Monday, October 1, 2012

Game Review: Rocket Knight Adventures

Rocket Knight Adventures
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Konami
  • Release: Sega Genesis, 1993
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$10-15

It's been a long time since I based a review around an entry from TVTropes, so let's give it another shot.  Today, I will be discussing the "Mascot With Attitude" trope, a character type which came into being with Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991.  Many examples of this do their best to ignore what made the first Sonic games good, in favour of following at least three of these "marketable" traits: 
  1. Is a Funny Animal, usually with a Species Surname. (i.e., Sonic the Hedgehog, Spyro the Dragon)
  2. Comes from a Platform Game.
  3. Is Totally Radical. This can be as mild as using totally bogus outdated slang, or as egregious as giving the character a love of "extreme" sports, fast food, or anything else with supposed "youth appeal."
  4. Is quippy, snarky, and prone to making lots of really bad jokes. Bonus points if one of them is a Take That against Sonic the Hedgehog.
  5. Is competent and violent, but not to child-unfriendly levels. He's also not allowed to swear, but will do his best to anyway.
  6. A supporting cast which reinforces his status as coolest character in the universe. Look out for an older uncool antagonist, a sidekick with a case of hero-worship, a helplessly devoted and/or snarky love interest, or a rival that's almost (but not quite) as cool as the mascot.
  7. Advertisements for his games put a lot of emphasis on said game's "intensity," especially twitch-action and "speed".1
There is a right way and a wrong way to create mascot characters.  First, the wrong way:
I don't know what the [noun] Awesome Possum is doing,
and quite frankly I don't care.
This furry little fellow is Awesome Possum, and he starred in his self-titled Sega Genesis game, created by Tengen in 1993.  His schtick is that he's an environmental warrior trying to stop a certain Dr. Machino, whose crime is apparently wide-scale pollution without reason.  In doing so, Awesome Possum will take every opportunity to remind the player that he is extreme to the max, and all that [noun].  I call this the Mike Posner Paradox: if you have to keep reminding other people that you're cool, then you're not cool.  In-your-face attitude and in-your-face environmentalism...2  If you threw in some bad Euro-pop, you'd have the most embarrassing parts of the 90s rolled into one bundle.  Also his game sucks, and I might do a proper review on it later on down the road, but for now, I present to you the right way to make a mascot character.
The European box art of Rocket Knight Adventures.
In the same year that Awesome Possum was unleashed upon the world, Konami treated us with Rocket Knight Adventures, also for the Genesis.  It starred Sparkster who, ironically enough, is also an opossum.  But thankfully, the two couldn't be more different in practice.  Sparkster doesn't do any talking of his own, through text or voice clips, but he lets his actions do the talking.  Specifically, he takes it upon himself to ward off an invasion from a pig army, rescue the possum princess they kidnapped, and settle the score with his evil counterpart, Axel Gear.  As for his appearance, his design is more on the subdued and even cute side; I don't know about you, but his little suit of knight armour and jetpack just melts my heart.  Also it helps that he was created in Japan.  Nippon Ichi, mother[verb]ers.  Shame they had to change his face on the box art; compare the facial expressions Sparkster sports on the American box art at the top of this page, and the European box art directly below.  (And what do you know, there's another trope for that: "American Kirby Is Hardcore".)

Sparkster, blasting off from the left.
Oh right, the jetpack.  Unlike most of the wannabe mascot-led games out there, Rocket Knight Adventures and its main character are designed around a particular new mechanic, and a well-executed one at that.  Sparkster's weapon is a sword, which with each swing fires beams for a little extra range (think the early Legend of Zelda games).  But by holding the attack button, a meter on the top of the screen charges up.  Release the button when it's full, and he will use his jetpack in one of two ways.  If you're holding the directional pad, Sparkster will fly off in the target direction. In doing this, he can not only cross large gaps, but also ricochet off walls, a crucial tactic for climbing walls.  Or you can always release a charge without holding down a direction, making him spin around in place with sword outstretched, a nice defensive move.  Your impressive repertoire of attacks lends itself to strategy during boss fights.  The sword beams have a higher rate of fire and give you range, but do less damage.  The sword alone does loads of damage if you spam it, but you have to get close.  And a jet boost does more damage from afar than the beams, but you have to take the time to charge it up.  So, you'll have to experiment with the different moves, and hopefully find the methods that work best against each enemy you may face.

An homage to Gradius.
RKA already succeeds over its totally radical contemporaries through the presence and prevalence of these auxiliary mechanics, but the innovation doesn't stop there.  Some of the levels are flying shoot-em-ups where Sparkster zooms around in his jetpack and shoots the aforementioned sword beams.  One of these even features a mini-boss designed after one from Gradius.  But the game also innovates in more subtle ways.  A section at the beginning of Level 3 takes place in a crystal cave, with a sea of lava rising and falling at regular intervals (At least I think it's supposed to be lava; don't make me bust out any more tropes.), so you must reach higher platforms before the deadly flow crests.  Plus, there are rock formations in the foreground which obscure both you and the platforms, but whatever the lethal liquid is below, it's also reflective, so you'll have to follow a red-tinted mirror image of yourself in order to make these jumps.  It's tough to describe in words; all the more reason for you to check it out for yourself.  And while it's a brief passage, it's just one more example of how much the game throws at you.

Indeed, Rocket Knight Adventures has variety in spades.  The jetpack system and the many curves the game throws at you combine to provide a platforming experience like no other.  Maybe the physics are a little too slippery here and there, but that shouldn't detract you from witnessing this game and all it has to offer.  Both as a character and a video game franchise, Sparkster deserved better than he got, but what he did get was nothing short of sublime.

Control: 4 jetpacks out of 5
Design: 5 jetpacks out of 5
Graphics: 5 jetpacks out of 5
Audio: 5 jetpacks out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

The Sparkster character was more successful than most of his peers, but he only received precious few sequels.  In 1994, there were two new games for the Genesis and Super Nintendo, both titled Sparkster.  Surprisingly, these are not ports of the same title; the SNES game lies in an alternate continuity.  (The one for Genesis was sold with the subtitle Rocket Knight Adventures 2 in Japan.)  Then the series lay dormant until 2010, when with the help of developer Climax Studios, Konami saw fit to release Rocket Knight, a download-only title for the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360.  All three of these games carry on the original's rocket-powered legacy with changes to the formula here and there, and are worth picking up.

...Wait a minute.  The Sparkster series gets a new game even after 16 years and, as far as I'm concerned, a virtual disappearance from cultural relevance.  Meanwhile Mega Man Legends 3, which is a spin-off of a recogniseable pre-existing series and, as such, at least has brand recognition, gets cancelled!?  There's only one way to react to that discrepancy:
...Or I could quit being such as a spaz and just enjoy Rocket Knight.  That'll work, too.

1 "Mascot with Attitude".  Television Tropes & Idioms.  Retrieved 27 September 2012.
2 I do support the not-in-your-face type of environmentalism, however, and I suggest you do the same.

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