Ms. Pac-Man, BurgerTime, and other quarter-eating games of yore sit abandoned as dozens of beer-sipping patrons pack into a bar on a frigid Chicago night. They yelp and cheer “SNAIL!” as a blue bear creature wearing an old-timey robber mask rides a giant mollusk into a soccer goal.
Meet Killer Queen—a low-fidelity head trip of an arcade game that defies easy description. It’s a ménage à trois of a Super Mario-style platformer with the multi-faceted strategy of European board games and the floaty aerial combat of Joust. The five players on each of two squads use a single button and joystick to coax four workers and an insect-like queen around a series of floating platforms. The grunts (the aforementioned critters in the robber masks) play the role of pack mules that haul berries or transform into fearsome warriors. The winged queen resembles the iconic ostrich knights of Joust in form and function, fluttering with the push of its player’s only button to find an effective attack position. There are three ways to win—assassinating the enemy’s queen three times, guiding the slow-footed snail to a goal, or properly hoarding a dozen berries to your base—but pursuit of one objective leaves you vulnerable to losing to another.
This is not readily apparent if you’re new to the game. To an outsider, the screen is an incomprehensible blur of activity—one of many reasons why Killer Queen makes little sense as a viable commercial product for cash-strapped arcades across America. There’s also the fact that the price tag for a single unit starts at $11,000, and at 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep, the machine is a major space investment. And there’s no option to play with computer-controlled opponents, so while a game can be started with as few as two players, the only way to get the full Killer Queen experience is with a squadron of 10 human competitors. That makes more logistical sense for full-court basketball than a coin-operated arcade game.
“A lot of people don’t get it. They think we’re crazy for making a game like this,” said co-creator Josh DeBonis with a chuckle. “Obviously, we aren’t looking at financial reports or anything.”
Take note, America: Killer Queen is impractical, ugly, and lacks a story or any memorable characters—but it might represent the exciting future of arcade games. If you don’t believe me, you’ve never been to Logan Arcade.
The New York scene favors wins via queen slaying, but berry and pollen gathering—deemed an “economic victory” in Killer Queen terms—is the scheme of choice in Chicago. It’s a triumph of strategic hoarding that propels the members of gold team, Something Seasonal, to a Game 5 win over their rivals on the other side of the cabinet at the Founder’s Day Tournament in Logan Arcade. The five men react by hopping up and down and shouting a soccer-hooligan-style boast with a lyrical twist: “We rule the night map!” One of them, Kenny Pettigrew Jr., ups the ante by ripping his shirt off and tossing it in front of the arcade cabinet. Now bare-chested, he flexes his arms in comic exaggeration while David Garzon, a member of the now eliminated A/S/L Predators, strolls the floor while wearing a flashy WWE championship belt.
From the back of the room, DeBonis shakes his head in disbelief.
“We had no idea it would ever be like this, with all the chants and cheering,” DeBonis said. “This game has just gone viral here.”
DeBonis and co-creator Nikita Mikros initially conceived Killer Queen as a game to be played with arms and legs, not buttons and joysticks. It began life four years ago as a field game in which two teams of 10, some wielding foam swords and other props, run around in frantic five-to-seven minute spurts in a park—something akin to live action Quidditch matches played by dedicated Harry Potter fans. This analog version of Killer Queen found an enthusiastic following at New York’s Come Out & Play Festival in 2011, prompting DeBonis and Mikros to develop a digital version for those lacking 19 friends, goofy props, and a large open space.
That proved to be a challenge for the pair, neither of whom had experience building hardware. Their early prototype was a haphazard mess—bogged down by 12 NES controllers and what Mikros called “a rat’s nest of wires.” But the game at the heart of this crude setup was compelling enough to attract interest, including the eye of a curator representing No Quarter, an exhibition of independent games in New York City. DeBonis and Mikros were offered a commission of $1,000 if they could somehow cobble together a Killer Queen cabinet for the 2013 show. It wasn’t easy. They had to enlist help from DeBonis’ brother and father over a series of weekends on the family’s farm in rural New York to build the beast. The project ended up costing several thousand dollars. But the expensive gamble appeared to pay off at No Quarter in 2013, where Killer Queen became a sensation with attendees.
