It’s often the case that you find hidden classics late into a games console’s life cycle – but they don’t come an awful lot later than this.
At the end of 2015, three years after it had been superseded by the Wii U, the last game for Nintendo’s phenomenally successful Wii console hit the shelves. Except it didn’t. Well, it did and it didn’t. That’s the thing about Rodea The Sky Soldier – it’s got a long and complicated development history that’s intriguing and baffling in equal measure. In short, the game was originally designed for the Wii, but was finished just as the new system was launching so was held back in favour of newly developed Wii U and 3DS versions instead. Now, courtesy of the Limited Edition set (still just about available on Nintendo’s UK Online Store) you can get both the Wii and Wii U versions of the game in one exclusive package. But, the question is: after all this time, has the game actually been worth the wait?
The answer to that is: yes and no. Confused? Don’t worry, it’ll all become clear in due course. But before we start looking at the game itself, let’s take a brief moment to discuss the other bonus content that comes in the Limited Edition set. As well as the game (well, games) you also get a lovely artbook filled with character portraits and concept art for levels and enemies, plus a 10 track soundtrack (cleverly titled “Rodea Access Memories”) that boasts some seriously catchy tunes (the chirpy acoustic melody “In The Sky” being my particular favourite). Even the box itself is a thing of beauty, adorned with gorgeous artwork from the game, and as a final loving touch there’s a reversible cover for the Wii/Wii U case so you can choose which of the two versions you want to have visibly sitting on your shelf. Oh, and you get a nifty little Key of Time pendant too, which is an important item in the game’s narrative. Overall, there’s a lot of bang for your buck, and if you end up becoming a fan of Rodea then you certainly won’t be disappointed.
However, that might be a pretty big if – and it all depends on what version of the game you decide to play. You see, Rodea The Sky Soldier manages to be one of the best games of the last generation while simultaneously being one of the worst games of the current generation. On the surface they’re two versions of the exact same title – and, for the most part, they kind of are – but there’s some crucial differences between them that make or break the experience tremendously. Let’s start with the similarities though: the story is identical on both consoles, following the robot-with-a-heart Rodea on his journey to save Garuda from the evil Naga Empire. The structure is formulaic but serviceable, with 25 chapters divided into 5 chapter chunks with epic-scale, Shadow of the Colossus-style boss fights at the end of each set. The level design is effectively the same in both cases too, presenting you with wide open skies and a series of floating islands to fly across in majestic fashion.
How you actually go about traversing these worlds though is where the Wii and Wii U versions differ greatly. For those not in the know, Rodea was developed by Yuji Naka, the former SEGA employee responsible for Sonic The Hedgehog and NiGHTS Into Dreams, and the Wii version represents his true original vision. The influences from his previous work are clear to see and the game definitely feels like a mixture of the two, combining Sonic’s action and set pieces with the graceful flight of NiGHTS. The throwbacks to older games don’t end there either – Rodea has a three-hit health system similar to Super Mario (gaining stronger abilities with greater health), and the control scheme has been purposely designed to be as simple as possible. Using just the Wii Remote, you point at where you want to fly and with the press of a button you can soar or pinwheel towards it. The IR pointer on the Wii makes it an easy and joyful experience to pick up, though the simplicity isn’t without its flaws. Ground movement is restricted to the d-pad which is less than ideal, and camera control can be a little clunky (done by aiming towards the sides of the screen). The Wii Nunchuk add-on could have made a world of difference here, but it’s not a major sticking point and only really proves a struggle in fast-paced boss battles where quick reactions are a necessity. Other quibbles are that the 10 minute long final boss has no checkpoints whatsoever (leading to many frustrating deaths towards the end) and that the game crashes after completion – though fear not, everything saves and it only happens first time round.
On the whole though, Rodea for Wii is a fun and feel good experience that’s up there with some of my favourite games on the system. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Wii U version, which in theory should be the superior iteration. Many of the core mechanics are changed for the worse, often with no rhyme or reason. The presentation is seriously lacking, washing out the Wii version’s bright colours, and the low quality textures really stand out in high definition. Even little things like Rodea’s health have been changed, now dictated by a life meter that you can refill as you go along. The worst offender though is the controls, which ditch the IR pointer entirely in favour of the GamePad’s traditional sticks and buttons. While this does remedy some elements, like having dual analogue sticks for ground and camera movement, it makes the actual point-and-click flying functions an unnecessarily imprecise chore, not least because Rodea now also has limited flight time. Sure, the game tries to compensate with auto lock-on features, but they don’t always work and all too often have I found myself careening off into the abyss as a result. Considering the Wii U is perfectly capable of allowing for Wii Remote controls, it’s downright unforgivable why they weren’t included here. The simple fact is, this is an upscaled port of the even more inferior 3DS version, with little regard for what made the original game so good in the first place. Even new additions, like bonus unlockable content and an RPG-style upgrade system for Rodea’s abilities, fail to impress in comparison to what came before it.
Ultimately, this leaves things in a rather difficult situation, because the far superior Wii version of Rodea is exclusively available only in the Limited Edition set or in (now hard to come by) first print runs of the Wii U version. If you can manage to get your hands on either of these editions, then by all means, go for it – as long as you play the Wii game (and perhaps only the Wii game), you’re in for a swell series of sky-soaring adventures. If your only option is to buy the Wii U version alone, or even the 3DS version, then do yourself a favour and skip it. It’s a crying shame that the best (and originally intended) way to play Rodea The Sky Soldier is the most difficult one to get hold of, but trust me: it’s worth the effort in the end.