Original ideas in the AAA gaming space are hard to come by, but the indie development landscape keeps innovation alive in the industry. Skybolt Zack sells itself as being the world’s first ‘button dasher’; a unique idea where matching button presses will zip you through a level. Within the first few moments of picking it up, it’s clear that there’s never been anything quite like it.
Zack is a powered-up little guy. A failed experiment that’s turfed out from a lab, his rocket-powered mechanical arms are capable of homing in on nearby enemies, with each of the four face buttons relating to a different colour of enemy or level feature. Tapping ‘A’ near a red enemy will see you leap at them, while blue, green and white are covered by the other three. In play it’s like Sonic’s homing attack, only you’re constantly having to switch between the different buttons to keep Zack on the move rather than just one.
It’s all about flow. If you get things right you really will be (button) dashing from one end of the level to the other in no time at all. If you get things wrong, Zack will all too easily slump into a much slower rhythm of action. You have a permanent forcefield which dictates the range of your attacks, though if you hold an attack button you can stretch that distance out, homing in on enemies that are further away. Being able to read the colour of enemies at the speed which the game moves you through is very, very hard.
That’s true right from the off. Early levels see enemies without any real form of protection, with only a few taking more than a single attack to see off, but as you progress you start to come up against shielded enemies, some of whom have spikes or bounce pads around all but one surface, requiring you to attack from a particular direction. On top of that you’ve got enemies who have a different colour armour on the outside, forcing you to switch attacks in order to take them out. It begins tough, and get even tougher.
There are multiple routes through Skybolt Zack, with the higher routes in each stage taking you through the hard levels, while sticking closer to the ground will give you an easier run of it. “Easy” is a relative term. By the fourth or fifth level it was still taking a long time just to fight through the so-called easy stages with many, many failures. Trying to take the upper routes was nigh-on impossible.
Part of that was my inability to read the difference between the blue and green enemies. For whatever reason my brain just wouldn’t settle and was constantly confusing the two. There is a small readout at the bottom – a cheat sheet of sorts – which at least gives you a chance mid-level to get back into the flow of things, but it never became second nature for me. That’s very much a personal problem as opposed to a mechanical one, but it doesn’t feel as though I’m going to be the only one to struggle.
Skybolt Zack comes together best when you forget the ‘dashing’ part of the button dasher. Taking your time not only produces the best results, but it actually makes things more rewarding too, as you’re able to string together a better run and combo score. It feels a little like you’re not quite playing in the way the developers intended, but I was able to get a lot more out of it.
Of course, if you want to be bothering the top of the leaderboards and achieving the highest grades in each level you’re going to have to go fast. Skybolt Zack is exactly the kind of game that benefits from playing the same stage over and over again. Learning the patterns and routes for each will eventually have you zipping through, but it’s going to take plenty of tenacity to get to that level.
It’s definitely channelling Sonic, even beyond those homing attacks. From the opening’s lead guitar lick and the vibrant blue sky of the title screen, it feels like an homage to the Sega classics of old. The colourful and chunky art style, much like the recent Mechstermination Force, straddles the line between modernity and retro cool, and it’s a visual treat for fans.