Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Rocket Knight Adventures (Mega Drive)

Back in the 16-bit era, everybody was seemingly trying to ump on the mascot bandwagon. Mario and Luigi were already well established, Sonic the Hedgehog was the new kid on the block making waves and every other publisher out there wanted a piece of the pie. Whilst there were some absolutely horrendous attempts like Bubsy and Lester The Unlikely (shudder...), there's also quite a lot of unsung heroes who, for whatever reason, never quite achieved the success they deserved.

Konami, unlike the mere shadow of it's former self it's become recently was a force to be reckoned with back in the late 1980's/early 1990's and published many of the era's most most well received games, both licensed and original. Most people who were gamers back then will instantly remember games like Gradius, Contra/Probotector, Castlevania, and also likely fed large amounts of their pocket money into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and X-Men arcade machines. But not all of them seem to remember Rocket Knight Adventures, or even if they do, chances are they've never played it, or only know it by way of the recent Rocket Knight Adventures HD game that was released on XBLA and PSN. And that's something that honestly makes me sad. It's a game that not only deserves wider recognition, it should be being used a lot more often as a benchmark for what makes a good, enjoyable 2D platformer.

Released in 1993 as a Mega Drive exclusive (although it's later sequel, Sparkster, would also confusingly spawn a spin off game of the same name on SNES), Rocket Knight Adventures tells the story of Sparkster the opossum, bravest of the Rocket Knights and part of an elite group of warriors sworn to protect the kingdom of Elhorn against the Devotindos army (basically an evil group of pigs) and a former Rocket Knight turned traitor, the Black Knight Axle Gear. The plot isn't really too important to be honest, it's all your usual fantasy guff that's just there to flesh out the instruction manual. What you need to know is that your character Sparkster can hang upside down from some platforms by his tail, is armed with a sword that can fire short range projectiles and a rocket pack that enables him to fly for short distances and can boost him forwards or upwards by first charging it up and then releasing the button.
Axle kidnaps the princess - what an asshole

The first thing that strikes you about Rocket Knight Adventures even before you take in the visuals is the's absolutely superb. Each of the 7 stages has a really catchy theme and there's also a separate theme for minibosses and end of stage bosses that kicks in every time you run into one as well. Sparkster controls extremely responsively and there's never any times where you feel that a missed jump or damage taken from an enemy wasn't your own fault. The graphics look beautiful for a game of this era...the main sprites are all full of character (hitting a pig enemy for instance will cause it's armour to fly off and for it to run around in it's underwear as a kind of a homage to Ghosts 'n Goblins)...Sparkster himself has a range of cute facial expressions for everything he does...jumping, taking damage, rocket boosting, falling after a rocket boost and even an idle animation...and the background details are excellent. On the first stage for instance, you can see a castle on fire in the background, which turns out to be the next area you're heading towards....and if you look at it really closely, you can even see the Stage 1 boss and Axle Gear's airship hovering around it too. Meanwhile, in the foreground forest that you're travelling though you can see butterflies fluttering about. It's little things like this that constantly draw you more into the game and breathe a lot of life into it.

Using your reflection to get ahead
The stages all seem to have had a massive amount of time and care put into them, in that you never know what to expect next. Rocket Knight Adventures is a game that constantly throws new ideas at you right up until the very end, and almost seems afraid of doing the same thing twice. Once stage for instance has the top of the screen obscured so that you have to use the reflective (but deadly) lava underneath to see where the next platforms are, another has you on the top of Axle's airship fighting high speed winds, whist there's also the usual suspects like a minecart and underwater stage for good measure although even these feel like they've been done in a fresh way. From time to time, Sparkster will even power up his rocket pack, don his goggles and embark on a 2D scrolling shoot 'em up section for a short while. The game never becomes boring and almost challenges you to keep up with it.

Even the boss encounters are a tour de force of inventiveness. Far from being just the normal, dull 'whack the enemy a lot of times until it dies' affairs, you'll often have to engage in multi stage fights. The second stage boss for instance will fire laser bolts at you from the front...destroy the front cannon and it'll then sprout long robotic arms that you have to deal with. Destroy these, and then the back cannon starts firing at you as well. One later stage even has Sparkster and Axle Gear having a boxing match. In 2 giant Pig Mechs. It's fascinating to see just what will come next and you'll be driven to see it through until the final credits.
Taking some slight inspiration from R-Type...

In fact, there's nothing really negative I can say about Rocket Knight Adventures. It's a supremely well put together game that ticks all the right's not too short, doesn't outstay it's welcome and never becomes impossibly difficult...even those few of you who think it's all a little too easy will be tested by the 2 unlockable difficulty settings, Most importantly it's an absolute joy to play and even coming back to it over 20 years later, it has the edge over many similar games that have been released since (including it's own sequel, but more on that another time). It's still such a good game that it even makes Rocket Knight Adventures HD look like an insult. If you're one of those people that's never experienced the original then you really owe it to yourself to try it out, and come back and thank me when you do. If you are one of the people who's played it and understands why I love this game so much, dig it out and give it another go. You'll be glad you did.

TromaDogg's Final Verdict: 9.5/10

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