Let’s Talk About Rocket Knight Adventures

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I have to admit I love the early Konami games where they seemed to know how to draw decent sprites and code decent games. I’ve mentioned before how much I adore the Tiny Toons games and I’ve briefly mentioned how the Mega Drive version of the Animaniacs was similarly quite loyal to the artwork and whatnot. Whoever they employed to take the hold of art direction at Konami did a bloody good job in this era of gaming.

And now everyone hates them.

But let’s not go there.

Let’s remember a better time, a simpler time… a time when cartoon sprites could either look horrifically janky or could look beautifully expressive and cool almost without trying.

Rocket Knight Adventures, thankfully, is the latter. And it’s not just a pretty face, you know.

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From the off, there’s very little exposition aside from a slightly ominous-looking pig figure in the sky looming over the world while Sparkster, the game’s hero, looks on as what feels like the planet’s only hope. Turns out that apparently, these pigs have had some sort of hypnotic hold over things for a number of years but now, a rogue Rocket Knight called Axel Gear has kidnapped the princess as a way of blackmailing the king into giving up the Key to the Seal which would be used to unleash unimaginable terror onto the world…

And Sparkster’s out to stop him somehow. And gets embroiled in all this fine mess against the pig people as well because shit’s about to go down and whatnot.

It’s the type of story that they could have made a cartoon series about. That’s actually how good it is… even though that all mentioned in the manual and has been written SINCE the game’s release. The game itself halfway explains things but not through dialogue or any real exposition. So none of that really supersedes anything or overpowers the way the game progresses. It feels quite naturally built in without being confusing as such. You can work out what’s happening in a ‘good vs evil’ kind of way… even though Axel Gears’ inclusion is probably explained the least…

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So Sparkster’s an opossum – yes… you heard me – and he’s armoured to the teeth with a jet pack and an energy sword and he’s ready to lay the smackdown on anything that gets in his way. Bizarrely enough, he comes across as a very unassuming hero in this game and if the UK box art is anything to go by, he’s a happy little chappy who seems almost meek by comparison to most game heroes. On the US box art, he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder with his surly ‘fuck you’ expression.

But let’s not go there. We’ve got far more to talk about than how box art differs between the UK and US because I could present to you a few examples where one is clearly better than another.

*cough cough Ico cough cough*

But I won’t!

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Essentially, the game is split into specific segments throughout the game’s levels. Some are straight up platform sections where you slash enemies and send them packing. When you enter the game, you’re not given any help. You’re not held by the hand… you’re sorta doing all of this through trial and error and learning from your mistakes a lot. Learning about the fact you can jettison yourself using your jet pack is only found through playing about with the controls a bit. When you start, you’re given ‘jump’ and’attack’ and that’s it. There’s no mention from the off about the jet pack. I mean… you could read the manual but ain’t nobody got time for dat, to use an antiquated meme.

In order to send Sparkster flying off in any direction with a boost of his jet pack, you have to hold down the attack button and when it starts bipping at you, you can release the button and either somersault on the spot or jet off in any direction you choose to go off in. This can be used to zip through swathes of enemies or to climb up stages to higher platforms for rewards and secrets or to actually traverse the levels themselves. Sparkster bounces off walls, floors and ceilings so you will need to be careful where you point yourself as you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be and get crushed by ceilings, run into spikes or anything else that sounds just as bad.

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There are jet pack sections that are kind of like horizontal shooters in that you consistently fly to the right, shooting oncoming enemies and then have to deal with a massive ‘this-is-clearly-not-beatable-but-obviously-is’ mecha boss of some description. They’re usually short but expect to have bullets flying at you and floating pig enemies ready to be shot down because PIGS WILL FLY in this game.

And yes, this also suggests that there are some really weird things in this game. BUT THE GAME FEATURES POSSUMS FIGHTING PIGS SO OF COURSE IT’S WEIRD. BECAUSE GAMING LOGIC.

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Traversing the levels never feels dull or boring and the sub-level sections are short enough to keep you entertained throughout. There are decent water levels, the jet pack sections are really good fun and the standard platforming is actually very intuitive due to a couple of neat design ideas.

In one boss, there’s a background and foreground that you have to be aware of. Stand on a platform and it will take you behind the waterfall where you can attack or hide from the boss and vice versa. It’s incredibly clever and it sums up the neat little ideas that seem really simple but are implemented perfectly without getting you so frustrated that you want to throw the controller at your brother.

I make it out as if that’s all we did when we played games…

It was probably half a dozen times.

Maybe.

