The corridor shooter is the first of two new games on the way from Madison game studio Flippfly.
In 2013, Madison-based developer Flippfly released Race The Sun, a flying game about chasing the sun as it sets. The player dodges obstacles while gathering speed boosts, doing their best to keep the sun from tucking behind the horizon.
Since then, the genre of “roguelike” games—including 2019’s Slay The Spire and the 2020 smash Hades—has taken off. This would be a good pun if the genre was known for flying mechanics, but it isn’t. That’s where founder of Flippfly and creative director of its forthcoming games Whisker Squadron and Whisker Squadron: Survivor, Aaron San Filippo, hopes to fill a niche. Flippfly’s developers are combining what they learned from Race The Sun with roguelike mechanics “to make something that was more of an action-shooter game,” San Filippo says.
Whisker Squadron started as a $57,000 Kickstarter drive in 2021. It then split into two distinct games: Whisker Squadron proper and Whisker Squadron: Survivor. San Filippo says he “wanted to make something more ambitious.” The part-time and entirely remote team of nine or so then “added space elements to the game,” he says, before they “realized that it really wanted to be two different games.” So that’s what they’re doing.
Whisker Squadron is set to release in 2024 and will be the bigger, more open of the two games. San Filippo compared it to FTL: Faster Than Light because of its heavier emphasis on exploration, survival, and resource allocation, with survival runs that will last closer to 30 to 40 minutes.
What’s more on Flippfly’s plate at the moment, and what I’ve been playing the demo of, is Whisker Squadron: Survivor. (The demo is currently available on Steam.)
Whisker Squadron: Survivor opens with a menu where the player chooses their mission, their pilot, and their ship—the starting ones being “Feel The Neon,” “Olivia,” and “The Arrow,” respectively. Olivia is a cat whose description says she’s “Whisker Squadron’s newest recruit … but she’s fierce, scrappy, and out to prove she’s the best pilot in the galaxy.”
Starting a game initiates a little dialog in the corner between your chosen character and Gigi, a cat with a headset on who’s likely sitting at some sort of Whisker Squadron mission control. While Gigi returns in the breaks between levels to tell Olivia to remember her training or something like that, her character doesn’t go much further than that. There isn’t a story behind this interstellar team of housepet fighter pilots to explain the world they live in. Or why their missions are important. All the character development and worldbuilding that exists at the time of writing is in the character select screen bios and the quips during level intermissions.
Runs in Whisker Squadron: Survivor last 10 to 20 minutes and focus on the mechanics of shooting enemies, weaving around obstacles, avoiding lasers and bombs from enemies, and getting upgrades to make all of the above easier. San Filippo specifically cites classic flying corridor shooter Star Fox and survival roguelike Vampire Survivors as key influences.
Everything about the game feels arcade-influenced. The fluorescent pink and blue lines over a black base feel straight out of Tron. I’ve been playing with a controller, but the game would probably be best experienced on a big ol’ arcade machine with one hand on a joystick and another hand frantically hitting buttons to fire lasers, launch missiles, or to engage the boost thrusters. It’s easy to imagine the instructions “Insert Coin To Continue” and a countdown from 30 seconds taking over the screen after the swarm of laser-firing cyber-bugs with names like “scarab” or “larva bomb”—collectively referred to as “the swarm”—reduce my ship’s hit points to zero, making my ship explode as a subtle signal that I lost.
While the base of a good game is there and has been fun to play, it’s also clear the game is not ready for release. Flippfly has “got in that same cycle of putting updates out, surveying players, figuring out what they like and don’t like,” says San Filippo. “And we’ve just found it’s so much more effective to get in that cycle of responding to the community and what they actually like and want.”
One issue I had with the game prior to my conversation with San Filippo was that the energy resource used to both fire lasers and engage the boosters, which the game calls “energy,” refilled very slowly. I would shoot until I ran out of energy but would then be left a sitting duck incapable of boosting away from the accrued wall of techno-insect enemies. While I understand it’s on me as the player to be smart with my resources, I didn’t enjoy feeling punished for shooting things in a game about shooting things.
Flippfly saw similar feedback from other players and released an update to make the energy refill faster, as well as addressing other “pain points,” as San Filippo calls them.
“I’ve got a producer, Angela [Dachowski], who lives in Wisconsin, and one of her jobs is just gathering up all that feedback, looking for patterns, and then feeding that back into the team,” San Filippo says. “For instance, this last round of feedback with about 55 forms filled out, about half of them mentioned the energy. So it’s like, OK, there’s clearly something that we need to address here.”