“I heard from someone afterward who was like, ‘Sorry, I didn’t play your game. The line was longer than the line for free beer,’” Mikros said. “That’s when we knew we had something magical.”
That magic didn’t translate to the world of mom-and-pop arcades, though. A machine landed at Q-Zar, a laser tag joint in Concord, California, in early 2014 and earned very little cash, even after DeBonis and Mikros paid the arcade operator $200 to move it from the dead zone near the bathroom to a prime location next to the Street Fighter II machine. The bedraggled, homemade nature of the cabinet didn’t help its popularity.
“We call it the Frankencabinet, and it was a little worse for wear,” Mikros said. “When it’s sitting next to a brand new Terminator or whatever, it looked a bit rinky-dink.”
But DeBonis and Mikros weren’t ready to pull the plug on their arcade experiment quite yet. At the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, they had a fortunate meeting with arcade pioneer Eugene Jarvis, the designer and programmer behind classic arcade hits like Defender and Robotron: 2084. Jarvis liked Killer Queen and convinced its creators to consider exporting it to a new breed of arcade in his adopted home city of Chicago.
Filled in equal measures with pinball machines and bearded men in plaid, the dark confines of Logan Arcade in Chicago’s Logan Square feel like the ratty neighborhood arcade of yesteryear that turned 30, moved to the inner city, and joined a rock band. It’s a place where it’s possible to play a game of Donkey Kong, drink locally brewed IPAs, and listen to a DJ set in the same night.
The location’s original incarnation, Logan Hardware (a nod to the building’s former inhabitants), dealt in a different brand of wistful nostalgia: old records. Owner Jim Zespy sold vinyl LPs and let customers enjoy his personal collection of musty arcade and pinball games in the cavernous back room. Last year, Zespy opted to move the record business to a new location and transform Logan Hardware into a full-on arcade-bar hybrid.
The “arcade bar” is an idea that’s caught on like wildfire in Chicago, a city remembered as the proud epicenter of arcade developers during the Reagan years. (The former headquarters of Midway Games is a single Blue Line “El” stop away from Logan Arcade.) Since 2012, six of these themed bars have opened their doors on the North Side, an impressive number when taking into account the status quo of modern gaming: home consoles with lifelike graphics and smartphones that allow you to play thousands of different titles from the palm of your hand. A reasonable person might ask, why would anyone in 2015 want refrigerator-sized machines that require you to constantly feed them physical currency? Consider the face-to-face interaction factor, something that can’t quite translate through the realm of online gaming.
“We spend so much time with personal computing devices, it can be an isolating experience,” Mikros said. “Arcades are a kind of entertainment where you can connect with a human being in the real world.”
Despite all the unblinking eyes staring at screens, arcades offered a sense of community earned through the social nature of arcade games. Strangers bonded as virtual twin brothers in a game of Double Dragon or through friendly trash talk around the Mortal Kombat cabinet. Killer Queen has a leg up on those aging classics: It’s designed as both a cooperative and competitive game.
That formula has caught on at Logan Arcade. Since arriving in July of 2014, it has been one of the bar’s main attractions, spawning league nights, monthly tournaments, and long lines to play on weekends. DeBonis and Mikros say it’s the top grossing machine of the six distributed across the country—sometimes doubling and tripling other machines (though Portland is catching up).
“We’re so inspired by this community,” DeBonis told the hundred or so onlookers during a pre-tournament Q&A at Logan Arcade. “We love that so many of you are friends, and you had to go to a place where you see each other in a place that’s not online and make friends. That’s good, and we want to see more of that.”
For Katie DiPiero, Killer Queen serves as the unlikely equivalent of a beer softball league. She plays three days a week with her team, Bike-A-Bee Hive Five, even though she says she doesn’t like video games.
“I’m not a gamer at all, but because of being on this team, I want to get good at this,” she said. “My other friends are like, ‘You go to a bar and play a game about bees?’ They don’t get it. Now, I’m caught up in this.”