I DON’T REMEMBER. I GOT HIT IN THE HEAD WITH THE CONTROLLER.

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Now then… I sorta need to be a little bit harsh here because let’s be clear: Rocket Knight Adventures is not perfect.

Graphically, while the sprites are bloody lovely and whatnot, some parts feel very lazy. I SAY SOME. Not all of it. But the game sorta gets away with having slightly ropier looking backgrounds purely because it looks so good in all of the other areas. The sprites are gorgeous and there are some bloody lovely touches like the reflective lava above. The damage effects also look very cool and it feels like the artists tried to hide the lazier background art by putting in these lovely graphical flourishes here and there.

But the Wonderboy 3-style bean backgrounds for caves and the repetitive building window backgrounds… are bland.

It’s not detrimental to the game itself but it needs to be said that when people talk about how good this game is… I have to point out that it’s not and that’s usually one of my reasons.

That and the length of the game.

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See… I think this game is a little bit on the easy side up until the last few levels. Getting from the ground all the way to space feels like it could be done in your sleep now and then suddenly, the difficulty is ramped up to an almost unfair degree. The last few bosses in particular are mean as anything and intentionally so… but the curve feels a bit too steep at this point. You’re not really taught or made to use the skills you’ve learned to this degree at this point in the go so the game constantly feels like you’re learning something… and yet there’s actually nothing new TO learn. It’s more the way you use the skills you have as opposed to doing anything new. Saying that might sound a bit unfair to the game, but the thing that slightly mars the experience is this sudden knock from losing no lives in the first five levels or so to losing every single one in quick succession in the space of last part of the game because of reasons. Maybe because you suck. Maybe because you haven’t thought of what you have to do… and because you suck.

Either way.

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And then there’s this boss.

THIS. FUCKING. BOSS.

So… Axel Gears has managed to acquire himself a giant mecha pig suit and it about to fuck some shit up. Your first task is to get from him as quickly as possible and then get yourself geared into your very own pig suit.

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And this is by far the weirdest thing in this game bar none (except for one other part but we’ll get there…) but it’s deliciously frustrating in equal measure. There’s a pattern to getting past this, which sorta ruins it a little bit, but finding the pattern is actually part of the fun here. Essentially, it’s mecha pig boxing. When you get close enough to your opponent, you wind up and uppercut Axel until his suit can take no more.

And trying to explain this in conversation is by far one of the most unusual things you will ever talk about.

“Hey, what did you do today?”
“I fought in a mecha-pig suit.”
“Of course you did. Nobody give him any more sugar.”

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Now, I feel like I’m being super nit-picky on a game like this when in reality, it is fucking brilliant. It’s brilliantly tight on controls, the way you attack enemies is added to tremendously by the use of the jet pack. The level design is implemented brilliantly too, with all of those neat little touches just adding something neatly into the whole experience.

And guess what? It’s CHARMING AS FUCK.

Sparkster is a fantastic hero who is just the right amount of greenhorn with enough determination to just fit as the newbie hero. He knows his mission and he’s serious enough about it while also showing that he’s still a bit new to the whole hero experience through some of his expression. Here is a character who starts in this game, the first game in the series, at the right level of character placement and then develops into the second game brilliantly, even if the sequel isn’t quite up to the same level as this one.

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Even with this boss included.

OK… stick with me here. The little dandy-looking pig character in the corner of the screen is having his every movement mirrored by his giant pig robot… and this includes doing a bit of a shimmying ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ dance that causes debris to fall from the ceiling. This is quite simply… weird 101. This is how you do weird in this era of gaming without getting to a point where you don’t understand or get it (Cho Aniki, I’m looking RIGHT AT YOU, YOU BIZARRE PIECE OF SHIT). And then the dandy pig is wiped out with one hit anyway so he’s basically the game’s joke character. I mean, look at him. You smashed his face in the first time and now he has a black eye. He looks ridiculous.

And that’s also why this game is fucking brilliant.

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Rocket Knight Adventures never really quite hit these standards again, even though the game’s Mega Drive sequel Sparkster was pretty damn good too, the series revival in Rocket Knight… somehow ruined the formula. And as such… we’re left with Rocket Knight Adventures being the pinnacle of a series that OUGHT to have been a whole lot better than it was.

Oh, and one other thing to mention: when Sparkster loses a life, I cannot quite comprehend why he makes a noise like a high-pitched lawnmower.

Or a demented swarm of wasps.

You’re trying to imagine it now, aren’t you?

It is exactly what you’re thinking it sounds like.

Only worse.

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