Monday, September 27, 2010

Genesis Look - Rocket Knight Adventures

During the 16-bit days there was the tumultuous sea of mascot-driven platformers that could have very well killed off the genre. Like the stories of so many Japanese games the platformer genre suffers an endless cycle of death and rebirth as while at its best it produces genius Mario games and the occasional brilliant obscurity more often than not it leads to "me-too" affairs that are almost comical in their lack of shame and talented game design. Even today there are still things one can learn from one of the classics of the genre. In this case it's Konami's Rocket Knight Adventures on the Genesis.

Opossums never amount to much more than road-kill in real life and the only other game that I can remember that ever starred one was the not-at-all Awesome Possum. Aside from being able to hang from trees with their tail what exactly can possums do for videogames? Konami answered this rhetorical question by dressing a possum up in steam-punk armor and giving them a sword and a jetpack. It's a concept that is about as outlandish as giving super-speed shoes to a Hedgehog. In any case Sparkster was born and the first of four games came out to little fanfare.

For whatever reason an evil cyborg-pig dictator has beef with possum hierarchy and does the first thing that comes to mind, sack the kingdom and snatch the princess. Sparkster has to go through seven stages of action-platforming to make things right. It's a simple tale but it works as the game does a remarkable job of building up to each new encounter and makes everything just a bit more intense and epic than what came before. The pacing is brisk and smart and game begins and ends perfectly in about thirty minutes.

Sparkster can jump, run (well it looks more like power-walking or maybe a knightly strut), and swing a sword. The controls are a bit loose and offer a lot of mid-air maneuverability. Also unlike some other Konami game on the Genesis the mechanics of jumping are handled properly. The sword is a handy piece of work as it throws a blade a short distance that does weak damage and the sword itself has limited reach but great damage. The most important tool of course is the jet-pack. This sets Sparkster apart from any other armored-chump as it lets him soar into the air or in whatever direction that works best for him. Charging of the pack can be done at any time and while flying the Spark is invincible (provided he doesn't fly into a pit). Thing is there are still more than enough openings for Sparkster to take damage and a mis-timed boost into an enemy nest is bad news all around. Despite the invincibility benefits there's not much reward to out-weigh the risk of the jet-pack. In fact a sizable portion of the game doesn't really require the pack at all. I'm sure if Konami felt like it they could just throw out some springs for Sparky to bounce off of to reach the next section of the game.

But that wouldn't be interesting at all would it? RKA is a good-enough platformer on its own but the potential that the jet-pack offers adds so much. There are many situations that while running and jumping works just fine rocketing through is several times faster and more stylish. Since charging takes a couple of seconds there's more than enough reason to use and abuse the pack to try all kinds of ways of getting past each obstacle. RKA might be completely linear but no two playthroughs will be the same depending on the ways and frequency the jet-pack is used.

The way I see it more platformers could benefit from giving their protagonist abilities that actually make them feel like they have a real advantage. Sure in the average game one can expect to gain access to double-jumps, hovering, super-speed, and so on but most of the time all of that stuff is required just to complete the stage. I understand it becomes a question of balance but if done properly it gives the player more incentive to replay the game as they'll have new ways of traversing obstacles or they'll try things a bit differently coupling what they already know about the stage layout with abilities they never really used before or thought they would work in that situation.

One of the smaller touches in this game that really adds a lot is the locations of certain 1ups. RKA is a fairly-challenging game, at least in comparison to similar titles so it's good that when certain trouble-spots appear there tends to be 1up close by(and unlike some titles collected 1ups re-appear when the player dies and retries a section of the stage). This is especially helpful later in the game where Sparkster faces off with his rival in a game of "Rock'em Sock'em" robots. This battle relies a lot on positioning and timing and Sparkster has none of his abilities accessible to him. Being able to retry that section as many times as Sparkster is able to collect the 1up is pretty necessary.

RKA probably isn't the kind of game everyone will enjoy. Every stage is broken up into sections that feel more like situations than anything. As in what would Sparkster do if he was riding on a mine-cart? What would he do while swimming through spike-filled caverns? What would he do about avoiding invincible robots that aim to crush him? No two sections of the game are actually like one another and there's none of the build-up of "same encounters and ideas but more difficult". This is also a style of game-design that not too many developers properly implement. Regardless RKA performs fantastically and every play-through is pure joy.

Still it would have been nice if the difficulty settings really made creative changes. None of the bosses exhibit extra attacks, there are no additional areas or new traps to deal with, and basically it all boils down to Sparkster becoming a heck of a lot easier to kill. Still I guess it's cool if someone wants to attempt to beat the game without taking a single hit. In this case most of the real challenge must be from finding new and different ways to apply the jet-pack in even the most limited of situations.

The weakest part of the game is that the magic that flows through the first playthrough will probably not be there in successive plays. In fact this game probably works best when its given a playthrough maybe once to a few times a year. Still for what it was in 1993 and what it is today it's a remarkable achievement and one of the best titles on the Genesis.

Game Rating - 5 out of 5 stars
A game that holds up for this long is worthy of merit. RKA's greatest strength is that it can still be fresh and entertaining even though it's been around for over fifteen years.

My Rating - 5 out of 5 stars
I really wish I could be more critical about this game but honestly I love it. It's a shining example of what can make an action-platformer great but it also pursues an identity that no game can hope to match. I am not denying the existence of better platformers but RKA is really unique and a very special game that will not be forgotten.

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