SkyRoads…one of several shareware demos I played as a kid. Despite the free demo and the full game eventually becoming freeware, it hasn't seen the popularity of other DOS classics such as Jill of the Jungle and Lemmings. If YouTube views and GOG are anything to base off of, a number of people have at least heard of it. And yet, it remains as "cult-classic" status. Developed by Bluemoon Interactive in 1993, SkyRoads is a criminally obscure platformer-runner.
To my knowledge, the plot is non-existent. It boils down to the goal of the game: pilot a spaceship to the end of each level - 10 different zones with 3 levels each for a total of 30 levels. As you automatically move forward after some manual thrust, you speed up and down, move left and right, jump across platforms, avoid head-on collisions, and maintain your O2 (which typically acts as a time limit) and fuel (in certain levels, a hard limit on distance traveled without a supply pad).
In addition, there are special colored platforms with different effects: darkish blue refuels your O2 and fuel, light green speeds your up, dark green slows you down, gray prevents horizontal movement, and reddish pink kills you. While each level has various colors on their tracks, these special platforms usually stick out enough to leave little to no confusion.
Just beware that mistakes are often fatal. Fall off the map, touch a burning panel, or ram headfirst into a wall, and you have to start over from the beginning of the level. Much of the gameplay loop feels very similar to Temple Run, albeit more complex than swiping on your phone.
As you may expect, the game starts out really easy, then ramps up in difficulty as you progress. By "really easy," I do mean stupidly simple in the first few levels. Go on for long enough, however, and it gets hard. Fuel pods get tucked under tunnels. Dead ends show up more often. Platforming becomes trickier and crazier. And that's only the surface of the shenanigans SkyRoads can pull.
Not to imply that it's unfair. You get unlimited tries to beat each level; it only ends when you either reach the end or press the ESC key to exit. It can be frustrating to go through trial-and-error because of a dead end that you didn't see coming. In that case, you can try again straight away. This is a game that demands both skill and memorization. It may get repetitive, but the level design complements the controls in a surprisingly natural way. The various combinations of platforms, walls, and jumps across 30 levels (60 if you count SkyRoads Xmas) demonstrate how well the developers knew their own game. Shocking, I know, but thirty high-intensity levels is nothing to scoff at. Even in the later levels, I almost never felt that something was unfair or bad. I was just mesmerized by the gameplay and music.
That is, until Druidia 3. I gave up after spending 3 hours total on that level. Not like you get anything exceptional for beating it anyways - just a "The End" message.
Difficulty aside, I gotta give kudos for the graphics and the aforementioned music. While the pixelated backgrounds have not aged too well, the tracks themselves are colorful and eye-catching. It honestly feels like the remnants of the '80s transformed into a trippy '90s experience. Meanwhile, the music is amazing. I don't know exactly how it was made or what hardware was used, so whether this was impressive for its time is beyond me. But besides the point; just take a listen for yourself!
If you ask me, SkyRoads deserves more recognition than it has for the past 27 years. It blends retro space visuals with unique high-octane platforming and great level design. You can choose any level in any order right from the start - be it Mario-style linearity or going straight to a later level because the previous level might have been too easy. And unlike Temple Run, you don't have to deal with crappy ads or pay-to-win. A game about skill instead of money. A solid thumbs up.
A shame that Bluemoon Interactive got the unlucky end of the publisher stick…