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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Josh Broadwell

This man found the rarest Nintendo game ever by accident

A series of incredibly lucky coincidences led one man to uncover the rarest Nintendo game, almost without him intending to. The game is Sky Skipper, a 1980s Nintendo arcade game, the product of Super Mario Bros. creator Shigeru Miyamoto and hardware developer Genyo Takeda – and one of the company’s biggest commercial failures (thanks, The Guardian).

Nintendo eventually made clear concepts and fun gameplay the core of its design philosophy, and collector and retro enthusiast Alex Crowley told The Guardian that Sky Skipper suffered from having neither. The goal was helping a flying gorilla collect playing cards, though unclear objectives, confusing object behavior, and stilted gameplay meant that Nintendo considered it a dud. Nintendo Japan tested Sky Skipper with a limited release, and Nintendo of America just never released it commercially.

Instead, NoA repurposed the circuit board so it would run something else. Sky Skipper became Popeye in 1982, and that was seemingly the end of Sky Skipper – or it would have been, except someone uploaded the game’s ROM data to MAME, an open-source arcade emulator, in 2002.

Fast forward to 2015, and Crowley, who developed an interest in Sky Skipper after learning about its history, happened to come across a printed circuit board for the Popeye arcade game at a Swedish auction, one that originally began life as Sky Skipper. The problem was that without a second board to work with, there was no way to reverse engineer Crowley’s board and bring Sky Skipper back to life.

That’s when the next coincidence happened. Crowly and some friends were looking through old arcade warehouses to see if they could dig up any rare finds, and Crowley happened to come across another Popeye board. This one bore the code TNX01, which Crowley said matched the code of the board he bought in Sweden, so he asked an engineer friend, Mark Whiting, to see what he could make of them.

The process involved Whiting deducing the function of every chip on the board and bypassing the security chip meant to prevent people from doing exactly what he was doing. Eventually, he managed to recreate the original board and downloaded the MAME ROM onto it at last.

Crowley worked to recreate the original cabinet next using an old Popeye cabinet for reference, but he had few reference points to help ensure accuracy. Meanwhile, he sold the board from the Swedish auction to American collector Whitney Roberts, who agreed to help with the restoration project. By chance, Roberts met Billy Mitchell, the Donkey Kong champion, at a convention, and Mitchell told him that Nintendo of America still had a functioning Sky Skipper cabinet at their headquarters.

Mitchell put Roberts in contact with NoA executive vice president Don James, and at the end of 2016, Roberts visited Nintendo’s Redmond campus and set eyes on the Sky Skipper cabinet. Roberts took high-quality scans of the cabinet to help Crowley’s restoration project and confirmed that the boards both collectors had were the genuine artifact, so to speak.

As for how Sky Skipper ended up on MAME, that’s yet another coincidence. The Guardian’s Lewis Packwood spoke with Julian Eggebrecht, a developer at Factor 5 and another retro enthusiast. Eggebrecht said that his team was working on Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader for the Gamecube, and Nintendo agreed to let him borrow the cabinet if Rogue Squadron 2 was ready for the system’s launch in 2001.

Eggebrecht discovered that one of the chips that controlled the color palette was dead, and he reached out to Genyo Takeda, whom Eggebrecht worked with while developing the Gamecube chip, to see if Takeda, by chance, still had Sky Skipper’s original files. He did, and Eggebrecht managed to fix the machine. Meanwhile, Eggebrecht also downloaded the Sky Skipper ROM, though he told Packwood that he has no idea how it ended up on MAME – in the same year that he and Factor 5 had the cabinet.

However it happened, you can actually play Sky Skipper on Nintendo Switch now. Nintendo packaged it under the Arcade Archives brand and launched it digitally for the handheld platform in 2018.

Written by Josh Broadwell on behalf of GLHF

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