Ground Kontrol is one of Portland, Oregon’s most well-known arcade bar, and on a busy night it’s packed with customers playing a multitude of arcade games, from 1980s vector graphics classics like Tempest to shiny new limited edition cabinets like the recently-released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
But to many who frequent Ground Kontrol, it’s all about Killer Queen, the 10-player competitive platformer that dominates the establishment’s frontmost game room.
The game’s developers, Brooklyn-based BumbleBear Games, recently announced plans for a sequel specifically made for the Nintendo Switch, Killer Queen Black. This marks the first time that Killer Queen has existed in a form beyond the arcades, and how Black is received by the player base could change the small but dedicated community forever. It’s set to release this winter, with a few public appearances at tournament events before the game’s official release.
“It’s like Joust meets capture the flag,” Dylan Higgins, local Killer Queen tournament organizer and employee of Ground Kontrol, tells me as we sit down at a table next to a Klax machine. “There’s five people on a team and you work together to accomplish an objective against the other team. There’s strategy to it, there’s platformer elements, there’s twitch skills… I could explain all the rules to you in about five or 10 minutes, and then you could s pend years trying to master it.”
In Killer Queen’s current arcade iteration, two teams of five players gather around an orange or blue cabinet (tied to their team’s color). Players assume the roles of workers, warriors or the eponymous Queen, and have three distinct paths to victory for the team: Military (kill the opposing queen three times), Economic (gather twelve berries from around the map and return them to your hive), or the Snail (ride a slow-moving snail at the bottom of the combat zone to an end-goal without being killed in the process).
The game’s three victory options and team-focused play, coupled with the physical presence required for playing it, have earned it a cult following. In Portland alone, small scenes like Dylan’s attract as many as 30 to 40 players and spectators to weekly meetups. The Portland Killer Queen Facebook group has nearly 500 members in it, some local to Portland and some not. The national scene, according to Dylan’s rough estimates, is comprised of at least a hundred cabinets in “public” venues (often arcade bars like Ground Kontrol), with more bought by businesses or private owners.
BumbleBear Games CEO and Killer Queen designer Nikita Mikros views the game’s popularity as a case of being the right game at the right time.
“The audience is much more games literate, having grown up on NES and PlayStation as opposed to Donkey Kong and Space Invaders,” Mikros said. “Killer Queen is disguised as a retro arcade game but it’s quite modern in its game design, owing more to StarCraft than to Pac-Man. Combine that modern sensibility with team play and alcohol and drop it into an arcade environment with a dearth of modern design and boom! Arcade bar sensation!”
Higgins sees the game’s popularity, even in as small of a space as it currently occupies in gaming, as a unique and growing scene. “It’s a very niche game and I think it’s very strong in that niche, I think it’s going to continue to grow in there. It’s coincided very well with the growth of the arcade/bar, I mean, the game literally has cupholders in it. It works really well for that!”
Imandra McKenzie, another local player and organizer, has been playing for about three years after a coworker introduced her to the game. “Most people stay and play the game for the community. It’s a really cool game, but one of the coolest things about it is the unique community that’s built around it, because of it being 10 players and it being a physical cabinet that you have to get a group together to play.”
Josh DeBonis, the president of BumbleBear games and one of the game designers behind Killer Queen, sees the game as being both a throwback and something uniquely modern.
“By all accounts, the game should be too complex for an arcade game, but by respecting players, assuming a high game literacy, and trusting players to teach each other, it somehow works,” DeBonis said. “The players have taken ownership of the game and built an entire culture around it a truly grassroots manner. ”
The next Killer Queen national tournament (The Bumblebash, as it’s officially known) will be held in Portland at Ground Kontrol alongside the Portland Retro Gaming Expo during the weekend of Oct. 19-22. Portland’s Killer Queen cabinets are some of the oldest in the country; it joined New York City and Chicago as the first three major cities to have Killer Queen cabinets in venues available to the public. It’s a point of pride in many ways, as Higgins and McKenzie view Portland as one of the forerunners of the game’s growing popularity.
“It becomes very much a community thing,” Higgins said. “We all hang out when not playing this game, also. We have house parties, we go out swimming, we get lunch. That doesn’t happen in every scene.”
Higgins expects the event to be largest that the Portland Killer Queen community has ever hosted. Bumble Bash 2018 will take up up the entirety of Ground Kontrol’s floorspace and a rented-out nearby theatre. Among other things, they plan to host a pre-release tournament of Killer Queen Black on Saturday night, made possible by BumbleBear’s cooperation with the event.
Higgins is looking forward to the release. “It looks very polished. A lot of the ideas they’ve had for the arcade version and wanted to implement will be appearing in this. They’re getting help to recreate their game from the start, so now they can show all the stuff they wanted to put in and now can do. I am optimistic. I’m no longer cautiously optimistic, I’m optimistic.”
Higgins, who discovered the game while working at Ground Kontrol, sees it as an opportunity. The game’s release on Switch could lead to more popularity for the arcade version — something that some players were worried about before seeing Black in motion.
“The games that people play here are the recognizable ones,” Higgins said. “You might now have players saying, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of Killer Queen, I saw that at the Nintendo E3 Press Conference! My cousin plays that on Switch! Let’s try it.’ Even that simple brand recognition, it’s enough to get people to go, ‘Oh, this is something that we can play.’ In an arcade like this, I think that’s a big help.”
Black is also introducing some mechanical changes that McKenzie expects to differentiate it from the arcade version. The Switch release will change the game to a 4 vs. 4 format instead of the traditional arcade 5 vs. 5. It will also feature revamped graphics and visual design. The game’s warrior class units have also been given a new variety of weapons, in comparison to the original game’s more simplistic moveset.
Matt Tesch, CEO of Liquid Bit, the company working with Bumble Bear on creating Killer Queen Black, isn’t too worried about the community shying away from the new release.
“I believe that they are excited that they get to learn something new while still utilizing some strategies and domain knowledge from the arcade version,” Tesch said. “Ideally we have two separate but friendly competitive scenes with massive crossover between the two.”
It won’t steal away possible players, McKenzie believes, but offer an alternative version of the game that got so many people hooked. “Watching the gameplay and listening to them talk about the mechanics and the way that it works — the way that you interact as a character is different for all three of the roles. They did a pretty good job of taking the same concept and making it an entirely different game, in my opinion. “
For Higgins, he believes that many diehard competitive players might see it as a disappointment if it doesn’t live up to the standards of the arcade Killer Queen, but that in many ways is to be expected from such a dedicated fanbase.
“This is a very unique game in that it’s hooked some of us for over three years,” Higgins said. “There are not many video games that I’ve played for three years straight. I have all-time favorites but not many of them I’ve played that long. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if I get it and I play it for six months and then it trails off, it’s still a pretty good game if I played it for six months.”