at the the end-of-level airstrip by putting your plane down with a blasé bump that will have Pilotwings veterans cringing in horror.
Sky Kid's gameplay setup and controls seem simple, but both allow for a surprising amount of finesse. For starters, moving up or down adjusts your airplane's angle accordingly, meaning you can fire your single, non-upgradable weapon diagonally as well as straight ahead. The caveat, of course, is that you'll always be zooming straight towards your mark. This lets you shoot enemies all over the screen, instead of limiting you to horizontal hits, but also adds a real sense of urgency to aiming, as it directly affects your trajectory - cut it too close, and you could wind up taking out a target with your fuselage instead of your firepower.
Your plane is also equipped with a handy loop-de-loop move, which can be activated at any time with a quick press of the 'B' button. Not just for show, this dogfight staple lets you double back and get the drop on your foes, lining up Baron behind the baddies for a perfect shot. Careful timing will even allow you to fire a round or two during the loop, and few manoeuvres are more satisfying to pull off than a direct hit with a skilfully (or luckily) executed backward-facing blast. More importantly, the loop-de-loop lets you evade enemy fire — bullets won't hurt you while you're executing the arc, and mastering this somersault will get you out of plenty of sticky situations. It can't save you from everything though; you can still smash into the scenery, and you'll lose the loop-de-loop ability when you're carrying a bomb, so you'll have to change up your play-style as soon as you pick up the payload.
If you do wind up take a direct hit, don't despair - you'll start plummeting earthward, of course, but unlike like the actual aerial aces of the Great War, you can simply hold 'up' on the D-Pad while mashing 'A' or 'B' to pull out of the tailspin and continue on your way. The first time you try this reflex-testing recovery move in a level, it only takes a few button presses to save the day, but each subsequent attempt will require more taps and more time to pull off successfully. It's a well-realized, subtly strategic safety net that lets you take more chances the higher you fly, and it's balanced by level design that keeps lucrative targets and essential pickups low down at ground level. Combine that with the fact that neither enemy bullets nor your own reach all the way across the screen, and you've got a shooter where the dynamics of the on-screen space are always changing — you'll find yourself moving around constantly not just to avoid bullets, but to set yourself up for high-scoring shots or to play it safe in the stratosphere.
No matter which route you take, you won't have to go it alone; Sky Kid includes a Download Play mode where two players can take to the skies simultaneously with just one copy of the game between them. Player two controls Red Baron's palette-swapped partner Blue Max, who has access to the same arsenal and acrobatic feats, and the game works wonderfully as a co-op operation. Friendly fire will stun your teammate without doing any damage, but it can also save them from a tailspin in a pinch — a neat little mechanic that makes for lots of lucky last-minute saves and Top Gun-style high-fives.
It's worth taking a friend along if you can, not just for the companionship, but because Sky Kid is a tough little game. Even with the loop-de-loop's on-demand invulnerability, it's easy to get caught between enemies and the environment, and the challenge ramps up considerably after the first few stages. That said, the 3DS Virtual Console's save states can serve as helpful bookmarks between missions, and the gameplay is perfectly suited for quick rounds on the go, so with practice and patience most pilots should be able to see it through - at which point, like many arcade games of the time, the levels will start again from stage one.
Sky Kid was an early bird in the Famicom flock, and it definitely shows — the graphics are bright and colourful, but they're also very, very basic, with cute sprites but very little depth, detail, or variety to the backgrounds. Still, as an early arcade period piece, it has a distinctive retro charm. The music, meanwhile, is irresistible: there's only one track to speak of, but it's an infectiously upbeat melody that's gone down in Namco history as one of the most memorable marches to score the friendly skies.
Even with the constant threat of enemy fire, "friendly skies" really is an apt description for Sky Kids, thanks to its surprising number of slightly secret easter eggs, all sure to put a smile on your face. From landing strip Lucky Cats to a leggy Lady Liberty, sun-and-moon cycles to Namco cameos, there are interactive elements hidden in almost every stage, and finding them all becomes a fun little metagame in its own right. We won't spoil any here, but loop-de-looping next to anything conspicuous is always a good bet - with the right moves, you might even earn a post-flight smooch (worth 1000 points, no less!) from an adoring fan!
Sky Kid's brand of early arcade action won't appeal to everyone — it's simple, repetitive, and not much to look at these days — but for old-school aficionados, score-chasers, and secret-seekers, this is something of a hidden gem. Tight controls, unique gameplay, and excellent co-op make it a joy to play; a timeless, tuneful soundtrack also ensures players will have Bird Land on the brain even between sessions. For such an old game, Sky Kid feels remarkably fresh, and anyone looking for something a little different from the usual shoot-'em-up suspects will have a great time with this breezy, blue-skies slice of arcade fun.