This is a vastly more sophisticated process than when San Filippo and his brother Forest were working on Race The Sun. They uploaded an early alpha version of the game to Kongregate, a website that hosts browser games and that used to play a massive role in the game development space. He says that in the comments from Kongregate users, they “were able to see right away players really cared on that platform about leaderboards. So we added leaderboards.”
Creating a formal feedback process isn’t the only way Flippfly has had to adapt to a game development landscape that has evolved since “Thrift Shop,” “Blurred Lines,” and “Radioactive” dominated the airwaves in 2013. In that time, “creating games has gotten more accessible,” San Filippo says, adding that the industry “is always getting more competitive.” In those 10 years, Flippfly has grown from a staff of just Aaron and Forest, who has since stepped down as a head of the company but maintains a role in development, to a team of nine entirely remote and mostly part-time workers—four of whom live in Wisconsin.
Moreover, the gaming industry is not immune to trends seen elsewhere, as seemingly everything we know and love has moved to streaming services. It’s not just movies and television. “Every sector has moved more towards subscription services,” San Filippo says. The long-term outcome is likely negative due to subscription models “devaluing games in general, just like Netflix has for movies,” he says, but it’s not all bad in the present. (Even if Netflix has already expanded into games.)
“In the short term, there’s definitely an opportunity there for small indie studios to fund their projects,” San Filippo says. “If you get an Apple Arcade deal or [Xbox] Game Pass deal or something like that, it could potentially make your game profitable before it even launches.”
Additionally, while the Steam page for Race The Sun has clips of YouTubers playing the game, a staple of the game promotion world of 2013, San Filippo is excited to explore the possibilities of stream integration on Twitch for the Whisker Squadron games. “Vampire Survivors has a mode on Twitch where chat viewers can help choose the options that the streamer chooses during the upgrades, and that seems like a really cool thing,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a standard for this genre but it’s really fun.”
San Filippo says Flippfly is looking to release Whisker Squadron: Survivor this summer or fall as the studio negotiates release deals with console makers, adds more content, and continues to polish the gameplay. He noted Flippfly’s caution in taking feedback late in the development process because “sometimes [a] suggestion is just so out-there that it’s like, ‘that’s a totally different game.'”
And based on my experience playing the demo, Whisker Squadron: Survivor doesn’t need to be a different game. But as I see it, the best possible version of this game would place more emphasis on diverse abilities and combos accrued specifically within runs.
Whisker Squadron: Survivor currently creates a feeling more closely aligned with arcade games—or “neo-arcade” games if we want to feel pretentious—than a roguelike. It’s a fun premise that I’ve enjoyed playing, but all the runs feel roughly the same. This is the antithesis of roguelikes and what separates Hades from, say, Pac-Man.
Both roguelikes and arcade games center around isolated runs through predictable environments inhabited by known enemies. While arcade games often have temporary power-ups, roguelikes are defined by the compiling of boosts and abilities that last until the run is over. These tools compound as the player makes calculated decisions to attempt synergies between the limited random choices, assembling their toolkit while dealing with the risk and reward trade-offs of their decisions. This gameplay model creates a unique challenge from run to run and is what makes staples of the genre like Hades and Slay The Spire so endlessly replayable for me. (I’ve played over 300 hours of both.)
In its current form, Whisker Squadron: Survivor falls short of the diversity of options, consequences, and possible synergies to make decisions between upgrades feel important, or to make runs feel sufficiently unique from one another.
But Pac-Man is a classic in its own right and there are many who have spent hours and hours playing it because that’s their taste in games. San Filippo is cognizant that “depending on where you’re marketing your game, you’re going to attract players of different genres and [preferences].” He says, “there’s kind of a strategy there… of decid[ing] who this game is for and then you want to listen to those people more than anybody else.” I have enjoyed playing the game even if I thoroughly wish it had the variety and unpredictability to make each run feel unique and engaging. That said, maintaining course toward a more arcade feel is a valid final product designed for a different kind of player.
With the base of the game set, Whisker Squadron: Survivor isn’t far from where it needs to be, but it’s the finishing touches of any project that require the most practiced, precise, and purposeful hands. We will have to wait and see how the coming months change Whisker Squadron: Survivor and what Flippfly has in store with Whisker Squadron next year.