When you think of Yuji Naka, the first thing that comes into your head is probably Sonic the Hedgehog or Nights Into Dreams, for understandable reasons. The original Sonic trilogy defined the childhoods of an entire generation, while Nights was a rather experimental game that was quite successful at the time of its release. For many, either of these titles would probably stand out as their favorite game from this legendary name within the industry. I would have to disagree, however.
Nights is an enjoyable experience but one that felt limited by the technology of the time, and I’ll have to risk the wrath of many by noting my disinterest in the original Sonic trilogy. The project I’d name is one you’ve likely never heard of before. A title with a unique concept, fun gameplay, and a tragic mishandling that has relegated it to the forgotten hallways of time…
The game in question is Rodea the Sky Soldier, a very late addition to the Wii’s extensive catalogue of games, having released two and a half years after the launch of its ill-fated successor, the Wii U. Over 1000 years before the events of the game itself, Emperor Geardo and the Naga Empire attempted to invade the sky kingdom of Garuda before being foiled by Princess Cecilia and her robot companion, Rodea. In the present day, Rodea, now in disrepair following the attack, is found by a mechanic named Ion, who managed to get him working using spare parts she’d collected. Although the kingdom had been at peace ever since, at that moment the Naga Empire once again attacks, and Ion and Rodea set out to protect Garuda.
Rodea the Sky Soldier places the titular character into wide, expansive 3D levels within which he can fly around and traverse at will. These levels provide the player with the freedom to explore while hidden medals reward the player for doing so, with progression tied to the completion of certain objectives the game prescribes to you over the course of your adventure.
The thing that makes this adventure so fun, however, is the controls. At first, they may look rather simplistic, if unique, with the entire game controlled using just the Wii remote’s infrared sensor and two buttons. By pointing the remote at a piece of the world like a cliff or a wall, you can press the B button to fly towards that object in a mostly straight line, though this flight path can be manipulated through flicking the remote while aiming. The A button will start a homing attack towards whatever you are flying towards, causing Rodea to zoom at high speeds towards whatever you have selected.
That’s it. Two buttons and a pointer is all you need. The controls may be simple, but this opens up a seemingly endless array of possibilities for how you can complete a level. When you think of a game such as Nights into Dreams, flying through each stage gave each level a sense of freedom, even though you were mostly on rails. Rodea, by taking this freedom of flight and transporting it into a 3D world where you can go in literally any direction you want, results in something truly special.
While each level is still self-contained, with its own objectives you are forced to complete in order to progress, you aren’t restricted by any artificial time limits or barriers unless you’re aiming for the best times possible, where going in a straight line towards the goal is going to take credence over exploration. Otherwise, the game offers a wealth of ways for you to express yourself through gameplay.
Flying in arcs through archways and over mountains, using power-ups like the rocket boots to zoom across surfaces and boost pads, using lock-on gear to target enemies and defeat them in quick succession, the relatively simple control system belies an incredibly deep and expressive sandbox. This exploration has meaning too. There are 10 medals hidden in the nooks and crannies of every stage. Freedom and expression define this game, with endless possibilities on offer regarding how you tackle a level a level, complete a challenge and take in the environments around you.
I can’t praise this game enough, even if it is rather short on an initial playthrough. I’ve completed this game countless times in attempts to get the best times, putting hundreds of hours into time trials and speedruns, constantly iterating and experimenting to see what’s possible. Despite this, returning to the game in order to write this piece still felt fresh, and it was still able to put a smile on my face.
The thing is, like I said at the start, I can almost guarantee that the majority of people reading this haven’t heard of it. Which is odd, isn’t it. This is a game by Yuji Naka, after all, a world-famous director known for some of the most iconic games ever made. It should be guaranteed success; at the very least, it shouldn’t have been forgotten.
So why did it fail? How come no one has heard of this game? For that, we have to look beyond the game itself, and towards its rather troubled development…
In 2010, Yuji Naka and his development team at his independent studio Prope had a decent bit of momentum behind them. While none of their titles had been major sellers, they won the attention of the gaming press and players for unique ideas like Let’s Tap, a game controlled using a cardboard box (sound familiar?), and Ivy the Kiwi, a puzzle platformer starring an adorable little bird.
At the beginning of 2011, their next game, Rodea the Sky Soldier, was first unveiled to the public. Set for release on Nintendo Wii and Nintendo 3DS, Yuji Naka and his team were set to develop the Wii experience, while the game’s publisher, Kadokawa, would develop a 3DS port in-house. At first, things looked good! Trademarks from before the game’s release suggested the title was all set for a Western release, and the debut trailer looked incredibly promising. We had screenshots in Famitsu to accompany it and there was some buzz surrounding the potential this project had.
