Author: John Legendoffzelda
Finding a groove makes all the difference for wavering creators – they lock in supporters, they put themselves on a path towards further inspiration, then they’re finally able to let their spark of potential glow. And if it’s only a one-in-a-million occurrence, then it just means that they’ve tapped into a shining power to make something singular and spectacular. Sony Imagesoft and Japanese developer Ukiyotei found and harnessed that power when they made the brilliant platformer Skyblazer. Not simply Imagesoft’s best, here is one of the most spirited tapestries of a video game to come out of the fourth generation. However much Imagesoft had to do with the actual final product, they were still highly fortunate to be involved in a game this spring-loaded with visual invention and enjoyment.
On a stormy night in a far-off fantasy realm, a young man in flexible metal armor named Sky watches a four-armed winged demon called Ashura kidnap the innocent sorceress Arianna. She is taken to serve the evil purposes of Raglan, the Lord of Darkness. Sky tries to stop the winged monster, but is defeated. Being rescued by an old man, Sky vows to destroy Ashura. Our protagonist is a descendant of the sorcerer Sky-Lord, who defeated Ashura once before, so he’s sure that he can do it as well.
The old man, though, tells him he must improve his fighting abilities, which he must do by roaming the land and defeating all other monsters along the way. Sky travels along an overhead map, a sort of island region divided into one small section and a larger section before a final third section holding Ashura’s lair. The map is marked with stages that Sky automatically enters when he crosses them, and they offer simple enough challenges for the player. Some are straight-ahead platforming stretches; some are winding temples with a boss at the end; and others are auto-scrolling segments where Sky glides through the air; and all are full of strange and interesting enemies that stand in Sky’s way.
Sky is more than a match for all of them, and more than that he ties the entire game together by being such a marvelously crafted character. He’s so swift and responsive, so confident in his movements that he seems to glide across the ground like he does in the air. In his blue-and-yellow garb and wind-whipped hair, he leaps through the atmosphere, rapidly shimmies up walls and delivers punches and kicks with martial-arts finesse. He brings to mind a hip amalgam of new and old legends: Perseus re-imagined as Spider-Man. In addition to his physical prowess, his confidence is also based on his ways with magic, a set of powers that starts out with an energy-wave attack, and can be expanded to include powers of invincibility, casting lightning bolts, and one final move that just looks really cool. These are the abilities that he collects on his way to Ashura. And along with being practical, they diversify the gameplay, offering a complementary piece of strategy to the action. They all use up increments of an on-screen magic meter, which he can replenish by picking up bottles of red fluid, but some use more increments than others. Should the player end up wasting his magic, though, they needn’t worry too badly; along with bottles of green fluid that replenish health, and shiny gems that give him an extra life with each hundredth gem, the red-fluid bottles are items Sky can frequently find, either lying around or left behind by an enemy he eliminates.
The wonderful opening stage sets the tone – a stretch of stone pathways leading to the initial encounter with Ashura, where the player can test out Sky’s moves on both the structures and the enemies that are placed everywhere. The sense of flow and graceful motion displayed here is present for essentially the rest of the game, and it even carries into the overhead map. When Sky reaches a stage, it starts: no menus, no “yes-no” options, no time wasted. In the stages, the enemies go down with ease and Sky is able to hop from a wall to a platform to a steady surface, and everything simply clicks. The player can feel Sky ducking under a lowering ceiling, and they can feel him smack a row of enemies with one of his bursts of magic. Some of the stage designs tweak the platforming physics, adding trees with foliage dense enough to sink through or replacing all of the walking surfaces with gusts of wind, and they only reinforce the solidness of the gameplay. The water stage with the extensive swimming is maybe the one part of the game where the motion feels a bit off, but hey – water levels are water levels. The auto-scrolling parts maintain the overall level of excitement while lifting Sky off of the ground, and the flying punches he throws have the same sense of tactile response. There are also fancier Mode 7 segments where Sky flies forward and collects extra gems, and there are other moments where the sense of flow seems misplaced, but at least they have no real consequence. They’re at the very least tokens of generosity.
To fill out the spaces between the crystal gameplay, the story of Skyblazer doesn’t have what could be called a rich mythology, but it does have fun toying with the fantasy concepts they suggest. The story presents a world separated into strange topographical areas; temples of ice and lava, a realm of wind and a waterfall of desert sand. The various old men Sky meets on his quest are interesting themselves, or at least the notion of several old men working to help a hero defeat the Lord of Darkness. The old men increase Sky’s hit points when he first visits them, and in a bit of welcome referential humor they will also show arrangements of runes that Sky determines will help him “preserve [his] quest”(In other words, they’re passcodes). Definitely the most interesting things to look at in this game are all of the various monsters: impressive and unique, they were made with pure imagination. Common enemies include balls of flesh that spit out crawling eyeballs, and among the bosses is a demon face embedded into a spinning wall, and a creature that’s a cross between a dragon, a serpent, and an elephant. The crisp, bright graphics fulfill both their designs and many other details in the game, from the brightness of the lava temple to the effect of the towers spinning around as Sky ascends them. The music score, by Bionic Commando composer Harumi Fujita, rounds everything out; giving urgency to the dramatic action scenes and a sense of grandeur to the production as a whole, sitars and clanging bells and all. As in any good fantasy, the material may never have happened but it’s happening to you right now.
It wasn’t the most popular video game of 1994, but Skyblazer is still Sony Imagesoft’s big moment. It’s their fairy tale, one told with exceptional gameplay and arresting visuals, and it’s so good you don’t even need to dwell on the rest of their body of work. I didn’t, and while playing this game I thought of how great it feels to see someone strike a powerful creative wellspring.
Five out of five stars.
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