Sunday, 24 May 2015

Skyblazer (Super NES)

Ashura, Lord of War is a bit of a swine. Centuries ago, he and his group of warlords attempted to plunge the land into darkness, crush the Mystic Pantheon and 'stamp out the light of reason' (I'm not making this up). Fortunately, a great magician called Sky-Lord appeared and, after a hard fought battle, managed to banish him from the realm forever and trap him in limbo, The years passed, Sky-Lord became a legend, Ashura was never heard from again, everybody had a big slap up meal and a party to celebrate and it seemed that everything was fine in the world.

Unfortunately, a 'gifted' (ie stupid) apprentice sorceror has now accidentally freed Ashura, and he's now back with a vengeance. Not only has he gone and created a new army of warlords, but he's also kidnapped the sorceress Ariana and he's hell bent on resurrecting his master Raglan, Lord of Darkness, King of Destruction too. Obviously, the prospect of this happening is even worse than a wet weekend in Rhyl, so it's up to you, Skyblazer, the last living descendant of Sky-Lord to put a stop to him.

Ashura kidnaps the sorceress....just because he can.
Skyblazer kicks off with a short training stage where you have unlimited lives and a chance to learn the game mechanics. Controls are tight and responsive, and Sky is pretty agile and can cling to vertical surfaces ad climb up and down them, and also attack whilst hanging onto a wall. He dispatches enemies with a combo melee attack and can also fire magic blasts, though this uses up some of his magic gauge.

At the end of this section, you get a brief cutscene where the four-armed Ashura appears, kicks your ass and kidnaps the sorceress. Your only ally, an old man, then tells you that you're too weak to fight Ashura in your current state and so tasks you with defeating Ashura's warlords in order to gain extra off you go through the various stages (around 17 in all), defeating various bosses and turning Sky into a tooled up spellcasting powerhouse along the way. Sounds like the recipe for a good game, right?

Sky can climb or hang from any vertical surface.

Well, yes and no. Skyblazer certainly looks the part with extremely impressive visuals, detailed parallax scrolling backgrounds and a fair few special effects using the SNES's mode 7 trickery thrown in with most boss fights utilising it in some way or other. The platforming and combat with enemies feels polished and never unfair, and there's a a fair bit of variety in the environments, with forest, ice, desert, water and sky stages all thrown in for good measure alongside a couple of auto scrolling 'shoot 'em up' style sections and mode 7 bonus stages that have you flying into the screen and collecting gems for extra lives.

The main problems with Skyblazer lie in it's design and execution. Stages feel extremely bland and linear, with only the odd secret here and there. The bosses, whilst they look impressive, all have ridiculously simple attack patterns that are very easily learned and avoided (even Ashura and Raglan themselves right at the end of the game are a doddle to beat) and fighting them is more of a chore than a test of skill, something which becomes very apparent on the final stage when you have to fight most of them all over again, boss-rush style. And as for the abilities you get for defeating them....asides from the Comet Flash ability you receive really early on, the Heal spell, and the Fiery Phoenix ability you obtain right before the last stage (which is only needed for the Ashura boss fight and nothing else), they're all pretty much surplus to requirements. The stage designs never encourage you to use them, never present you with any situations where they could really help out, and so they become virtually useless and a very poor payoff for the effort you put in.

Flaws asides, it is a very nice looking game.

And that leads to another of Skyblazer's big's far too easy for the most part. Enemies and traps never seem to do much damage, there's always plenty of Health and Magic pickups, and gems litter the stages in abundance so you'll have built up a stash of extra lives in no time...indeed, Sky feels pretty overpowered before he even gains any extra abilities and once you've gotten hold of Heal, you become almost unstoppable. The game contains a password system too, but there seems little point to it as you can breeze through it from beginning to end in less than an hour once you've gotten the hang of things.

It seems a pity that I have to be so critical of Skyblazer as on the surface, it has quite a lot going for it. It plays extremely well, has decent (if unspectacular) music and looks fantastic most of the time. But scratch beneath the surface a little and you'll find that there's not much there. It's a shining example of style over substance and the gaming equivalent of 'all fur coat and no knickers'. It's a fun experience while it lasts, but it doesn't last anywhere near as long or gel together anywhere near as well as it should, and then comes to an end without really having picked up any pace at all. Mostly, it's a pity that they never made a sequel to it, as some better level design, boss fights, and character abilities could have gone a long way into making Skyblazer an all time classic. The foundations for the gameplay are rock solid. But ultimately it just fails to live up to the huge potential it shows in it's first couple of stages, and that's a damn shame.

TromaDogg's Final Verdict: 6.5/10

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