Friday 5 July 2019

Mega Drive Review - Rocket Knight Adventures (Game 179)

We tend to feel the need to describe games by comparing them to others. But as ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ shows, sometimes a 2D platformer can do its own thing and still be an enjoyable romp .

Developed by Konami
Published by Konami
Released in 1993

Throughout the 1990’s there was a lot of cutesie mascots running along 2D environments. Success always leads to imitation, so if you’re playing a 90’s game involving a character moving slowly and precisely through a level perhaps the developers were fans of ‘Mario’ games. Alternatively if your avatar is exploring abstract worlds that continually introduce new mechanics, maybe it’s a game inspired by ‘Castle of Illusion’. Of course if you’ve “gotta go fast” to win, maybe there’s some ‘Sonic’ in your game’s DNA.

Of course it’s narrow minded to label every platform game that involves speed a “‘Sonic’ Clone”. Going fast is always exciting.  It doesn’t seem like it’s a quality a game developer would avoid even though speed is intrinsically and illogically associated with blue hedgehogs. Indeed many fast platform games Offer a nippy experience whilst also having mechanics that are actually counter-‘Sonic’. ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ seems like an obvious example of this. Yes, it features a cute cuddly protagonist that can launch itself at astonishing speed. However, he exists in a world of exploration that’s closer in spirit to the exploits of Nintendo’s moustachioed plumber. He inhabits a game that’s so full of inventive ideas that even Mickey Mouse would be kept on his toes.

If anything, ‘Rocket knight Adventures’ actually shares similarities with some of Konami’s other celebrated games; specifically ‘Pop N Twinbee: Rainbow Bell Adventures’ and more obviously ‘Tiny Toons Adventures:Buster Busts Loose’. This SNES Exclusive game was released a year earlier in 1992, and, like ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’, offers gameplay that alternates between traditional action platform jumping and sudden bursts of speed. Both games include a variety of play styles and neither is afraid to mix up play style.

‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ is a wildly inventive game. You play as Sparkster an opossum in a blue armoured suit. Mimicking the animal’s natural behaviour, Sparkster can hang from platforms using his tail. But, unlike his real-world counterpart, he also carries a sword that is used to attack. Not only does this prove to be a powerful weapon at close range, it can also shoot out waves of energy to hit foes from a distance. Indeed echoing Konami’s roots, many levels feel like ground based horizontal shooters, with enemies appearing from the right of the screen in waves.

As the game’s title would suggest, Sparkster’s greatest gadget is his Rocket Pack.   By holding the attack button you build up a charge and when released, you'll fly in eight directions for a short period bouncing off walls. Essentially it works both as an attack and a traversal manoeuvre.  Because of the complexity of this ability, ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ initially feels somewhat frustrating. You’ll struggle to zoom in a desired direction, and instead uncontrollably bounce around the screen. However, it’s surprising how quickly you’ll master this and once you do you’ll feel incredibly empowered.  There’s a joy to alternating between attacks and jetpack dashes. Slicing through foes with your sword and then zooming into the air to make a speedy escape.

While there are only seven levels, they are all impressively long. But, despite their length, monotony never really sets in since new challenges are continually introduced. The game is awash with creative ideas, like the lava mirror at the start of the third stage and other clever platforming variations, including a mine cart stage, inverted gravity section and the train challenge. The levels themselves alternates between horizontal and vertical scrolling and there’s even entire genre shifts; since three times the game becomes a ‘Gradius’ style horizontal shooter. “No two levels are the same” Sega Power magazine commented at the time. “The tricks the traps the challenges never end” the box boasts.

 By the end of ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ your mastery of Sparkster’s rocket pack will be essential, but you’ll also have to become confident with the risk and reward attack mechanic. The closer you get to an enemy the more damage you’ll do when attacking. This is certainly true of the “situation rushes”; which are essentially 18 different screen-filling bosses you’ll come across throughout the game.

