Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Rodea the Sky Soldier

Wii, Wii U, 3DS

Rodea the Sky Soldier
The mechanized Naga Empire invades the peaceful sky realm of Garuda, and only Princess Cecilia and her android retainer Rodea oppose the war. Separated from his companion, Rodea lies damaged and buried for a thousand years. He's revived and repaired, but little has changed: the once-stymied Naga Emperor returns for another assault, and Rodea remains the only one standing in the way.
Second chances come often in Rodea the Sky Soldier. The original game emerged as a Wii creation from Yuji Naka and his Prope studio in 2011. The Wii was on the verge of retirement at the time, but if the man responsible for NiGHTS, Burning Rangers, Ivy the Kiwi!, and some of Sonic the Hedgehog's best moments wanted to make a Wii action game, who could stop him?

Well, Kadokawa Games did. The publisher sealed a complete Wii version of Rodea in vague hiatus for years and eventually ported it to the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS. The Wii edition survives only as a bonus disc bundled with first-run copies of the Wii U release. It seems a nice extra, but in truth it's the only saving grace for Rodea the Sky Soldier.

Rodea himself gets a second chance. The game opens with the vicious Naga Empire poised on the brink of war with the kingdom of Garuda, and the imperial Princess Cecilia and her robotic guardian Rodea desperately try to curb the onslaught. They steal the Key of Time, an artifact central to the Naga invasion, and split it just as they're about to be captured. Clutching his half of the Key, Rodea lies despairing and deactivated. A millennium later, a perky inventor named Ion excavates him and restores him to working condition, and not a moment too soon. The Naga Empire's machine forces are massing once again.

The ensuing battles take Rodea across open 3-D stretches of floating islands and flying fortresses. Though capable of walking, he gets around much better by jetting from one point to another. The typical stage finds him skipping across the landscape, launching himself off walls, and bouncing high into the air for the best vantage. His moves aren't all that different from past Yuji Naka titles: he targets enemies and spins into them (like Sonic the Hedgehog), he zips blindingly fast from one accelerator panel to another (like Sonic the Hedgehog), and he acquires a firearm for simply gunning down enemies (like the often-detested Shadow the Hedgehog). Rodea also gathers floating Graviton Crystals, which help him stay airborne and grant an extra life when he collects a hundred of them…like Sonic the Hedgehog and every other action-platform game from twenty years ago.

That retrospection goes back beyond Rodea's Sonic similarities. The game is a straightforward dash through sunny, blue-skied fantasy realms full of flying robot fish and magic crystals and chattering sidekicks. Past console generations were rife with games like this, a cottage industry of Voodoo Vinces and Ty the Tasmanian Tigers that didn't survive in the modern period. Rodea even looks the part of a GameCube or PlayStation 2 outing, with visual design that's warm and pleasant but no more technically impressive than a ten-year-old Sonic game. But it doesn't have to be pretty. Yuji Naka always specialized in giving players rapid gratification in upbeat style, and Rodea aims for that same immediate joy. In an age when every game piles up features and stretches open worlds to their breaking points, some simplicity is refreshing.

Rodea the Sky Soldier hopes to be a speedy, carefree adventure. Too bad the Wii U and 3DS versions destroy that.

Flying is the entire point here, and the Wii U releass adapts it to a conventional gamepad. Rodea brings up a targeting reticle at the touch of a button, and another button press sends him dashing in that direction. It's not flying so much as it's awkwardly lurching from one inconsistently crosshaired spot to another. Rodea's flight relies on a circular gauge that depletes every moment he's airborne, dropping even faster when he dashes, and it forces him to restore it by touching a steady object. It's far too easy to overshoot and end up flailing into oblivion, and the game's camera launches into a seizure when faced with anything more complicated than empty space.

How strange that Rodea's confusing mechanics serve completely straightforward gameplay. Rushing from a flying fishbot to a floating pyramid demands constant readjustments, button-presses, and twirls of the analog stick. Even the simple task of getting back onto land is a miserable chore; fall, as Rodea often must bounce off the rocky underside of an island, boost straight up into the air, and wiggle the cursor toward solid ground. And for all of this, Rodea can't even soar properly. He can zoom only toward solid objects, and attempts to explore the sky turn the reticle into a red X. Compared to Gravity Rush's shaky but liberating mechanics, Rodea does less and makes us work harder.

