If you saw Sky Racket at the latest Indie World presentation, it might have looked like just another retro-inspired shoot’em up. But if you ask its developers, they’ll tell you that Sky Racket represents an all-new genre.
Sky Racket is the world’s first “shmup breaker.” This genre is simple: it’s a mix between a shoot’em up (think Gradius) and a block breaker (like Breakout). These two gameplay styles might not seem like a natural fit for each other, but for Brazilian indie developer Double Dash Studios, it was a mix that was waiting to happen.
“…we realized that we were working with something really new and fresh.”
Art director Jandê Saavedra Farias describes Sky Racket in simple terms. “It’s about a couple of kids flying around colorful environments [and] fighting crazy enemies with just a couple of magic tennis rackets as their weapons. We tried to do a mix of action, casual fun and visual humor, all with a familiar arcade feel to it.”
Development began humbly enough. Double Dash Studios lead designer, Lucas Thiers, says Sky Racket was born at a game jam hosted by popular YouTubers like Pewdiepie, Markiplier, and Jacksepticeye. “The theme for the game jam was ‘Arcade,’” Thiers says, “so we decided to take inspiration from Arkanoid, for the way that the character would reflect the balls (acting as a paddle), and add some block breaking dynamics to give it an even more arcade-y feel.”
“It wasn’t really our intention to treat it as a new genre,” Thiers says, “but as we were looking for references, we didn’t really find games that worked with that kind of combination, so we realized that we were working with something really new and fresh.”
Farias highlights that Sky Racket’s innovations were noticed from the start. “Funny story: the term ‘Shmup Breaker’ was actually made up on the spot by youtuber Markiplier when he played our prototype version, and we loved it! It really summed up the game.”
On the surface, a shmup breaker looks a lot like a traditional shoot’em up. Thiers says it’s “A game where you’re in a shmup-like environment where you can fly around freely and enemies are shooting at you all the time, being a non-stop threat.” So far, so shmup.
But the formula soon diverges with one major change – you can’t shoot back.
“You have to bounce bullets back at your enemies instead,” Thiers says, “turning the game into a deadly laser tennis match. Those bullets act as balls, bouncing around and breaking everything, so you’ll get to rack up score while trying to dodge bullets all at once. [It’s] the non-stop action from Shoot ‘Em Ups plus the casual fun from Breakers. That’s a shmup breaker!”
Sky Racket is an unusual gameplay concoction, so understandably, one of the major development challenges has simply been making sure that players understand the game. At the same time, Farias and Thiers highlight the unique process of developing a retro-styled game in the 21st century.
“On the art department, making sure that people would understand quickly what can and what can’t be deflected by the rackets was kind of a challenge,” Farias says. “We initially were doing the arcade approach, where everything needed to be instantly understandable on the first try (or else the player loses a quarter, and that’s not very fair).”
The key to solving this has been simply visually communicating with players and giving them the time and freedom to understand what they’re seeing – something that the unforgiving arcade classics might not have allowed. “Considering it’s a game that people have infinite tries, there’s no problem in losing a game or two while you experiment and understand the rules,” Farias says. “We do have a visual cue to every “strikeable” thing, especially when you encounter something new for the first time, but it’s ok if the person doesn’t get it all at once.”
That’s not to say that Sky Racket is mean to its players. Instead, Farias made sure to give the player space to understand what’s going on. “We also had to make sure things wouldn’t be too visually chaotic. I mean, some chaos is good and fun, but it was important that the player would be able to see all the shots and enemies, so we had to make sure that the backgrounds wouldn’t clash too much with the action in the game.”
For Thiers, meanwhile, the greatest challenge development has simply been managing the balance of genres that makes up the “shmup breaker” style.
“As a game designer, I’d say getting the core gameplay right and finding a good spot for balancing was pretty challenging. Block breakers were too static, and shoot‘em ups were mostly too overwhelming, so we had to study them in-depth and find ways of translating their concepts into Sky Racket, making sure that it stayed dynamic and fun.”
“We tried to be as faithful as possible with that 16-bit era, but also didn’t let it restrain us.”
