Skyblazer (Super Nintendo)

Life’s not fair. Sometimes a game can look and sound great, commit no major design sins, and yet still be condemned to eternal obscurity. So it is with Skyblazer, a perfectly enjoyable, thoroughly forgotten action-platformer created by developer Ukiyotei and published by Sony Imagesoft for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

Perhaps a lack of advertising is to blame. I was all about the SNES back then and I never so much as heard of Skyblazer until just a couple years ago, when I started searching around online for little known games worth playing. It’s also a true standalone work with no preexisting fan base to draw on and no sequels. That rarely helps. There may well be some truth to both the above theories. Having now personally played through Skyblazer, though, a third possibility suggests itself: This game may just be too alright for its own good. Too decent. Too resoundingly okay. Sure, it doesn’t do anything to actively embarrass itself or make players stop what they’re doing to question how they’re spending their lives. At the same time, however, it lacks any sort of clever gameplay hook to make it stand out it in a crowded field of early ’90s side-scrollers.

Actually, I take that back. There is a hook of sorts to Skyblazer. Its hero, Sky, looks and controls suspiciously like the star of Ukiyotei’s previous Super Nintendo outing, an adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s Hook! It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a significant amount of code initially created for that project was reused here. Thankfully, Skyblazer turned out a lot more fast-paced and exciting than the languid Hook.

Skyblazer sees its title character heading off on a quest to rescue the sorceress Ariana, who’s been stolen away by Ashura, a powerful four-armed minion of the demonic Raglan. It’s your bog standard “save the girl by booting some big evil dude in the teeth” story, but observant players will notice a distinct Indian flavor to much of the proceedings. Beyond the name Ashura (Asura), you have statues of Ganesha in the background, loads of synth sitar (synthtar?) filling out the soundtrack, and so forth. What gives? The game’s original Japanese incarnation, Karuraō (“King Garuda”), makes the connection much more obvious. There, Sky is Garuda, Ariana is Vishnu, Raglan is Ravana, and the nameless old man who provides guidance to the player between levels is Brahma. In other words, the whole things’s intended to be a kind of action manga take on Hindu mythology. I’m guessing either Nintendo of America insisted most of these names be changed in order to avoid offending anyone’s religious sensibilities or Sony did it themselves preemptively. Even in watered-down form, this unique aesthetic is easily one of the coolest things about Skyblazer.

The seventeen stages on offer are pretty neat, too. They’re accessed via an overhead map that features a couple of branching paths. A few are technically skippable because of this, although the game as a whole is relatively short, so I don’t know why you’d want to pass over any of the content unless you’re aiming for a speedrun. Each area is patterned on one of the same stock archetypes you’ve seen countless times before. You’ll ride floating platforms over lava, swim through underwater currents, slide around on ice, and so on. The closest thing to a genuine novelty are a couple of flight stages that adopt an auto-scrolling shooter style. I could have done with more of these. At least the tight design and smooth flow of Skyblazer’s levels somewhat makes up for the lack of originality on display. Another plus is that their gimmicks don’t tend to repeat themselves, which keeps the journey stimulating throughout.

Roughly half the stages have boss battles and these guys were another highlight for me. They showcase some pretty crazy concepts, like the freaky giant face that spins the walls of the room around using Mode 7 rotation to attack you and can only be defeated by popping both its eyeballs like grapes. Yuck. It seems all the creativity that didn’t go into the level concepts must have been channeled here. Beating a boss will earn Sky a new magic power, similar to besting a robot master in Mega Man.

Sky is generally a satisfying character to control.  He runs fast, jumps high, and attacks with a flurry of punches and kicks. He can also cling to and scale walls. He even retains the ability to throw punches while he’s latched onto a wall, a feature I would kill for in Ninja Gaiden. These basic capabilities will get you by most obstacles. When the going gets tough, there’s that magic I mentioned. Sky starts off with a basic attack spell that fires an energy projectile at the cost of one of his eight magic points. The other abilities gained from bosses tend to have more powerful effects at the cost of more MP per use. These include a healing spell, a time stopper to freeze enemies in place, an invincible air dash, an eight-directional shot, and the ultimate power needed to beat the game: The fiery phoenix transformation. Again, this moveset will feel very familiar to platforming veterans, but it’s a blast to use and well suited to the challenge at hand.