Kenny Pettigrew is even more ensnared. He helped create a “Killer Queen Mercury Squad” Facebook group for Logan Arcade’s regulars, which soon begat the league nights and monthly tournaments. His social life began revolving around Killer Queen—a fact that didn’t sit well with his girlfriend. (“She’s an artist type, and in her head, I was just hanging out with a bunch of nerdy guys,” he said. “She refused to spend any time with my new friends.”) His time spent with the game soared to 30 hours the week of January’s big Founder’s Day tournament, widening the rift in the relationship. They broke up just hours before the competition. “We were in two different worlds,” he said.
No community is perfect, and the passion of Chicago’s Killer Queen scene sometimes burns too bright. That’s clear if you read a few of the snarky Yelp reviews of Logan Arcade that complain about “condescending regulars”—or better yet, witnessed the tension that bubbled up between the two top teams during the Founder’s Day tournament.
I watched as a player from an eliminated team stepped over to chat with Pettigrew and Paul Thomas, his Something Seasonal teammate, shortly before the tournament quarterfinals.
“I want you guys to win so bad. Those Hives, they’re shysty,” she whispered hoarsely over the beeps and boops of pinball machines.
This is a popular narrative echoed endlessly at Logan. Something Seasonal represents the scrappy home team, the rowdy bunch that overcome incredible odds to win. Hive Five? They’re the snooty elites. The outsiders. The bad guys. This is the classic slobs versus snobs fable typical of every other ’80s comedy—or a winter-sports flick from the early ’90s, if you ask around.
“We’re the Mighty Ducks, and they’re Greenland,” Thomas said. “We’re the fucking plebs.”
“They’re like the Jamaican bobsled team, and Hive is the team from Iceland or Switzerland or whatever. It’s like they’ve got the best sleds money can buy,” said John Murphy, one of the designers of Octodad and a member of The B-team.
The “sled” in this metaphor is the only other Killer Queen cabinet in Chicago, located in the nearby headquarters of a certain well-known party game: Cards Against Humanity. Max Temkin, one of Cards Against Humanity’s co-creators, bought the machine several months ago to serve as an amusing distraction and a team building exercise, of sorts, for the company’s office/co-working space. (“This is the kind of thing I want us to be about,” Temkin said.) Cards Against Humanity’s cabinet is a flashpoint of controversy among Mercury Squad members. It’s perceived as an unfair advantage for Hive Five—whose roster includes Henry Birdseye, a designer at Cards Against Humanity, and several others that use the co-working space, including Greg Wohlwend, the artist for Threes and TouchTone.
“I mean, they own the machine,” Thomas said. “For us, we don’t get to practice so much.”
It’s a notion Hive Five disputes. “We’ve used it less than five times,” said DiPiero. “There’s a lack of competition there, so we play at Logan on Tuesdays and Thursdays so we can actually get better.”
Therein lies another issue contributing to Hive Five’s sullied reputation in the group. They don’t attend league nights on Wednesdays with the rest of the Mercury Squad, the big weekly social mixer night for Killer Queen devotees. “I feel the tension [between the teams], but I think there’s just a miscommunication,” DiPiero said. “They think we’re the exclusive group, and unfortunately, we get a bad name because they’re a known team.”
That tension grows in volume as the eight-hour tournament crawls along. During Hive Five’s narrow 3-2 victory over Something Seasonal in the quarterfinals, tempers flare when Seasonal chants, “Logan! United! We’ll never be divided!” A couple of Hive Five’s supporters spit out wry counter chants of “My team! They’re quiet! They will not start a riot!”
“We know they don’t like the noise, it messes them up. Part of our strategy is to play the opposition and get the arcade on our side,” said Thomas. “We’re the home team.” Some of Hive Five act annoyed by the over-the-top antics of their rivals but say they aren’t offended. Henry Birdseye, who takes a deep sigh of exhausted relief after the quarterfinals win, labels it canny “gamesmanship.”
With the quarterfinals in the rearview, Hive Five has beaten Something Seasonal once today and in exhibition matches earlier in the week, but Birdseye knows that a rematch is likely. The Founder’s Day tournament could be a repeat of last month’s finals, in which Something Seasonal emerged from the loser’s bracket to win back-to-back matches on the so-called “night map.” This less-used secondary playing field takes an adjustment because the objectives are in different locations. Some Mercury Squad members complain that the night map lacks the balance of its daytime twin. Either way, it’s a level that Something Seasonal has dominated in competitive play.
