So, Rodea the Sky Soldier sure has been in the works for a long time, hasn't it? I remember being pegged to potentially review it back when I worked at 1UP.com—a website that's coming up on its third anniversary of being officially dead.
It's a game that, in purely Capitalistic terms, probably shouldn't exist. The name "Yuji Naka"—the brains behind Rodea and (kinda) creator of Sonic the Hedgehog—hasn't carried much sway since the mid-'90s, and the age of the mascot-based 3D platformer fizzled out with the close of the last console generation—at least, if the collective shrug directed towards Knack is any indication. But these are the reasons I really want to love Rodea; like many of my favorite pieces of entertainment, it came into being simply because someone at the top wasn't paying attention.
Obviously, the people behind Rodea believed in it; I doubt we'd be seeing a 3DS and Wii U port of what could have been a forgotten, Japan-only Wii game if no one actually cared. But it's a game that's so bad and so misguided, getting angry or snarky seems about it like an unreasonably harsh response. After my experience with Rodea, I could only walk away feeling extremely sorry for the people who undoubtedly sunk their lives into a project, only to end up with... this.
The gameplay premise of Rodea initially comes off as promising: It's what I'd call a mix of Sonic Adventure, Pilotwings, and Jumping Flash. Holding the jump button puts Rodea in "pre-flight mode," and from there, he can boost through the air to different destinations (chosen via a reticle) until the corresponding meter hits zero. His movement is essentially very Sonic-like, but slowed down to about a third of the speed—there's even a boost attack similar to Sonic's homing jump. With these design decisions, I can definitely see what Naka was shooting for: The post-Adventure Sonic games all share the same, fundamental issue of making it fun to control a fast character (and collect objects) in a 3D space, due to how easy it is to blast off a ledge or go zipping into some other deadly hazard. But Rodea complete drops the ball by making its protagonist feel more like the Wright Brothers' glider than the sleek, smooth jet he should be.
To be blunt, Rodea feels like a circa-2000 Dreamcast game. It's an era I have great fondness for, but Rodea doesn't seem to be channelling it intentionally; instead, it's more a case of developers completely forgetting the lessons of game design we've learned over the past fifteen years. Everything from the camera to the controls to the general flow of Rodea feels torn from a time when developers were still trying to figure out how to design games set in 3D worlds. Super Mario 64 got it right nearly 20 years ago by zeroing in on the most important element of a 3D platformer: Controlling the character had to be fun, in and of itself. Even in its best moments, Rodea is finicky and fussy, and never does quite what you thought he'd do after steering him to the next floating island.
And fighting enemies only makes the game more frustrating. A second kind of offensive boost allows you to slam into and destroy foes, but you have to make sure you're close, since you eventually come out of this move and can slam into them unprotected. This means with every attack, you'll also have to judge the distance between you and the enemy in question, often in mid-air—something that isn't always the easiest task when you're relying on a flat image representing a 3D world. More often than not, Rodea would drop out of attack mode just a few inches from the enemy, causing another chunk to fall off of my all-too-short health bar.
Ultimately, though, Rodea's camera is the real killer. If you're making a game that revolves around collecting an assortment of items spread out within a 3D world, knowing where you are at all times is extremely important. Yet Rodea's brain-dead camera is slow to turn and has the unfortunate tendency to drift under him whenever he boosts through the sky, which does an efficient job of obscuring absolutely vital visual information. This single issue undermined so many jumps, and added so much misery to my experience, I honestly couldn't believe Rodea shipped with this massive problem intact. Yes, the controls are fussy and, at times, unresponsive, which is bad enough as it is. But these funky jumps, combined with a rebellious camera, make even the most basic actions in Rodea an absolute crap shoot.
What makes this all the more tragic is the fact that some work went into building a convincing world for Rodea—even if some of it comes off like a glorified Sonic fanfic. There's clearly an intent to create a whimsical setting akin to Mega Man Legends, with floating islands, ancient robots, and anime melodrama. But the sheer creakiness of Rodea barely lets these qualities shine through.
Now, it's entirely possible that I could just be playing the wrong version of the game; my experience was with the Wii U port, and the GamePad certainly doesn't feel "right" with Rodea's control scheme. Perhaps Rodea only plays as intended in its original Wii form, though you have to wonder why Wiimote controls would be disabled in the Wii U version if this was the case. But, with all the hand-wringing I'm doing about Rodea's "good intentions," it's hard to imagine the experience being any better unless it was an entirely different game in almost every respect. I could handle a few minor flaws for the sake of an interesting premise, but here, they run to the absolute core.