The 3DS version fares no better. It relies on the same awkward targeting system as the Wii U release, and it feels even more cramped in its jittery viewpoints. The 3DS offers the option to control the camera with the gyro sensor, but it fixes nothing. Like the Wii U version (which appears to be a port of the 3DS one), it's a potentially fun game turned into a barely playable morass.

But what about the Wii version? Naka unequivocally told his Twitter followers to play it, and with good cause. As his original vision for the game, the Wii treatment rarely bites off too much. Players direct Rodea by pointing the Wii remote and tapping the buttons to dash or glide, and the game moves much better for it. Rodea can walk, but there's no reason for that when it's much easier to send him zipping across floating isles or caroming off one swiftly destroyed spider-tank after another. Naka has a knack for making games easy to grasp and enjoy, and it shows in Rodea's unburdened control scheme. He's limited in his flights by range instead of some annoying energy meter, and he readily racks up extra lives and stays airborne. The game looks brighter than its successors, and even the music sounds richer and better-fit in Wii form.

The Wii edition's improved flow lets Rodea the Sky Soldier come through in full. It's a simple game that bears many motifs from Naka and the rest of Sonic Team. Rodea jets along on chains of crystals, takes down imposing bosses by striking their glowing vulnerabilities, and plunges into side-levels that reward him in crystals and coins. Rodea the Sky Soldier's pleasures are shallow and the quest isn't as long as comparable Mario games, but its aerial maneuvers stand apart.

If it's clearly best on the Wii, Rodea the Sky Soldier can't avoid problems. Rodea loses attack energy when he's hit, and when knocked down to his lowest health, he's forced to trudge around for a power-up. As with other games that adapt Naka's quick style, Rodea sometimes outruns its own point of view. Camera glitches, while nowhere near as crippling as the Wii U and 3DS issues, detract from the rush of speed. Climbing back up onto an island also remains a little awkward, but it happens far less often with the Wii version's interface.

The Wii version offers different extras as well. The Wii U and 3DS versions eclipse it in overall options, revealing a first-person mode and bonus rounds, plus a setting for just how often Ion narrates Rodea's antics. The Wii version allows less customization, but it has a multiplayer mode and more characters to control.

We get much the same story across all three versions, and we've seen it before. Rodea gradually recovers his memories as he faces old comrades in the Naga Empire, and he's driven to help Ion and the rest of Garuda's goofy population. It swings from painful melodrama to lighthearted banter, and any hope of subtle storytelling flees in the prologue when Rodea reminds Princess Cecilia that he's not an unfeeling machine, but a creature with a real heart.

Even so, actual comedy appears between the stiffly motivated Rodea and the relentlessly gleeful Ion, who's so upbeat as to make Tillis from Burning Rangers sound like Nico. They quibble over repairs, panic about making eye contact with enemies, and remember all of the weird, specific machines Ion made as a child. Like Burning Rangers and NiGHTS, Rodea wraps itself in an earnest cartoon aura so hokey it often loops around to charming.

It's unfortunate that Rodea the Sky Soldier's enjoyable form comes solely with the first pressing of the hobbled and frustrating Wii U version. Why didn't Kadokawa simply port the Wii incarnation to the Wii U and leave its point-and-press controls intact? Were they worried that Wii U owners might not have Wii remotes handy? Or was there some ugly corporate scuffle over the game's development? Whatever it was, it reduced Yuji Naka's best game in years to a bonus disc.

At least we have it. The Wii edition of Rodea the Sky Soldier is a shallow but appealing adventure, no matter how obscure it remains. Whether it's a second chance or a convoluted third, it's worth trying.

Wii Version: B
Wii U Version: D+
3DS Version: D

Overall : ---
Graphics : C+
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B
Presentation : B-

+ The Wii version is lightweight fun
The Wii U and 3DS versions are not

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