The Importance of Yuji Naka and Why We Shouldn’t Ignore Rodea the Sky Soldier

Rodea the Sky Soldier is on track for a release on Wii U, 3DS, and even a limited release on its original platform, Wii. A joint development effort from Kadokawa Games and Prope, this action adventure where you take control of a flying soldier comes from the mind of the legendary Yuji Naka. He may have been quiet ever since he left Sonic Team and founded Prope, but the man still hasn’t lost his creative spark.

Rodea is already out in Japan, and unfortunately things aren’t looking too good for it. Neither the 3DS or the Wii U version could make it to the charts, and Famitsu’s review (it was awarded a decent 30/40) wasn’t exactly optimistic from a publication that has almost become notorious for its overly generous scores. In other words, Yuji Naka’s return to the console gaming scene wasn’t treated as a landmark event in its native territory, and that’s concerning to say the least.

All that being said, we should all care about Rodea the Sky Soldier and be grateful that it has been picked up for a localization so soon after its Japanese release. In fact, history has shown that Yuji Naka’s works enjoy more success in North America and Europe than anywhere else. Rodea the Sky Soldier is worth looking forward to and every Wii U owner should have it on their radar. This is Yuji Naka we are talking about, after all, someone who has never disappointed even when the games were a little rough around the edges.

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Not long ago, we talked about a hidden portable gem called Ivy the Kiwi?, which was perhaps Yuji Naka’s first major project under the Prope moniker. Released worldwide for the Wii and DS, Ivy the Kiwi? was a creative and engaging puzzle platformer that really showed that Naka still had it in him to create an imaginative video game, one that can stimulate the senses and reel you in with a compelling gameplay hook.

Burning Rangers is another great example of how he was able to turn an usually quirky idea into something cool and unforgettable. Unfortunately, Burning Rangers was released in North America in limited quantity towards the end of the Saturn’s tenure, when the Saturn ship had been all but abandoned. Those who had the chance to play this hidden gem were treated to some space firefighting shenanigans backed by wicked cool presentation.

Taking a step back, it’s hard not to admire Naka’s legendary resume under the SEGA and Sonic Team banner. It was his involvement that made Sonic the Hedgehog, and its sequels that appeared on the Genesis and Dreamcast, such revered classics. On that note, his absence from Sonic Team can be attributed to the well documented downfalls in the Sonic franchise. When you reminiscence about the glory days of Sonic the Hedgehog, you can thank Yuji Naka for that.

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Who could forget his involvement with Phantasy Star? He was the programmer of the original Master System debut release, a RPG that has stood the test of time and was instrumental to the early success and boom of JRPGs in the West. He would then go on to have a much bigger involvement in the groundbreaking Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast, the first true console MMORPG that worked like a charm on 56 KBPS. He pioneered one of the most instantly recognizable and genre defining platformers in Sonic, and he also helped pioneer the first true console MMORPG.

Now granted, Rodea the Sky Soldier isn’t out to change the gaming world and perhaps it’s unfair to have such high expectations despite the legendary figurehead behind it. Still, there isn’t anything quite like it, which is enough reason to keep an eye on it. Above everything else, Rodea is a successor to what is arguably the magnum opus of Yuji Naka’s career: NiGHTS into Dreams.

NiGHTS into Dreams was the perfect marriage of a pure gameplay-driven experience with exceptional presentation and art direction. We see so many artsy games these days that you kind of just watch and don’t really play, but NiGHTS on the Saturn (later remastered for the PS2 and then Xbox 360/PS3) was artistically charged with vibrant and detailed visuals, with the imaginative aesthetics and breathtaking music coming together to invoke some profound feelings. At its core however, NiGHTS was an engaging and immensely replayable action game, there’s still nothing quite like it even now. The core gameplay involved floating effortlessly in evolving levels to collect items and chain up a high score. A dead simple gameplay concept backed by simple controls and mechanics that become second nature within seconds, but damn if that game wasn’t a challenge to master… you really had to earn those A ranks.

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Rodea the Sky Soldier may not leave the same mark on the industry as NiGHTS did (even NiGHTS Journey of Dreams on Wii couldn’t recreate the same magic), but this successor to that compelling concept is bravely taking it to new places. Even though it’s a new studio, it’s still created by the same person who changed the gaming world with Sonic, Nights and Phantasy Star. A rose by any other name is still a rose, as the old saying goes. So while Rodea the Sky Solider may lack the fanfare and production values, the heart and genius of Yuji Naka will still shine through, and that’s something no gamer should miss out on.