Since its 2013 release, the 90 Killer Queen arcade cabinets scattered across the states have become one of those underground sensations in urban gaming circles and among in-the-know indie connoisseurs. The 10-player competitive game has amassed a cult following, and is often breathlessly described as “perfect” to anyone who asks, “What’s Killer Queen?” If you aren’t among the lucky few, you may be forgiven for not knowing.
Novelty grants rare objects an aura of specialness or quality. But on October 11, a new, enhanced version of Killer Queen, called Killer Queen Black, will be released for Switch and and on Steam, and it will cease to be so very special. Will its reputation stand the test of ubiquity? I’m not so sure.
Killer Queen Black is one of those delightfully retro-looking games with a fierce competitive bent. It’s cute, mean, and strategically dense. It’s now an 8-player game instead of 10, with each team of four consisting of three “workers” and one “queen.” Each map consists of several platforms, a hive with many holes, berries that fit into those holes, a slow-moving snail, and transformation portals that grant workers specialized abilities like speed or a sword. A team wins in one of three ways: killing the enemy queen three times, stuffing their own hive full of berries, or riding the snail across the map into their goal. While Killer Queen Black loses a player on each side, it adds new maps, abilities and weapons.
It’s easy to pick up and, over time, reveals level after level of depth and nuance. Your learn to spawn-camp enemies to prevent them from gathering too many berries, or to bait out a queen’s attacks while an enemy drags the snail through your team’s goalposts. And if you’re playing as a queen, you need to be constantly thinking about:
- whether to dive down and kill the opposing worker riding the snail,
- how aggressive you want to be in pursuing the enemy queen,
- the safety of your workers,
- if you’re going to lose the game for your team by getting killed,
- et cetera.
Accordingly, a high-level esports scene formed around the arcade game exploiting galaxy-brain strategies with lightning reflexes.
The beauty of Killer Queen is that every single piece of information is illustrated on-screen. You can see exactly what attack capabilities each warrior-worker has. You can see how many berries the enemy team has collected. You can see how far the snail has progressed toward your goal and how many lives your queen has left. A lot of the time, when your team loses, it’s because you weren’t looking at the right thing at the right time and communicating that threat out loud to teammates. This weaves collaboration into the game as a mechanic in its own right.
This is why playing alone is a little eerie. Cast against the game’s traditional context—10 drunk people screaming at each other and mashing buttons—queueing up for a game of Killer Queen Black online by yourself feels a little strange. You can coordinate with teammates (voice chat is enabled by default, and certain emotes like “snail” and “gates” help you along), but throughout the pre-release review period when few other humans were online, it was difficult to test the authentic experience of solo online play when most of my teammates were bots.
With that said, there’s very little anybody could do to muck up Killer Queen’s transcendentally satisfying gameplay loops. It’s always going to be fun to dive down from the top of the map and onto an enemy queen; it’s always going to make you feel very, very happy to sneak the snail through your goalposts after a long, back-and-forth game. And anyway, it’s nice not to hear anyone guffawing after I lose my third queen life to an enemy morningstar.
The Switch is all about local multiplayer experiences, so I knew I had to try to replicate the Killer Queen arcade vibe at home. (Kotaku did not play the game’s PC version.) I invited over nine friends and grabbed some sparkling seltzer. That way, I could really assess the game the way I fell in love with: with eight people, all yelling at each other in a room.
To play the game locally with two full, four-person teams, you will need two Switches, each with its own copy of Killer Queen Black. I borrowed my colleague’s console and asked my friends to bring their Joy-Cons and Pro Controllers. Over the course of two hours, these controllers would connect and disconnect seemingly at random. Once the controllers were finally connected to the Switch, we needed to re-register each controller with the game by hitting the plus or minus buttons. After we corralled the two full teams onto two Switch consoles, the local multiplayer lobby didn’t appear on the second console until we put the two consoles within about two feet of each other.
After the immense frustration of troubleshooting this, with the help of a half dozen game design students and alumni familiar with Killer Queen, I poured a couple shots of Mezcal and we decided to play two separate games. Whether going up against AI-controlled bots or a team of players online, it was still a blast aside from some controller lag.
I reached out to Killer Queen Black’s developer today to understand what happened here, after playing in the office using a different console and experiencing similar technical issues. Saying that Killer Queen Black is “specifically designed to play online and it’s best when played in that environment,” a representative of the studio designing Killer Queen’s Switch iteration said that local wireless is mostly intended for tournaments, while online play is “the main game mode.” (When it came to the controllers connecting and disconnecting and the difficulty of finding the game lobby, the representative suggested that my home might have a “high noise environment.”)
It’s passé to say that the original version of a beloved game is superior to the newer, more accessible one. It’s ungenerous to elide over real explanations for technical issues and, instead, just complain. Killer Queen Black’s release is a celebration of this cherished, impeccably-designed game finally escaping the confines of physical arcade cabinets and entering fans’ homes. And yet, and yet.
Assuming you’re okay with dealing with the frustrations of local multiplayer—or just plan to play online and don’t care about any of this—Killer Queen Black is a brilliant ballet of a team-based online competitive game. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you won’t be disappointed.