Then there was silence.
Things were clearly an issue as the end of 2011 approached. In September of that year Naka spoke out about how the game’s development on the Wii was complete, and that they were waiting on Kadokawa to release it. The game was seemingly done, yet there was nothing.
The silence continued.
It continued for over a year until 2013 rolled around, and the president of Kadokawa spoke out in an interview with 4Gamer about the problems surrounding Rodea. During the interview, they noted that their inability to recreate the game’s pointer-based Wii Remote controls on 3DS led to a major reworking of the game for the port, one which at that time they were still working on. They mentioned this process was 70% complete, with a special surprise on the way to coincide with their future plans for the title.
The silence continued.
Finally, in 2014, the game was officially revived, although not in a way that Yuji Naka would likely have wanted. His Wii game, the game that was his original concept and that he had completed development on 3 years prior, was nowhere to be found in this reveal. The game shown had a more bland visual aesthetic, the controls had been revamped, mechanics had been drastically altered, and aside from the core concept, it was a different game. Platforms had changed too, with the game now set for Wii U and 3DS.
While I don’t want to spend too much time discussing these versions (having owned and played both, they’re terrible), the changes were drastic. Many level layouts were drastically altered and temporary power-ups had become permanent additions to Rodea’s arsenal. These power ups also had a skill tree for upgrades using spare parts randomly dropped from enemies. Motion controls were gone and replaced with clunky analog controls, with the smooth 60fps gameplay on Wii replaced with a 30fps target on Wii U and 20fps target on 3DS, targets neither consistently hit.
Worst of all, flight was no longer an infinite resource, with Rodea only able to stay in the air for a set amount of time before being forced to recharge by touching the ground. These changes not only made the game unnecessarily complex, it made it less fun and, most of all, the freedom and expression that made the Wii game so great was gone.
The Wii version was relegated into the background, as Kadokawa’s vision for Rodea took center stage. Aside from a brief mention during a Nintendo Direct presentation, the original Wii vision was completely absent from promotional material. For all intents and purposes, Yuji Naka’s original vision was dead while he was made the front face of promotional videos for a game he had no involvement in. Even when review copies were sent out to various gaming websites before the English release of this game, only Wii U and 3DS copies were ever provided to reviewers. Because of Naka’s prominence in promotional materials, reviews linked these inferior ports to his skill as a developer, perhaps the worst thing of all to come out of this situation.
Unsurprisingly, the game flopped. Badly.
Opening week sales in Japan upon its launch in April 2015 were estimated by Dengeki to be 2725 copies on Wii U, placing it as the 44th best selling title of that week in Japan. To put that into perspective, it was outsold that week by Mario Kart 7, a title released on 3DS in 2011. Speaking of 3DS, the version that caused the Wii game’s delay on that platform failed to even chart in the top 50. It was a disaster.
It sunk without a trace in the West too. When the game’s publisher, NIS America, decided to hold a competition where players could win a voucher for their store for getting the fastest time on the opening chapter of any version of the game, barely anyone entered. The hashtag for the contest that needed to be used when entering has tweets from only 4 people, including me, from around the time of the competition going ahead. It was possible to enter on Facebook as well, but not many used that as an entry method either. Rodea failed, and it will never be given a second chance to reach the limelight.
Yuji Naka even expressed his desire to make a sequel in an interview if he was given the chance, and that will likely never happen at this point, especially now that he’s moved on from Prope to join Square Enix. And that’s the biggest shame about all of this.
Freedom in video games is not achieved by overloading a player with content or by dropping a player into a massive open world to explore. You can have acres of land to explore and implement a myriad of side quests and complex mechanics to master, yet be limited by the ways you can interact with these systems and the world around you. Conversely, you can have a game with linear progression and a set objective that gives the player the freedom to achieve their goals however they want, not only allowing for massive replayability but providing a player with the freedom to express yourself through the game.
Rodea the Sky Soldier is exactly that. It isn’t a complex game, and it certainly isn’t a popular game, but it’s a superb game nonetheless. One of the best of that generation. No game quite manages to capture the ability to soar through the sky quite like this one, and its a magical experience for that alone.
I would like to think time will look kindly on this release. When the problems of its launch fade into the background, I’d like to think that Rodea could receive the love it never received when it came out. It seems unlikely, but if it were to happen, it would be nothing less than the game deserved. Maybe then, just like a sky soldier, this game can truly soar.