That challenge is one final element with the potential to either help or hinder Skyblazer for you. This is a fairly easy game by genre standards. Extra lives and refills for Sky’s health and magic are common, continues are unlimited, and there’s a password system provided in case you need to take a break. If you’re a hardcore action nut looking for something to push you to your limit, Skyblazer isn’t going to scratch that itch. You’ll tear your way through it in no time flat without so much as breaking a sweat. On the other hand, if you’re a less experienced player or just in the mood for a breezy fantasy action romp with some sweet graphics and music, you may welcome this relaxed approach.

Skyblazer is very model of a hidden gem on the Super Nintendo. It was a rock solid release that happened to lack the gilded pedigree of a Mario or Zelda, the stunning innovation of an ActRaiser, or even the ungodly aggressive ad campaign of a Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind. Today, it’s a dusty digital orphan, seemingly without a past or future to call its own. It deserves better. “Decades of sequels and spin-offs” better? Nah. But it’s absolutely worthy of being played and appreciated by a wider audience. Fortunately, it’s never too late for that.

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Jerry Boy (Super Famicom)

Yeah, you’d best bow down, punk. That’s a 1CC right there.

When you nail that perfect home run in the bottom of the ninth with the based loaded, the crowd tends to forget all about your previous two strikes. Similarly, when a game company’s flagship series happens to be the second most popular of all time (with over 300,000,000 copies sold to date), it’s all too easy for its less successful efforts to fade into obscurity. That’s why I’d wager that a great many gamers would be hard-pressed to name a single non-Pokémon game by superstar developers Game Freak.

Game Freak got its start in 1983 as a gaming fanzine put out by writer/editor Satoshi Tajiri and a handful of friends, including future Pokemon illustrator Ken Sugimori. By 1987, the staff was convinced that they could design games themselves that would be just as good as the ones they covered in their publication. They successfully made the dramatic leap from game journalists to game creators in 1989 when they partnered with Namco to produce the arcade action/puzzle romp Quinty (later known as Mendel Palace on the NES). Seven additional games for various Nintendo and Sega platforms would be released between Quinty and the debut of Pokémon in 1996.

One of these “lost” Game Freak titles is the 1991 Super Famicom platformer Jerry Boy. Co-developed with System Sacom, this sophomore effort stars a young prince named Jerry who, in a clear nod to Dragon Quest, gets transformed into a grinning blue blob by an evil wizard in the employ of his jealous younger brother. The brother is, of course, named Tom. It turns out that Tom covets both the kingdom that Jerry stands to inherit and his beautiful fiancée Emi, who he promptly whisks away to marry against her will. Since this fantasy world apparently has a grossly bigoted “no slimes on the throne” policy, Jerry must chase his backstabbing brother across the land (all sixteen stages of it) if he wants to reclaim his kingdom, his girl, and his handsome human form.

At first blush, Jerry Boy comes off as a straightforward “hop and bop your way to the goal” exercise of the sort that consoles were neck-deep in at the time. What saves it from complete mediocrity is the combination of the title character’s creative moveset and some delightful art direction.

Being a sticky lump of amorphous goo, Jerry can cling to and crawl across walls and ceilings as well as squeeze through the networks of narrow pipes that criss-cross many of the stages. This helps to keep the platforming and level design consistently interesting. His means of dispatching enemies are also novel. Close range strikes are triggered by pressing up and down on the directional pad, which prompts Jerry to momentarily stretch out his body either above him or to either side, damaging anything adjacent to him. The downside is that the reach on these attacks is very short, so it can be tricky to time them in such a way that Jerry himself doesn’t also take damage. Ranged attacks in the form of red balls that travel in an arcing trajectory are a safer option, though shots are limited to the number of balls that Jerry can collect in a given stage. There are also two other special items you can pick up and carry: A jump booster to enhance mobility and a heavy iron ball that can be fired and re-collected indefinitely at the cost of hindering Jerry’s movement.

