Buzzing Arcade Game Killer Queen Lands in Portland

Ground Kontrol has the only version of rare 10-player duel-cabinet game west of the Mississippi

It's rare to find much buzz about a new arcade game these days.

The last big renaissance came with the early 90s pinball boom, followed by the late 90s pinball bust, which coincided with the second rise of console gaming, which gave way to the breakout of mobile phone gaming, which presently dominates the world.

Which makes Killer Queen, a 10-player arcade cabinet currently sitting at Ground Kontrol in Chinatown all the more interesting.

Designed by Josh DeBonis and Nik Mikros,Killer Queen started out as flesh-and-blood game that debuted at the Come Out and Play Festival in 2010. In 2013, they debuted the arcade version at a showcase of independent games, to a moderate amount of buzz. Last month it got a big feature from the New York Times, which found a hip Manhattan crowd gathered to play and creating enough noise to draw concerned neighbors. It's also a huge hit with techies, and is so popular with Kickstarter employees that the office machine has its own Twitter account.

The appeal, the creator told the Times, is obvious.

"People want a new type of arcade... They want to play games with their friends in a public space. But they also don't want to just play Dig Dug."

Killer Queen is a rarity in several ways. It's a new cabinet-based game, it splits the half-a-score of players it requires across two cabinets, and there are currently only four cabinet pairs in operation. Portlanders are fortunate enough to have one, the only cabinet west of Chicago. Ground Kontrol isn't sure how much longer they'll have the game, so this week I brought my old high school chum Nick Gudman—an engineer at HP who, when he wasn't helping me wade through calc homework, built an arcade cabinet himself—to check it out. 

Be warned, there is a bit of a learning curve. And you'll do a lot better if you have enough friends to field two five-player teams.

When we first arrived, Nick was underwhelmed with the game's construction. “Not drunk-proof,” he noted, starting to unscrew the cap of one joystick. Nick and I ended up playing with three young dudes that were also drawn to the giant, multi-stick spread.

The gameplay also takes a little bit of time to figure out—the onscreen instructions are pretty vague—but it's not that confusing. Each cabinet sports player controls for four little bugmen, all of whom are equipped with a left-right stick and a jump button, and a queen—which looks more like a equipped with a left-right-down stick, a “flap” button, and, on screen, a lance for slaying the opposing bugmen.

As is only appropriate for a game with so many players, there are a whole bunch of ways to win. The floating platforms strewn about the screen are stocked little purple pellets that can only be picked up by the bugmen. If your team returns the pellets to your base at the top of the screen, it wins. But when the pellets are returned to power up stations, set up on other platforms, can also transform the bugmen into warrior bugmen, capable of killing the opposing queen (unfortunately for all the Marxist gamers out there, in the world of Killer Queen, transformation in class does not mean transformation in consciousness—you can't kill your own queen). Kill the queen three times, and your team wins. There's also a snail at the middle bottom of the screen which, if ridden to your team's side of the screen, brings with it victory.

It's fun. The queens' play recall arcade-standby Joust, while use of the bugmen feels like any classic arcade platformer. The different ways to succeed allow player to get creative in a way that arcade games rarely allow. While the cabinet art (the title on the marquee, nothing on the sides) might pale in comparison to the Jack Kirby-inspired graphics that exploded across every other game in Ground Kontrol, the graphics in the game itself are invitingly cartoony.

From the press it's gotten, it seems like Killer Queen has been played mostly at festivals and tournaments. In that setting, it would be great—lots of people all focused on one thing, eager to jump in at a moments notice. But on a Tuesday night at Ground Kontrol, it was a little unwieldy. For whatever reason, it didn't draw a crowd, and I wasn't about to go around the arcade asking strangers to play with me. (Mom said not to do that.) It has no CPU automation: if you don't have a full team, the unused players just stand there with their thumbs up whatever bugs have.

“It's a game for a lot of friends,” said Nick. “But not a lot of people that play arcade games have a lot of friends.” That includes us, so after the other guys got bored, we left for Capcom vs. SNK, where Nick proceeded to hadouken the shit out of me until I had to go home.

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