(Elton John singing) And I think it's gonna be a short, short game
One thing we don’t have enough of these days is games with an edge of palpable realism. Fortunately, the experts at Konami seek to correct that. Their solution? An opossum equipped with a sword and a jetpack waging war against other woodland creatures—of course!
Some of you may recall the classic Rocket Knight Adventures Genesis action/platforming game way back when. It was unique, challenging, and inspired amongst a heavy crowd of competitors in its time. It also spawned a couple of sequels and spin-offs, including an installment for the Super NES simply titled Sparkster. While the mechanics varied slightly between the games, the theme remained the same: basic platforming mixed with a few spicy extras and even shooter elements. Childhood fans everywhere have been eagerly awaiting this newest revival of the franchise (developed by Climax)—so, then, the obvious question is, at 15 bucks, does it live up to the hype?
In the name of realism
Rocket Knight features the same familiar gameplay of its predecessors—the jetpack and sword combo of the original mixed with the auto-refilling power meter of the sequel. Sparkster is once again the protagonist, on a quest to rescue his world from a bunch of pigs (quite literally). For the most part, veterans will be able to immediately reacquaint themselves when they pick up the controller. Newcomers, on the other hand, will require a bit of adjustment (as the concept is somewhat unique in context with other platforming titles). Fortunately, the tutorial levels logically and gradually introduce the mechanics, so it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of things.
It’s nothing too complex, but there is some valuable depth to the gameplay. Along with the basics (A jumps, A again hovers, X slashes your sword), you can press a direction on the D-pad and B to perform a rocket burst, which sends you flying in any of eight directions for a short distance (and also which doubles as an attack of sorts; you can even press B again during your flight to perform a spin attack). Meanwhile, Y fires energy bullets, also for a short distance. You can string techniques together to reach additional distances or perform more targeted attacks. All of these attacks and maneuvers (aside from jumping) draw from your energy meter, which, as previously mentioned, replenishes itself fairly quickly when depleted. Its purpose is merely to prevent excessive abuse of these techniques.
You’ll also need to familiarize yourself with the distinctive ability to ricochet off walls at a 45-degree angle after rocket-bursting toward them. Each ricochet adds distance to your rocket burst, which allows you to ping-pong up and down corridors and reach otherwise inaccessible areas. You can also drill through cracked barriers to break them. Finally, plenty of rails decorate the various levels so you can add a little acrobatics to your repertoire.
Interspersed between platforming levels, you’ll find the occasional horizontal shooter segment as well, which makes for a nice contrast in gameplay styles. Here, Sparkster takes to the skies and makes use of his projectile weaponry to mow through waves of enemies. You can charge your weapon and even execute quick boosts. These segments are a ton of fun overall, even if they’re not as novel as the rest of the experience.
In fact, the total package is a great dose of old-school retro action. Completionists will be magnetized by the little collectible gems littered throughout the levels (these are tallied at the completion of each level to compute a score for leaderboard and achievement purposes), though it’ll drive you nuts if you try to get them all the first time through the game—especially if you’re playing on hard difficulty. Granted, it isn’t really the most inspired product (some veterans are sure to scoff at the inferiority of the music and even some of the level design as compared to the Genesis original), but it’s a solid follow-up nonetheless. Graphics are another story; the 2.5-D visuals are pretty—though the busy nature of the background can serve as a point of distraction in the midst of the action. The bosses are at least riveting, as few in number as they may be.
Really the biggest problem of all, though, is the price. In a world of fifteen-dollar-and-under Bionic Commando Rearmeds and Shadow Complexes, at $15, 2 hours of gameplay (at best) is simply not enough. Although it isn’t really fair to judge it entirely in this light, the game can conceivably be completed the first time through in just an hour if you aren’t too terribly concerned about collecting the jewels and other score-driving paraphernalia. There are multiple difficulty levels, as well as unlockable character skins, and—of course—online leaderboards and achievements. But no matter how big of a fan you are, this is much more stomachable as a five-to-ten-dollar experience.
Rocket Knight is a solid revival of a classic Genesis franchise, but it suffers from a tragically short lifespan and high price tag. Though it’s entertaining while it lasts, hardcore series fans are unlikely to view this as the glorified series resurrection they had been expecting. Inspiration is sporadically evident, but in a world of Shadow Complex and Braid, it takes a lot to justify a $15 asking price.