Recommended at the price
If you’re lucky enough to have visited a big-city arcade within the last few years, you may have seen a crowd gathered around a pair of giant flatscreen monitors. If you heard them hollering things like “Over there! Snail!” “Look, look, look, berries!” or “I need a gate!” there can be no doubt they were playing Killer Queen.
Killer Queen is a fast-paced arcade game, nearly guaranteed to draw a crowd thanks to its deceptively simple gameplay and the way it can be difficult to tell which team is ahead until after the dust has settled. Unfortunately, since there are only about a hundred Killer Queen cabinets in existence, it can be difficult to find. The game has proven to be a huge hit at the few arcades and other facilities which can afford to host the enormous twin cabinets, but it’s never been widely available until now.
Lots of things gain near-mythical status due to their rarity, and Killer Queen is no exception. Now that Killer Queen Black has brought the arcade experience home, does it live up to the buzz?
Killer Queen Black (Switch [reviewed], PC, Xbox One)
Developer: Liquid Bit, Bumblebear
Publisher: Liquid Bit
Released: October 11, 2019 (Xbox release TBD)
One request, guys. I’m allergic to anime, so keep the JoJo memes in the comments to a minimum, ‘k?
Killer Queen is one of those easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master titles which thrived in the early days of the arcade. Both the original release and Black share similar rules, with only a few changes made for the home game. Both versions are played on a single screen, and it usually takes longer to describe how to play than it does to just jump into a match and figure it out for yourself. Games are played between two squads of four players on either a blue team or a gold team, and the goal is to win a best-of-five tournament by achieving one of three possible victory conditions: Military, Economic, and Snail.
Players can choose just one of these goals to work towards, or can devote different players to attempting all three simultaneously. A Military victory involves killing the other team’s Queen three times in a match. Economic victories can be won be retrieving berries from around the map and bringing them back to the base. Alternatively, riding a slow-moving snail from the center of the map to your side of the screen will result in a Snail victory. It’s important to keep an eye not only on your own team’s progress, but how far the other team has gotten in achieving their goals.
Each match is played on a single symmetrical screen, and there are a few more rules to make things more interesting. The berries collected for an Economic victory can instead be used to upgrade workers into soldiers. Soldiers lose the ability to carry berries or ride the snail, but they gain the ability to fly and attack, making them useful for attacking objectives or defending their workers. Upgrading a worker requires them to stand in a upgrade station called a “Gate,” and it has to be neutral or match their team’s color. Queens can flip gates to their own color by flying near them, locking out the opposing team until their Queen comes by and flips it back.
Soldiers and workers who are killed in action respawn at their base as workers, so if a player wants to be a soldier again they’ll have to use a berry to upgrade themselves at an appropriately colored Gate. Using berries in this way removes them from the game, and it’s possible to use so many berries there won’t be enough left for either side to complete an economic victory.
Workers and soldiers can (and will) be killed frequently with little penalty, but the player controlling the Queen has to be more careful. Unlike workers the Queen can’t be upgraded, but she starts out able to fly, dash, and attack right from the start of a match. She can also dive bomb enemies from above, making her far more lethal than any of the other units. Her versatility comes at a price though; constant vigilance. Enemy players will always be waiting for her to make a mistake, and if she messes up three times it doesn’t matter how well the rest of her team is doing. Military victories are the most common way to win, but this is often because the Queen has to put herself in harm’s way to defend or attack players nearing one of the other victory conditions.
As you can imagine there’s a lot going on in a match at any given time, but Killer Queen Black manages to keep players feeling like they’re in control even when chaos reigns all around them. The single screen and simple mechanics make it feel like a retro title, but there’s a deceptive amount of lateral thinking and adaptation required as your team adjusts to counter the enemy’s strategies, and vice-versa. It’s a surprisingly deep game, but simple enough even new players can jump in with very little training.