Nothing is created in isolation, and Sky Racket had its fair share of inspirations that shaped its development. Its colorful blend of block-breaking and bullet-blasting action had a whole host of inspirations that range from the expected to some that might not be so obvious.
Speaking about these influences, Thiers says that “Fantasy Zone, Parodius and Twin Bee, as well as some other ‘Cute ‘em Ups’ are the first ones that come to mind, since their colorful ‘nonsense’ artstyle was a big influence in Sky Racket’s visuals.”
For these familiar with the shoot’em up genre, those games are practically expected to be inspirational for any modern designers in the genre. However, Double Dash didn’t stop there. Rather, a broad and extremely diverse array of games, genres, and even cartoons had a hand in making Sky Racket what it is.
“But you can count other games such as Sonic, Megaman, Arkanoid and Kirby to have some hand on it,” Thiers elaborares. “Even some more different stuff like Marvel vs Capcom and Doom have a tiny little bit of influence here and there. We are also big fans of modern cartoons such as Steven Universe and Adventure Time, and that had a nice hand on the character designs and type of humor in the game.”
As new as Sky Racket is, it has always been designed with the past in mind. “Our goal was to approach it like a late 16-bit era game,” Farias says. “We’ve always been big fans of pixel art, in fact, most of our projects before Sky Racket were done in that style, so it’s something that we are very comfortable and confident about.”
At the same time, Farias never forgot that Sky Racket is a current-generation game, and the luxuries of modern techniques haven’t gone to waste. “We tried to be as faithful as possible with that 16-bit era,” Farias reiterates, “but also didn’t let it restrain us. We do use more colors and more effects and distortions, but we always tried to do it in a way that doesn’t seem off. Technology lets us do things today that couldn’t be done before, and we take a bit of advantage of that.”
Classic Sega games and 80’s arcade titles bore the greatest visual influence on Sky Racket’s presentation. “Space Harrier and Alex Kidd were some of the inspirations for RacketBoy’s simple attire, for example,” Farias explains. The Sega style goes further: “I was always a big fan of the Fantasy Zone series, so when the opportunity came to work on a shmup-like game, that’s what I knew I wanted to go for visually: those pastel and bright colors, silly enemies, visually overwhelming backgrounds. I guess it really fit the weird idea of kids flying with rackets.”
Inspirations spurred ambition for the project as well. “We also always knew we wanted to do an animated intro,” Farias says. “We loved the Playstation era games with full motion videos such as Megaman 8 and Megaman X4, and the Sonic CD intro was something I obsessed about as a kid. When we had the opportunity, we got in contact with some friends who work in the animation industry here in Brazil and they did an amazing job!
“I love when people talk about how [Sky Racket] feels like a lost Sega Genesis or SNES title…That’s exactly what we were aiming for.”
Sky Racket’s unique concept has made itself known from the start, even before release. Starting with the YouTuber game jam hype, it’s gone all the way to its inclusion in an official Nintendo broadcast to celebrate its release on Switch.
“That was really something!” Farias says regarding Sky Racket’s appearance during the last Indie World. “We are very, very glad to be included. It felt really good to be part of Nintendo’s official feature list, be featured on the eShop, and be talked about on several channels. They just seemed to really like our game! It has been opening some doors that we had no access to before.”
Sky Racket is a new game in its own genre that hearkens back to plenty of classics, and that design has resonated with players. For Farias, continuing a treasured gameplay legacy is one of the most gratifying things about development.
“I love when people talk about how the game feels like a lost Sega Genesis or SNES title, as if it were an old, undiscovered gem from the 90s that only now people are getting on. That’s exactly what we were aiming for. I love when things come around.”
Then there’s the silly stuff. “Also, I like how funny enemies like the cat-sandwich make people laugh.”
Bursting with color and ideas new and old, Sky Racket exuberantly bends genres to create its own style. It’s boisterous, unique, and most importantly to Thiers, fun. “There are moments that make players laugh or just enjoy whacking stuff around for a bit without worries, and those are my favorite moments in the game.”