Sunday, June 6, 2010

This "Dead" Franchise Was Just Playing Possum

Rocket Knight is a strange little game but a good one. Like Mega Man 10, it's a platforming throwback – a homage to old games on early systems. Unlike Mega Man, however, the Rocket Knight/Sparkster franchise was, until this year, almost forgotten. Though the series had a few partisans, mostly connoisseurs of mid-nineties games, very few gamers ever expected a fourth Rocket Knight adventure. After all, the last games in the series appeared in 1994. Thus this new game is a windfall for both old Sparkster fans and those, like me, who never had a chance to try the original games.

Despite Rocket Knight's 3D graphics, online functionality, and download-only release, it's hard to miss the fact that the game has roots in the nineties. Today, after all, no company would ever launch an IP about a sword-wielding, jetpacking, steampunk possum. Modern steampunk jetpacking requires Tesla cameos, clunky controls, and Nolan North. Rocket Knight lacks all three and still manages to be a fine game.

The controls are simple – one needs never touch shoulder buttons, adjust the camera, or depress the thumbsticks – yet give Sparkster a wide range of abilities and attacks. The game does a fine job teaching the player all the hero's tricks with unobtrusive tutorial signs in the backdrops of early levels. First-time players can stop, read, and learn, while returning fans can ignore relearning the controls and concentrate on speed runs and shots for the leaderboards– Rocket Knight may be a short game, but it's designed with replayability in mind.

The first few platform sequences in Rocket Knight are fairly simple; environmental hazards are rare and enemies unthreatening. Very shortly, however, Sparkster comes across some truly difficult platforming challenges. The game's third world contains some of the most cunning traps I have seen in recent years. A lesser game might frustrate with instant death spikes, bottomless pits, and scarce check points, but Rocket Knight is relatively forgiving – one mistake won't kill Sparkster, and each level has several checkpoints. Die too many times in Arcade mode and you will have to start again from the game's beginning, but there's also Free Play mode, which, in addition to a level select feature, allows you to play through the game without possibility of permanent loss.

I was very taken with Rocket Knight's platforming segments, but less impressed with the occasional side scrolling shooter levels. While they do offer a change of pace, Sparkster is far less nimble when flying than he is while earthbound. There's only one way to attack your foes, and there's no way to attack any villains who have managed to maneuver behind you. Sparkster can "air dash" with the circle (or B) button, but the trick doesn't satisfy – I think that the dash ought move our hero faster and further. Finally, the level designers have littered the air with far too many floating minefields. Those intricately arrayed clusters of bright bombs don't offer much challenge, and their ubiquity occasionally makes an exciting game feel lazy. Rocket Knight's flight levels aren't terrible or unenjoyable, but I wish that the flying was as well-conceived as the rest of the game.

Rocket Knight is a 2D platformer that uses 3D graphics, and the game sometimes suffers for it. Ninety-five percent of the time everything runs smoothly, but every once in a while it becomes difficult to distinguish between foreground and background. Aside from these moments of confusion, the graphics serve their game well. A few assets repeat too often, but the gameplay variety more than compensates for a little graphical repetition. Though the graphics have slight flaws, the game has a coherent, consistent, and charming aesthetic. Games with far larger budgets and longer development cycles often feel slapped-together and messy; Rocket Knight never does.

Before I close this review, I should mention that I have had intermittent Internet conversations with Rocket Knight's producer. I admit that I expected to like this game but, even so, I was taken aback by how good it is. If you like 2D platforming, chances are you shall like this. I fervently hope that Sparkster doesn't take another decades-long hiatus; I'm already hoping for a sequel. Meanwhile, I think I may have to look up the other games in the series. If they're as good as this game is, they deserve a rerelease.

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