Can you honestly think of any game that was released by Sony Imagesoft? Actually, can you think of a game that was released by Sony Imagesoft that was good? Besides Mickey Mania for the Sega CD (which is a great Mickey Mouse platformer) and the SNES cult classic Equinox, I had trouble even naming a single Sony Imagesoft game - most of them are licensed dreck like Three Ninjas Kick Back and Cliffhanger. But then came the discovery of a little gem that made me question why this game wasn't popular when it was released. In a time where everyone was making "X-treme" animal mascot games, Sony Imagesoft developed and published a game that took many ideas from other games and came out with a pure platforming adventure.
You are Sky, the son of the legendary Sky-lord, and upon booting the game up, you immediately thrust into a kingdom to find that Raglan wants to take over the world, and with the help of his accomplice Ashura, they abduct a princess who happens to also be a sorceress (in turn can help Raglan become ruler of the world). This is pretty much a bare-bones "save the girl, save the world" story that was all too familiar during the 8 to 16 bit generation. Although the overworld map is completely linear at the beginning, you're eventually allowed to choose your paths through the later levels. Like most games of this sort, there's a password option, even though the game is particularly long. There are a handful of story interludes, most of which have some awfully glaring spelling errors.
What's a hero without having a some abilities in a platforming game? Apart from the usual run, jump and run swim mechanics, Sky attacks with some cool looking martial arts techniques, and can even latch onto walls, giving it a slight Mega Man X feel. Gems are scattered throughout the landscape, and naturally, collecting a hundred of them will yield an extra life. But our hero does have one thing over most games of the time: magic. Sky has a variety of spells at his command, which you obtain by defeating bosses. At the beginning of the game, you can only shoot fireballs, but as you progress, you can learn to stop time, heal yourself, power dash, and turn yourself invincible for a short period of time. But the true power your character seeks is the Fiery Phoenix, which actually turns you into a firebird for a short amount of time to fly around and destroy your enemies. It gives the game a bit of an RPG feel when using your magic to overcome the evil. Naturally, your magic power is limited, so you'll still be engaging your enemies in close combat, but the selection of spells is pretty cool.
From a technical standpoint, Skyblazer is really impressive. The sound quality is really clear and you can feel Sky's pain when he groans as he dies. You can feel Sky's emotion with each yell when he punches his enemies. Okay, maybe that was a little too far, but you get the message. The music is also fairly worthwhile, as the entire soundtrack has a wonderful Hindu-Indian feel to it. Although all the music is quite catchy, it's unfortunate that it is also rather short - most pieces are only around one to one and a half minutes before looping back to the beginning. The game is also quite beautiful, with very colorful landscapes and well animated characters. Despite the awful cover artwork, it has a very Greek-Roman classical feel reminiscent of ActRaiser and Sky himself looks like an updated version of Rygar. The graphical prowess of the Super Nintendo has been implemented pretty well - transparency effects are abundant (with either waterfalls or sand falls in the desert levels) and Mode 7 scaling is used for the overworld view and flying sections. One boss enlarges every time he's hit, until he's taking up the entire screen, obviously ripping off the rock monster boss from Super Castlevania IV.
The level designs in Skyblazer is probably this game's low point. Most of the levels are too short, and when they aren't, there's nothing that interesting to explore. Sure, there are some little nooks here and there, and occasionally some extra power-ups, but nothing really interesting. However, there are a number of stages in where you actually fly in the air and you control him from behind, much like the airplane sections of Pilotwings. There are also a number of auto-scrolling stages where you character sprouts wings, but they aren't that great either. It's a shame, because they almost have a Kid Icarus vibe going. The game is also a bit on the easy side - although Sky can only take a few hits before croaking, there are plenty of respawn points, and extra lives are plentiful.
Despite the slightly below average level design and the lack of difficulty (people complain that games are easy now need to try this game out), it's still pretty unfortunate that a game that's actually good was completely left in the dust by everything else. It definitely feels like a patchwork of other classic games, but it works well together. I see this game as Sony Imagesoft trying to make a quality game and succeed, only to have been lost by the way side.
Thanks to Chris Covell for providing the Japanese title, and Raul of Postback for the cover.