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Best of 2015 - "Rodea The Sky Soldier"

This year, a bit of a gaming miracle happened. A long-gestating title that was once cancelled was, somehow, completed and put onto store shelves. It was a long fight for the eccentric Japanese auteur behind it, but it paid off, as the finished product was a wildly inventive romp that wasn't quite like anything else the gaming landscape had seen before. A fair number of critics maligned it as misguided, sloppy, or cloying, but I just don't see what they're talking about. For my money, it's some of the most fun I've had with a game this year.

And no, for the record, I'm not talking about the entertaining yet deeply broken Devil's Third (more on that in the coming days.) I'm talking about Yuji Naka's exhilarating swan song for the Wii, Rodea the Sky Soldier.

Yuji Naka is a name that once had a lot of heft in the game industry, and in some ways, it still does... only, it might be for the wrong reasons nowadays. See, Mr. Naka is the creator of Sonic The Hedgehog, and served as a producer on that series right up until 2005's misunderstood Shadow The Hedgehog, after which he left Sega and founded Prope. Then, in 2010, he announced a game that would blend elements of his famous hedgehog and his less famous NiGHTS into a stylish, fast-paced Wii action game revolving around flight.

Naka completed the game in 2011, and it was ready to ship out. That's when stuff went south, unfortunately, as Kadokawa, the agreed-upon publisher for Rodea, balked and decided that it didn't want to publish the title with the Wii U on the horizon. This was even after XSeed expressed interest in publishing the title in North America. A year or two passed, and Naka didn't even know what was happening with the game he completed. Then, in 2013, Kadokawa announced that the previously-unannounced 3DS version was nearing completion, and subsequently announced a Wii U version based upon that handheld version. Yeah, no, it's exactly as weird and convoluted as it sounds, but hey, it is what it is.

Over two years later, Rodea the Sky Soldier is finally in consumer hands, and what most people will play is a raging dumpster fire of broken design choices, abhorrent controls, and aesthetics that look on par with one of the Unity asset dumps masquerading as games on Steam Greenlight. This is mainly because Naka didn't really seem to have much to do with this version. It's a horrible experience that practically defines joylessness.

Good thing, then, that buyers of first-run copies of the game have access to Naka's completed vision.

First-run copies of Rodea come with a Wii instruction manual, Wii disk (positioned on top of the Wii U one, I might add,) and reversable cover art to reveal the original intended Wii cover. For all intents and purposes, it's the last major Wii game, and that's a pretty big deal, considering that the Wii is one of the highest-selling game consoles in history, and indisputably the best-selling of seventh-generation consoles by a large margin. Despite its original completion date, Rodea the Sky Soldier is the final attempt at a AAA action/adventure experience on Nintendo's console.

It's fitting, then, that the entire game feels like one of the ultimate realizations of what Nintendo intended with its waggle-based console. It feels as if, almost a decade later, a game finally put together all the pieces of how to make a simple yet deep experience based entirely around the Wii remote. In more ways than one, it feels like the ultimate Wii experience.

That's not saying that Rodea is the best game on the console, of course. But it is saying that, more than most titles, Naka's quirky little epic grasps the very thing that made the Wii so appealing to both a casual and hardcore gaming audience. The very idea behind controlling the game is simple: hold the Wii remote, aim where you want the titular android to go, then push a button to make him fly there. It's not hard to grasp. And yet, there's a lot more there than that. Over time, players will have to learn a perfect rhythm at which to guide Rodea, an ideal speed to maintain, a decisive strategy for taking down certain enemy types. The more you play, the more subtle nuances you'll pick up on.

And once you pick up on the nuances, you start to fully appreciate what Naka was trying to do here. With just the Wii remote, it feels like the prolific director was trying to replicate the sensation of soaring through the air, wind whipping in your face, as you barrel through clouds and smash into bad guys. And, well... it does. It feels as much like that as sitting in front of your TV possibly can, and personally, I find it nothing short of astonishing. I've played dozens of games over the years that attempt to capture the feeling of flight, but practically none have done it as well as Rodea does.

The fact that Naka has managed to capture a complex feeling of whimsy, excitement and exploration with one simple mechanic is a testament to his prowess as a game designer, and it makes some of the more dubious parts of the game a bit more forgivable. Because, at its heart, Rodea is a retread of narratives done in the later 3D Sonic games. I'm talking Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog (2006,) to be specific. Even its characters are weird combinations of previous ones, with Rodea acting as a Sonic analog with Shadow's angst, Ion being an odd blend of Tails and Amy Rose, and a brash robotic rival essentially taking the mantle of Knuckles.

To a certain audience, which I'm admittedly a part of, this isn't a bad thing. It gives the entire package a sense of familiarity, and because I liked 3D Sonic games growing up, it feels a bit nostalgic. Some may a bit more critical, though, and peg the entire thing as derivative. It's a matter of opinion, really, and from what I've seen thus far, opinions have been incredibly mixed. Which is to be expected. To some, Sonic franchise's path down dark narratives, convoluted plots and middle-schooler angst marked a steady decline for the venerable series. To others, it added a layer of depth and character that the series had lacked before, and to some, it made the whole series feel like a particularly fun B-Movie. 

So, yeah. Rodea the Sky Soldier is basically a spiritual successor to both Sonic and NiGHTS, but with mechanical prowess that both those franchises sort of lacked. It's still a bit clunky at times, like all games controlled with the Wii remote, and the frame rate can occasionally be a bit off, but the combination of how good it feels to play, the general aesthetic, and the fantastic score end up beating out nitpicks to produce what I felt was one of 2015's strongest and most original titles. 

It's a miracle that we get to play Rodea the Sky Soldier at all, and it's even more of one that, in 2015, a game made for a 2006, motion-control-based system can still capture our imaginations and refuse to let go.


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