Killer Queen Black adds several features not present in the arcade version. One of the biggest changes is a matter of scale. While Killer Queen supports five players on either side, Black reduces the team size to four on a squad. It’s very slightly less chaotic with two fewer players to worry about, but since the screen real estate is proportioned to fit eight players rather than ten, it all works out fine.
Another major change involves the game’s multiplayer modes. Couch co-op lets up to four players battle it out on a single screen. It’s not currently possible to link more than four players on a single Switch, unfortunately. However, it is possible for four players to form a group and take the fight online in either Quick Play or Competitive modes. The Switch version supports LAN (Local Area Network) play, and you can link two Switches together wirelessly for a four on four brawl. No matter which mode you play, bots fill in wherever you don’t have human players, and they’re reasonably competent at reacting to the opposition.
One nice feature is that PC and Switch players can compete against one another since the game supports cross-play. (Presumably this will extend to the Xbox One version when it releases as well.) I never had a problem finding a game online, and the netcode seems solid. I didn’t notice any slowdown or missing frames during any of the online matches I tried. It’s possible Steam’s recently announced “Remote Play Together” feature will work well with Killer Queen Black, but I wasn’t able to test this option before publication. I also didn’t see any way to find players from another platform, though you can group up with online friends on Switch if they also own Killer Queen Black.
There was one issue I found with the online modes. When multiple people are playing from the same Switch, they have to share the same login and nickname. This meant my teammates all showed their nametags onscreen as “Qalamari(1)” “Qalamari(2)” and so on. There wasn’t any way to log in multiple accounts, or to change the players’ nicknames. This made it much harder to follow which player was controlling which character, and I hope this can be addressed in a future patch.
Black adds a couple of new upgrade options for soldiers which weren’t present in the arcade game. Two new weapons can sometimes be found at Gates; a spinning flail which offers attack and defense simultaneously, and a laser gun which can fire a single slow-moving beam across the map. Both of these seem well-balanced. Although it can kill opposing characters in one hit, the laser has a long recharge and the beam won’t penetrate any of the map’s walls. It works best as a surprise attack, since the beam will wrap around if fired off screen. The flail is a great short-range weapon, but doesn’t offer the charging attack of the sword and requires getting uncomfortably close to enemies to use effectively. Players can also spend berries to upgrade their worker’s speed, equip a shield to block incoming attacks, or stick with the tried-and-true sword.
Liquid Bit took the opportunity to redesign the game from the ground up, redrawing all the sprites and giving the game a little more attitude. When I interviewed the game’s developers last year, they described Black as having a Heavy Metal aesthetic, as opposed to the Do-it-Yourself Punk feeling of the arcade. This carries over to the music, and I love the edginess provided by the shredding guitar in the background and on menu screens. It really helps get players pumped up and focused on defeating the opposition.
One new feature which helps a lot is a series of tutorials available from the main menu. These explain the game’s mechanics by letting new players test them out in an escalating series of challenges. It’s a great way to show newbies how the game works, and veterans can play this mode repeatedly to try and beat their best times.
The last feature I’d like to mention is a well-thought-out system of alerts players can use to notify their teammates about what’s going on in the game. Since very few Switch players use voice chat, this is a godsend, and one of the best ways to make sure the entire team is aware of something you noticed about the playfield. Any player can highlight a pertinent section of the screen with a red box at any time, signalling their Queen that the opposing team is nearing victory or just calling attention to one of their own win conditions. I’m not sure if the other team can see these pings since I wasn’t able to test the game in a LAN setting. Either way, it’s an elegant way to deal with Nintendo’s less-than-optimal online infrastructure, and I imagine it’s pretty useful on the PC version as well.
I was a little concerned about how well Killer Queen would translate when it came to home platforms. Fortunately, Liquid Bit was able to take all the mechanics of their arcade game and compress them into a version which retains all the chaos and urgency of the gameplay. Black is a little different from the Killer Queen I was used to. But it’s still Killer Queen, and that makes it one of the best multiplayer games around.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]