Blazing through obscurity (aka why did nobody play this gem)
When it comes down to video gaming, Sony is best known for their line of Playstation line of video game consoles. You know, the ones that started off pretty cool until their ego and obsession with technological development got the better of them and decided to price their new console for 599 US dollars, followed up by the PSP GO that lasted about as long as a sneeze and a press conference about an invisible console? Yeah, well, they had their humble beginnings publishing games. They mainly published licensed game of varying quality - usually shitty - but they did also publish this hidden gem called Skyblazer. Made by a company who hasn't made anything else worth caring about, Skyblazer was a game that basically nobody played because it had no precense in the market at the time, nor does it have any right now. It's a crying shame because this is a fine, fine piece of 16 bit platforming. Not the best by any means as there are a few things that aren't quite as well executed as they could've been, but it's a great game nevertheless.
Sky is tasked with saving the kingdom and eventually a sorceress named Ariana from the evil Ashura. But because he isn't powerful enough and certainly not as strong as his father and legendary hero known as the Sky Lord, Sky will need to get stronger by defeating Ashura's minions and acquiring some magic spells. Okay, perhaps the story isn't all that great as it's little more than a set up for Sky to kick the shit out of some monsters rather than feeling like a journey, but hey, it at least sets up the events of the game finely enough within the first level. Sky heads inside a temple, finds monsters, punches and kicks them around and meets up with Ashura, only to get destroyed while getting away with the damsel Ariana, and he somehow winds up in a hut with an old man who tells him he sucks at life right now, only for him to embark on the journey to prove him wrong.
Now, when you first play this game, you'll find yourself thinking "well, it's good, but I can see why it was swept under the rug upon its release". It feels like your typical sidescrolling platformer where you'll run, jump and perform a punch-punch-kick combo to beat the shit out of enemies. Combat is especially unexciting when faced against regular enemies as it feels unpolished. Instead of having some bite, the enemies seem to have huge hit boxes as you can hit them from like a million feet away and even if they didn't have huge hit boxes, there's still nothing to it. A lot of it just amounts to getting monsters out of the way and even stopping their projectiles by power mashing the Y button. "But Gryzor, Devil May Cry 3 is nothing but mashing a button and you seem to like those games". The difference is that Devil May Cry 3 had bite and impact to its combat while Skyblazer is more like a sissy fight between Ivan Drago and King K Rool. The first level you play through doesn't have anything special in terms of level design, feeling like a generic platformer whose sole unique feature is the ability to climb along walls. Even when you enter the next level and notice that you can sink into tree leaves, it just doesn't feel like it does anything special. That, and I've noticed that the levels were rather short. Christ, even Super Mario Brothers 3 has longer levels!
But the more you play this game, the more of its majesty you'll see. Each of the levels have their own distinct designs that manage to give you more than a generic platforming experience. Levels can seem typically straightforward, but when you have levels that include thick foliage on the trees, maze-like designs including water currents leading either to salvation or deadly whirlpools (which, by the way, lends itself to being one of the few water levels in video games that's not complete shit) or gusts of wind that'll either blow you towards salvation or back to the beginning of the level, climbing up logs falling down a sand fall, and levels that make extensive use of the wall climbing feature. Hell, there are levels that aren't even platforming stages, like the occasional shoot em up level where you'll use a hang glider to fly through the air and fire energy blasts at enemies. They're not as brutal as your average shoot em up, but they can still be somewhat intense with some enemies bum rushing you in packs. There are also some pseudo-3D flight levels, which are more like bonus levels where you collect coins - I mean gems to rack up some extra lives. I've only scratched the surface, folks - there's quite a bit of variety between each level, and none of them feel gimmicky nor is there any wasted potential. Instead, each level is intricately designed with all of these different things well integrated for a more natural experience as you take everything up the chin. Because of this, the further along you get, the more you experience, and the more enjoyable the game gets as a result.
