Skyblazer (SNES) review
"I've noticed that the platformer genre really started to get stale on the SNES. Sure, Mario World was more than adequate, and there were a select few other gems as well. But unfortunately, the vast majority of them seemed to be the same thing over and over - slow moving cute fluffy animals in generic worlds with average gameplay at best and wild swings in difficulty. Imagine my surprise to find a hit, not in Nintendo or Capcom, but in Sony. They certainly weren't a major player back then, an..."
I've noticed that the platformer genre really started to get stale on the SNES. Sure, Mario World was more than adequate, and there were a select few other gems as well. But unfortunately, the vast majority of them seemed to be the same thing over and over - slow moving cute fluffy animals in generic worlds with average gameplay at best and wild swings in difficulty. Imagine my surprise to find a hit, not in Nintendo or Capcom, but in Sony. They certainly weren't a major player back then, and definitely not a paragon of quality. But even more surprising is that this same game could shatter my preconceptions about the platformer genre, daring to go beyond the simple rules of Mario and Mega Man to provide some utterly unique experiences. Skyblazer, although not perfect by any means, manages to do all of this and earns its place as one of the few platformers on the SNES worth playing.
The game starts out with a brief introduction level, bringing you up to speed. You control Sky, a talented young individual who naturally has some hero's blood in him or something. Sky can run, jump, punch, and use some nifty little magic attacks. He also seems to be a student of Spider-Man, as he will cling to any wall he touches, thus being able to scale even the tallest of structures. As you jump from platform to platform and beat the daylights out of the nasty enemies that charge toward you, collecting some diamond-things as you go along, you will soon meet up with Ashura. This is the evil arch-nemesis of the game, and he has kidnapped a priestess. You try to stop him, sort of, but you get blasted. And when Sky finally wakes up, he finds an old man insulting him (and you thought you were having a bad day). This geezer informs you that you just plain aren't strong enough yet, and wonders if you ever will be. But you'll prove him wrong, and start out on your brand new exciting adventure.
Perhaps you won't see it right away. In fact, there are numerous elements that are not in any way special, and simply looking at them would put this game in the garbage can. The mechanics, for instance, could definitely use some polishing. Our dear friend Sky disposes of his enemies by punching and kicking, both done with the same button. Unfortunately, this means that combat is nothing more than repeatedly tapping your controller as fast as possible, so that any enemy stupid enough to get near you is easily vanquished. Likewise, there is no reaction time for enemies when they get hit, so enemies with high hit points simply require you to mash the button a little longer than normal, but not put any extra effort in doing so. Thus, quite frankly, combat was a bore, as it was lacking the fluidity and grace of Megaman or even the plodding Castlevania. Even worse is the poor collision detection. There seemed numerous times when I would get smacked by some baddie, despite being absolutely certain that I had room to maneuver. This causes one to be extra cautious for no good reason, those lowering the overall enjoyment of the game. These are fairly significant complaints, unfortunately, and they do detract from the game.
However, there's plenty of good ideas in there as well. Like the aforementioned wall crawling ability, which provides for some unique opportunity and just plain looked cool. Or the magic system; after every boss you gain a new power, from the ability to heal to flying across the screen, ramming everyone in your way. Not only do you constantly get new skills, but the number keeps things interesting and allows more variety. And there are a few different directions you can go, a few different options. Once again, it livens things up, and allows you to choose a different path if one level is giving you problems. And, of course, the controls are solid enough. Sky moves relatively quickly and effortlessly, and you should have no problem soaring through the air and running along the ground.
Coupled with this solid gameplay is a solid challenge. Forunately, the game isn't all that difficult, as you have plenty of health and quite a few opportunities to replenish said health. Oh, you'll still die fairly often, but people who get turned off from Contra and its ilk (ie, me) will have few problems conquering the game. It's helped by gathering gems, which are plentiful, and trading in 100 of them for extra lives. Like Mario, the emphasis is on working through the levels one by one, and you'll have plenty of extra lives to do so. And besides, there's a password system, and so you'll never lose your progress.
Likewise, bosses are not too challenging and generally quite cool. There's no derivative monsters here; almost every one is unique and requires a different strategy. Take a giant crustacean, for example, that grows every time you hit it. Your strategies will actually change as the battle wears on, as you must first jump over him, then climb a wall and jump over him, and finally cower in a corner as his size changes. Or a giant rotating wall, where you must move quickly between holes to avoid getting crushed. Or Ashura himself, who takes a page from Zelda II by draining half your magic before you can hit him. I think my personal favorite is the dragon, in which you must jump from block to block to avoid him as he charges up, smack him quickly, and then dart away to repeat. They aren't all great, but most of them are fun to fight against and seldom frustrating.
But if there is one aspect that goes above and beyond the call of a normal action/platformer, it is the level design. Ignore your preconceived notions that levels can take place on only land, air, or water, and that there are set rules for each. Sony took the initiative to make environments far more interesting. Start out in a picturesque forest... and leap through the treetops. Just jump into the foliage and use that as a leverage to jump higher, running gracefully through the leaves and twigs. Think Crouching Tiger, and you'll have an idea what this is like. Or find yourself swept up in a maelstrom, literally riding the wind currents left, right, up, and down. Or climb a tower, actually moving around it, where missing a ledge hopefully means nothing more than setting you back a story or two. Move with the currents in an underwater maze, try to stay on top of a slippery log resting on a piranha-infested lake, and float your way through a deadly castle. Just seeing these levels and finding new ideas is reason enough to play this game. It's that good.
I mean, it's not necessarily the quality of the levels that make them so great. After all, there are certain problems associated with them. On the log, for instance, it can be difficult staying alive while disposing of the enemies situated there. Or the underwater currents, which crossed the line between annoying and cool a few times. But this lack of a fine polish is besides the point. Fact is, you just can't get these experiences anywhere else. You can't get this type of physics anywhere else. No one seems to have any more imagination than "hey! let's make the ground slippery in an ice level!" Perhaps the roughness in some of these levels scared some developers away. But it is enough to see them, to discover that there are other options out there. The level designs are great just because they force us to consider new possibilities, to look at the levels a whole new way. This is a one of a kind experience, which goes a long way towards making this game stand out.
And in the end, this level design is only part of a solid, solid game. Despite a few rough edges, there is enough originality and greatness here to make the game worthy of a chance. The wallcrawling, the magic, the challenge, everything is seems to work together to give a solid gameplay experience. And with the unique bosses and innovative level design, you know you're playing something that is not just good, but special as well. You won't find much better on the SNES, so go ahead and give it a shot. What you find may surprise you.
Community review by mariner (January 22, 2006)
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