*Review based on Tails’ Skypatrol’s release as part of Sonic Gems Collection for Nintendo GameCube*
There are plenty of bad games out there, but it takes a special kind of bad game to make me think “what the hell am I even doing?” while playing it. Tails’ Skypatrol is one such game. One of only two Sonic spinoff’s to star the blue blur’s sidekick, Tails (both of which were released on the Game Gear handheld), Skypatrol takes the two-tailed fox in a unique direction for the series. One that really didn’t pay off in any way, shape, or form.
On paper, Tails’ Skypatrol is a simple auto-scrolling flying game, in which Tails is constantly on the move, and players having to avoid obstacles in order to get to the end of the stage. It sounds simple enough, but actually playing the game proves to be a whole other beast entirely.
Seeing as Tails is now constantly in the air, he can no longer use his usual rolling attacks from the Sonic the Hedgehog games. Instead, Tails comes equipped with a ring which he can throw at enemies like a boomerang. Okay, so things still don’t sound too bad, but here’s where things get completely batty.
The stages are filled with items and obstacles which can help or hinder Tails, but he can only grab these items and obstacles while the ring is in his hand. If the ring is currently flung at an enemy, Tails can’t pick anything up or interact with objects around him.
There are more than a few issues with this approach, not least of which being that the game seems inconsistent in acknowledging when the ring is and isn’t in Tails’ hands. It seems like after the ring returns to Tails, there’s oftentimes an awkward window of time where Tails still can’t interact with things, but sometimes there isn’t. The game’s core mechanics are finicky and indecisive, which naturally makes for an aggravating experience.
This is made all the worse by the fact that if Tails makes contact with any wall or floor, he dies. It’s very reminiscent of Silver Surfer on NES in this regard, and every bit as annoying. The one thing that’s less frustrating here than in Silver Surfer is that enemy fire doesn’t immediately kill Tails (robot lasers aren’t as deadly as lightly bumping into a wall, apparently). Instead, when struck by an enemy, Tails will tumble to the floor. If he makes contact with the floor, he dies, but you can get your altitude back simply by pressing any button. Have you ever heard of a video game where you can prevent death simply by pressing a button?
Another price for getting hit by an enemy is that it takes away from Tails’ flight meter. If the flight meter runs out, Tails will crash to the floor and no amount of pressing a button will save him. What’s even worse, however, is that throwing the ring at enemies also uses some of the flight meter. And yes, the meter even depletes on its own over time.
You can refill the flight meter by grabbing candy. But guess what? The candy is found on the floor! So you’ll often die trying to get the candy because you bump into the floor while getting it. Do you think maybe, in a game in which the character is constantly flying and dies if they touch the ground, the healing items should have been floating in the air?!
I can at least respect what the developers were attempting with some of the game’s obstacles, but suffice to say the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Having Tails grab a heavy weight to fall fast before hitting a wall, or grabbing a balloon to slow his ascent, and things of that nature seem like they’d add to the auto-scrolling gameplay. But the atrocious level design completely takes away any positives these elements may have otherwise provided.
The level design is simply the final nail in the coffin of Tails’ Skypatrol. The game has a sadistic trial-and-error approach, and requires the player to lose repeatedly and simply memorize what’s ahead in order to make any progress. There are downright cheap tactics deployed at every turn, like flight refilling candy placed at a dead end, which you can’t tell is a dead end until it’s too late. There are objects to latch onto that sometimes help, and sometimes hinder Tails’ progress, so attempting them is a total gamble (even more so when you remember that Tails doesn’t always grab objects as he’s supposed to). And it’s often difficult to tell when a background or foreground object is there for decoration, or if Tails can crash into it and die. It’s all just one leap of faith after another until you have the brutality memorized.
Admittedly, the visuals were decent at the time, though the music is entirely forgettable. To add a cherry on top of it all, Tails isn’t even allowed to fight Dr. Robotnik’s forces. Instead, the villain is some generic witch and a trio of google-eyed animals. It’s like the developers went out of their way to make Tails look bad.
Poor Tails. Always in Sonic’s shadow, and when he finally gets the chance to shine, this is what he gets? Then again, perhaps Tails’ problems are his own doing. I mean, if simply bumping into a wall while flying can kill him, maybe Tails should just stop flying. And if that ring he’s holding can latch onto things to hinder him, maybe he should just drop the damn ring! Is he stupid or something?