Another set of interesting designs are the bosses. From their methods of attack to your method of destroying them, each battle is distinct from one another, giving off that fresh feeling between each one, and like the levels, they're also well designed. The bosses will generally try to attack you, but it's not as simple as trying to run into you (old school Nintendo rules, guys). Whether they're rolling into you, trying to flatten you, breathing fire on you or draining your life away, they all keep themselves fresh, but it's not just them - it's everything around them. Besides just a square room, there'll also be holes and platforms which need to be utilized to dodge and/or attack them, so not only do they themselves feel different, but their fights also feel diverse. Now, I understand that you're all getting sick of me saying that everything is different as if every other SNES platformer is the same - not necessarily. I've already pointed out that this game has a generic beginning and I really don't want you to write it off as a generic platformer while thinking of the cleverest hate mail you can; what I haven't pointed out is that this is somewhat of an easy game that's rather forgiving with its semi-frequent checkpoints and many chances to get like a million lives as there are a shitload of gems lying about each level. Sure, each boss requires a fair bit of trial and error to figure out the best method of beating them - usually involving well timed jumps and magic spells involving full screen lightning bolt attacks, fireballs, flying across the screen and healing yourself - but given that you have heaps of lives, it's not going to be quite the labor of love to figure them out. Their attack patterns are easy to read too, it's the timing and your method of attack that you need to get down. Levels have a similar thing going on - because of their distinctness, you'll need to get the feel for them. Nothing in this game is hard and in fact, the enemies are a complete joke, but you may find yourself dying a fair amount of times to the levels' gimmicks and bosses due to some sections taking you by surprise. At the same time though.... there are the gems to recollect and get even more extra lives out of. In that sense, this game does have some difficulty inconsistencies, but with a bit of patience, there's a lot of fun to be had exploring these levels and satisfaction to be gained from beating them, especially ones with bosses.
On the aesthetic front, Skyblazer looks brilliant. The colors are sharp and vibrant, which helps to make each of the exquisitely detailed sprites and environments look fantastic. The mode 7 is tastefully used to either show you going around a tower or a boss, or to show bosses rolling like there's depth to their shells and such. Unfortunately, a lot of the mode 7's movement looks about as choppy as the average anime's animation. Speaking of animation however, the 2D stuff is very fluid, so it's clear that Ukiyotei's art designers just couldn't get the hang of mode 7 technology while their 2D stuff is just *bleep*ing brilliant. "But Gryzor, weren't you going on about that diversity crap a while ago" - well, each level not only has their distinct feeling while playing through them, but also their own distinct look. From castles to forests to deserts and everything in between, there's no shortage of different looking levels, each with painstakingly detailed designs and sharp, vibrant colors to help them stand out.
The sound design is also brilliant. On top of a typical MIDI soundscape is an Indian influence with some sitar riffs for that extra flavor. Of particular note is the overworld song (the overworld itself mostly being a linear affair, hence it not being mentioned), with a twangy sound compressed into a small loop as you wouldn't normally be on the overworld for too long. It gives off the vibe that you're about the enter the next area in your journey. Speaking of vibes, each of the levels' songs give off the impression that you're exploring parts of India, keeping you somewhat weary of the dangers ahead while being mostly uplifting. Some of the more indoorsy songs, like inside lairs and temples, have a more foreboding tone as you're exploring a dangerous place with a big, bad boss at the end. As for the boss songs are fast paced and exciting enough to pump you up for a boss fight while having an epic tone to it. Then again, it's basically a symphony orchesta backing them up, only it's compressed as *bleep* to fit on an SNES cartridge. Nevertheless, each song is so well composed that it fits the levels, not to mention that on their own, they're very enjoyable to listen to.
At one point throughout my recent playthrough of this game, I asked myself "why is this game so unknown to the public, it's really good". Seriously, I just don't get it - is it because the first level wasn't setting the world on fire and our natural instinct is to go by first impressions rather than actually giving the game an honest go? By giving it an honest go, you'll find yourself revelling in its marvelous designs. The levels and bosses each have their own distinct flavors and are very well designed to boot. Sure, enemy combat is lamer than Blink 182, but trekking through each level to soak in their glorious designs and hopefully fight a boss that'll test your reflexes and pattern reading skills is more than enough to keep you going. It has some trial and error going for it when you enter a new level and fight a new boss for the first time, but figuring out the best method to tackle each situation as they come and the satisfaction from overcoming adversity is more than enough to overlook that archaic form of difficulty. This game has no right to be virtually unknown. It has aged brilliantly and as a result, it's fun as hell to play through.
9/10 (*bleep*ing Excellent)
Originally posted for http://signfarbeyond.blogspot.com.au/
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