As fun as it is to control Jerry generally, there is one rather annoying quirk that takes some getting used to. Despite the fact that there are three key gameplay functions mapped to the buttons (running, jumping, and shooting), the game only uses only two of the six buttons on the controller for some strange reason. Since running and shooting are both mapped to the same button, you can’t break into a run (something you’ll need to do almost constantly) without also firing off a ball or dropping whatever special item you’re carrying, and doing so frequently wastes that item. It’s a bit like when you’re playing Super Mario Bros. as Fire Mario and you find yourself tossing out a fireball every time you hold down the button to run, except Mario’s firepower is unlimited and Jerry’s is not. You can adapt and work around this, true, but it’s ridiculous that you have to when there are four unused buttons sitting right there.

Even with the odd bit of frustration arising from the weird button mapping, Jerry Boy is a notably forgiving game that seem to have been crafted with younger players in mind. Jerry can withstand multiple hits from enemies and pick up healing items and health bar extenders within the stages themselves. 1-Up icons are also fairly common and players have the opportunity to earn even more by collecting a set of five red letters in each stage to spell out “J-E-R-R-Y.” When all else fails, continues are unlimited.

If the platforming is the heart of Jerry Boy, Ken Sugimori’s artwork is its soul. This isn’t to say that the graphics are at all impressive from a technical standpoint. In fact, I often got the impression that the development team didn’t have a particularly strong grasp of what the new hardware was capable of. The water in the ocean stage, for example, is rendered using a mesh-like effect similar to what you’d see in many Genesis games rather than with the Super Nintendo’s native transparencies. What the visuals lack in polish, however, they make up for with that unmistakable Game Freak charm. This is most prominent in the towns that you pass through every couple of stages. These settlements start out relatively prosaic, but Jerry’s journey will eventually have him visiting a desert oasis, the interior of a giant whale, and other surreal locales I won’t spoil for you here. There are no enemies to fight in these areas, just an assortment of friendly NPCs to chat with and the occasional extra life. These little breaks for the action work wonders for the game’s pacing and whimsical tone, even if you can’t read any of the dialogue.

The character designs for Jerry and his foes are all as adorable as you’d expect and several of them will be familiar to Pokémon fans. The first boss resembles a giant Pidgey and early iterations of Moltres and Zapdos show up in several stages to rain fire and lightning down on our squishy hero. Other enemies are less recognizable and a few of them are actually quite bizarre. In particular, I can’t say I’m sorry that the creepy nude men brandishing torches never made it into the Pokédex.

The game was originally published in Japan under Sony’s Epic music label, so it should come as no surprise that the score is solid. It draws on the talents of Bomberman stalwart Yasuhiko Fukuda, a pre-Silent Hill, Akira Yamaoka, and Manabu Saito, a promising rookie composer who tragically passed away in 1992 at the age of 22. None of the tracks here really blew me away or anything, but they hit all the lighthearted fantasy notes they should and sync-up perfectly with the game’s setting.

Jerry Boy did make it to North America in 1992 under the comparatively bland title Smart Ball. This version tweaked the control a bit in order to fix the running and shooting issue mentioned above. Unfortunately, it also stripped away much of the game’s personality by removing the cut scenes and town segments entirely. A clear case of “one step forward and two steps back.” I’d highly recommend you stick to the Japanese release if possible. A planned 1994 sequel that would have featured improved graphics and multiple player characters was ultimately cancelled, likely due to Sony not seeing the point in further supporting the Super Famicom while they were busy gearing up for the release of their original PlayStation. While not every cancelled game represents some great loss to humanity, I do think it’s a real shame in this case. At least the unreleased Jerry Boy 2 ROM did eventually leak onto the Internet and is playable these days if you’re so inclined. As for the original, it isn’t much to look at and it’s often a tad too simple and easy for its own good. Regardless, it brings some fun mechanics to the table along with boatloads of charisma and is well worth a playthrough.

Game Freak used Talent. It just wasn’t super effective.