Considering the designer Nobuya Nakazato had previously worked on the ‘Contra’ series, the scale and amount of end and mid-level bosses should really come as no surprise. What may shock is the variety and quality of these battles, at times as inventive as the much celebrated boss encounters seen in ‘Gunstar Heroes’. Their scale and originality can’t fail but impress, and unless you're comfortable with getting close and hitting them with a strong but risky attack, you’ll have to endure a long drawn out battle. Every single boss feels like a spectacle event, which is why it’s somewhat jarring when the levels typically don’t end with you defeating them. What would traditionally be considered worthy of end-of-stage guardian status is simply a mid-boss in ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’.  The problem is such long stages makes for very anxious play. Should you run out of lives and have to use a continue, you’re sent right back to the start and have to repeat all you’ve done. That’s never fun.  When you understand how to defeat the bosses or know what to do when a new level mechanic is introduced things aren’t unfairly challenging. The problem comes from figuring out what you’re meant to actually be doing in the first place. There’s a great deal of trail and error required on a first play through, and this requires a surplus of lives.  As a result ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ certainly isn’t an easy game even on the lower difficulty settings. While it’s not as brutal as Nakazato’s ‘Contra 3: Alien Wars’ it is far more challenging than you'd expect for something that’s aiming for a family audience. When retrospectively talking about the game Nobuya Nakazato remarked “yes, that [‘Rocket Knight Adventures’] was meant for families to play together. Some families like things to be hard, even children like challenges”.

To be honest I would have preferred for the levels to be divided into smaller stages. While this would have meant the sub-hour game length wouldn’t have changed, it would have meant using a continue didn't send you back quite as far. Having many shorter levels would have also presented the opportunity for more locations to have been included. While each new stage is set in a new place, there isn’t a lot of visual variety when traversing the long sprawling levels.  At least the environments are rich, detailed and immersive.  It seems passé now, but the ability to jump between two layers of the background also seemed revolutionary at the time. “One novel feature about the game is that you can interact with the backgrounds (in other words, jump between foreground and background areas)” wrote Sega Power.
The magazine was also enamoured with the main character. “The huge sprites in ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ while nothing ground-breaking in themselves, are good enough, and most of the characters (especially Sparkster himself) are especially cute in a Japanese kinda way”. Your protagonist is certainly adorable and full of charm. If this game is truly to be compared with ‘Sonic’ I know which playable character I’m more interested in and he doesn’t ooze dated 90’s attitude. Given that this is a Konami game the sprites are of course vibrant, stylish and colourful. The majority of foes are bizarrely pigs, typically wearing outfits in keeping with the level styles. Why they are pigs is never explained within the game itself and it does seem strange considering Sparkster is an opossum and pigs aren’t a natural predator. But ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ doesn’t go to much effort to make sense or even to explain what’s going on. The four charming but short cut scenes allude to a story, but unless you’ve looked in the manual you’ll really have no idea what’s going on. They all seem entirely random and disconnected, typically culminating with someone flinging Sparkster somewhere at the end.

Platform games at this time were never normally blessed with engaging narratives of course. But when cut scenes have been included it would be preferable for them to make sense. There is a lengthy plot synopsis in the instructions though. Evidently, orphan Sparkster is the leader of the Rocket Knights of Zebulos. They protect the 'Key to the Seal' which unlocks a massive ship known as Pig Star which has the power to destroy all life. Distracted by an invasion, Sparkster fails to protect Princess Sherry, who ends up being held captive only to be released if the Seal Key is surrendered. This is where the game begins, with Sparkster opting to single handily battle his enemies rather than give into their ransom. Sega Power called it a “sickeningly cutesy scenario” but to me it’s quite honestly terrible and I can understand why details of the story were omitted from the game. As Nobuya Nakazato once said “action takes precedence over story. If there’s too much story it can get in the way of what people who play these games want”.

Even though this game spawned a direct Mega Drive sequel, a different spin-off on the SNES (both confusingly called ‘Sparkster’) and a recent remake on the PS3, the series has largely been forgotten. Like most lost gems ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ has its cult followers but even they seem small in number, failing to shine much of a light on the game. It’s intriguing that quality doesn’t always seem to be a factor when it comes to old games being treasured. People seem to be indifferent to the game and that hardly seems a fair legacy considering the quality. Yes the 90’s may have had far too many cute animal platformers but it seems tragic that people seem to sing the praises of games like ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Zool’ that are clearly inferior to this. There’s almost two games worth of ideas in ‘Rocket Knight Adventures’ and while it’s short, it is challenging and really engaging throughout.

Much like the playable protagonist, it whizzes along at a breath taking pace. Perhaps it just moved too quickly for enough people to notice and remember.

Where did I get this game from?
A very generous friend always get me the best birthday and Christmas presents. After 7 years of knowing each other, I think knows my taste in games pretty well based on this being a surprise gift!

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