After Pettigrew strips his shirt off and tosses it to the ground in celebration of Something Seasonal’s Game 5 victory, commentator Benedict Fritz struggles for words to describe the sight to those watching a stream of the tournament online. “Something Seasonal… now playing shirtless…” he manages through the din of cheers and laughs from the onlookers.
If Pettigrew’s Brandi Chastain-like act of celebratory disrobing was meant as an intimidation tactic, it didn’t work. Hive Five collects its dozen berries and earns an economic victory in the next game. The series now stands tied at 3-3. Moments before the deciding game begins, the commentators’ banter on the livestream is drowned out by more chants of “SEASONAL! SEASONAL!” and “We are Logan! We are Logan!”
“Hopefully, you guys can hear me over the racket,” Fritz tells those watching online.
Something Seasonal has an ace up their sleeve for Game 7: the deft play of Andrew “Andre” Quan. The rest of the team switches back and forth between warriors and worker drones, but Quan is the team’s default queen—the most important piece in Killer Queen, powerful and versatile yet vulnerable. As Game 7 begins, both teams’ workers rush to the berry pile, and Quan’s queen swoops in and immediately kills two of Hive Five’s drones. It’s an early lead that snowballs into yet another economic victory for Something Seasonal—this one winning them the championship.
As the final berry is lodged into Something Seasonal’s hive, Pettigrew, still in a state of half disrobe, sprints through the cheering onlookers and out of the bar with arms raised in victory. Quan takes the wrestling belt and holds it over his head in a pose that looks stolen from a scene in Rocky. Meanwhile, the five members of Bike-A-Bee Hive Five walk away from the machine quietly with looks of disappointment and frustration.
It’s an emotional moment that could potentially divide this community, but the chest-beating subsides and Something Seasonal asks the rest of the crowd—the majority of whom are teams they’ve beaten earlier in the day—to join them in celebration and group pictures. Pettigrew starts a chant for Hive Five, and the rival teams exchange pleasantries. There are no such things as snobs and slobs at Logan Arcade, just Killer Queen players who sometimes care a little too much.
DeBonis and Mikros like to tell the story of the “Screen Slayer.” On the night before a tournament at Logan Arcade, a few Mercury Squad members had some fun with a mouthy drunk by beating his team three times through snail victories—the Killer Queen equivalent of winning a baseball game by bunting in all of your runs. The soused player punched the screen in anger and attempted to flee the scene. Mercury Squaders alerted the police and rallied online to replace the screen’s glass in time for the next day’s tournament.
“I just can’t imagine that happening for many other games,” DeBonis said.
Bumps and bruises and all, it’s this tight-knit community at Logan Arcade that has the developer duo believing that their oddball of an arcade game has the potential to be more than just a curiosity. They’ve recently formed their own company, BumbleBear Games, and in recent months, added Killer Queen machines in Portland, Washington D.C., Indianapolis, New York City (where it’s currently amid a trial run at the reopened Chinatown Fair arcade), and the Chicago suburb of St. Charles—in addition to the handful of cabinets bought by young tech companies. (It’s an especially popular attraction at Kickstarter’s headquarters in New York City.) They have plans to send another to an arcade in Charlotte as soon as they can build it.
But Killer Queen’s creators harbor even grander ambitions. They believe it could be part of a brand new kind of arcade, one that doesn’t rely on the feeling of stepping out of a time machine into 1987. Arcade bars are full of musty hardware that dates back at least two or three decades. Some classics endure, sure, but others haven’t aged like fine wine. Push away the cobwebs of nostalgia and you might find you’d rather rip the faux handlebars off the über-infuriating Paperboy than toss newspapers on its hazardous streets.
What if it were possible to play something brand new yet maintain the spirit of the arcade games of old? Mikros and DeBonis say that’s where the future of arcades lies, in new multiplayer games made by developers like themselves.
“We’re like Don Quixote, and this is our mission: to revive arcades,” Mikros said.
All photos by Sprung Photo.