So, Rocket Knight Adventures. This is an interesting one. I know very little about the plot surrounding the hero, Sparkster, or why armoured pigs are trying to kill him during the game. All I knew about it, growing up, was that for some reason, it was kept in a Lemmings box, because my brothers had lost the cartridge for Lemmings… I think? I’ll send them a quick message and let you all know when they get back to me. The point is, it was a kind of a miscellaneous game in my mind, growing up. It didn’t have the glamorous grit of Streets of Rage, nor did it have the success of Sonic the Hedgehog. It was just… there. In the Lemmings box. (OK, my brothers replied, with differing responses. One thinks it came with the first Sega we owned, which I didn’t even know we’d ever had before the one we always had, the other brother remembers having had the box for Rocket Knight Adventures at one point and that maybe Lemmings was a game we’d had way before that for some reason which broke. We don’t know.)
But we played it all the time (“all the time” here means: “On Saturday mornings when we were allowed to play the Sega for extended amounts of time”). We didn’t know why this kangaroo-looking thing (who sometimes revealed a cute little ginger quiff when he took his helmet off) was wearing armour and what he stood for. The opening of the game reveals only the spectre of a looming, sneering pig tyrant hovering over the valiant yet puny figure of Sparkster. Then it’s into the game we go, and pig soldiers jump out from behind hills with scimitars while Sparkster flings a boomerang (?) at them. By the way, you might assume that because he looks like a kangaroo and fights with a boomerang, that he is some kind of Australian stereotype but he is, in fact, an opossum. And his ‘boomerang’ is, according to Wikipedia, ‘a sword that can project energy’. He also has a jetpack that you can use to zoom around a bit, but it is a somewhat volatile tool.
Upon replaying it now, I am blown away by how difficult it is. Now, disclaimer, despite enjoying games, I have no inherent talent for them. Newer games (if games on the Xbox 360 can even be called ‘newer’ anymore) tend to have more forgiving difficulty settings, and I have no problem turning anything way down to easy or novice if it means I can comfortably play the game and enjoy the world or plot laid out. But the great (and often frustrating) thing about these Sega games is that they require skill and hard work. They require hours of getting to know the game and getting to know all the little tricks you would need to conquer it.
It was a communal experience for us growing up. I learned my watching my older siblings, who told me what to watch for, which was to jump, how to use the infernal jetpack. And then, I would help my sister playing with that same wisdom, her sitting on the floor in front of the telly while I lay on the couch beside her, trying my absolute darndest to beat Whitney and her stupid goddamn Miltank on the Gameboy.
So playing it now, these nuggets of wisdom and exclamations of ‘Watch out for the truck!’ come back to me as I fail to get through the first level, again and again. I find it difficult now to have the patience for this grind – working all day and collapsing into the couch, it’s hard to motivate myself to sit on the floor so that I can reach the wired Sega controller and play a game that needs to be memorised, known back to front. Turns out, the dogged determination of a child with only a few hours a week that they can devote to gaming totally beats the skills of a jaded, mid-twenties, not-upwardly-mobile-but-precariously-wavering professional any day of the week. It’s an amazing thing, to play Rocket Knight Adventures and to look back at myself and my siblings as children and see us as stoic masters of the art.
Enough waxing romantic about the game, let’s get into it. To start with, it has an interesting look. It doesn’t saturate the screen with tinkling bright colours but plays with a fairly muted palette. Sparkster is brown with blue armour, and the world around him is full of greens, browns and russet reds. The opponents are mechanical snakes and monsters, and the pigs who produce/operate them. They are, as I learned from the Wikipedia page, agents of the Emperor Devligus, who rules the Devotindos Empire. They are threatening Zebulos, Sparkster’s homeland, with the help of the corrupt Rocket Knight, Axel Gear.
The most standout thing is how this game does not let up. In Sonic, you fight small opponents for the first parts of each zone, with a tricky boss match at the end of each level. In Rocket Knight Adventures, you enter the second level, after having fought a pig mecha-thing on land and sea, and a mechanical snake, and immediately are met with a giant robot with swinging maces for arms. It is almost impossible to take on these opponents without sustaining a fair bit of damage, and the life-giving bananas are not abundant. Any one of these baddies, in the first level even, could have been justified as being end-level bosses. Rocket Knight Adventures does not follow the expectations of the player, and you end up playing very mindfully as you never know when some massive thing is going to probably kill you.
It’s your basic side-scroll at first impression, but then it begins to play with the spaces it builds and their depth and permeability. You’re in a room, in a castle. You’ve had a few seconds of peace. Now the ceiling is busted open by a robot worm. Now the roof has three holes. You’re playing whack-a-mole with this worm’s head, then it breaks into both sides of the room. The worm can now attack you from the tops or the sides of the room. And now it’s laying little attack spiders that you need to dodge. Later on, you’re beside a waterfall. A snake-thing whirls in and out of your range of attack, through the water. Always visible, but never predictably vulnerable to your attempts at wounding it, it winds in and out, inflicting damage here and there.
The settings change relentlessly. To again go back to Sonic for contrast, in Sonic, every level has its specific thing. Marble Zone, you deal with lava. Labyrinth Zone, have fun trying not to drown. Scrap Brain Zone, technology coldly and industriously attempts to squash you. But in Rocket Knight Adventures, one second you are hurtling down a mine shaft dodging the grasp of a speeding train pursuing you from a rail above, but then you’re battling underwater, and then you’re in a lava-filled cave. I personally like the way that Sonic has themes and aesthetics applying to each level, but I respect the hell out of Rocket Knight Adventures for how it tells its story and makes the player feel as though anything can be thrown at them at any time.
Rocket Knight Adventures must be an empowering game to master, because even once you’ve gotten down the movements and mechanics, you are still liable to be thrown a massive challenge at any given moment (I do, however, say this as someone who could not master it, but I’ll get into that later). And while every challenge is tough, it is never insurmountable. The game rewards ingenuity and lateral thinking. Can’t fight the pig operating the machine because the machine’s claws keep snatching at you? Fight the claws until they explode, then launch yourself repeatedly at the main body until it’s kaput. Ever wondered how you’d survive walking atop a zeppelin flying at full speed while a lunatic flings barrels at you? Well, here you go because suddenly you need to. High-speed aerial battle with a giant spaceship that then spawns a flying Megazord-type-thing just as you’ve downed it? Sure, okay, I guess I can try to beat this.
This draws you into the story, in a way. By focusing on the character’s movement from area to area rather than just appearing in a brand new place with no information on how he got there, the player may care more, and feel more immersed. You are not merely planted into a new setting, but you go from place to place. It is a different type of immersion to Streets of Rage and Sonic because while they usher you into new settings with small opponents, then throw you a big boss to fight before you head off to the next setting, this game makes you forget about levels entirely. You are always moving, with no knowledge of what might herald advancement to the next stage.
I cannot, in all honesty, say that I fully enjoyed this game. I admire it, greatly. I appreciate what it is doing. But it is not what I would consider fun. I gave up, in fact, around level three, and had to consult an amazing playthrough by Youtuber temujin9000 in order to see how the rest of the game plays out. Temujin 9000 actually does a very interesting critique of the game in the video’s description, so check that out if you’re curious. I’m torn, really, on how I feel about it. Nostalgia goggles remain firmly in place, so I feel fond of this odd game.
On one hand, I respect its difficulty and I think perhaps Sparkster could have been as profitable and iconic as Sonic had the game been less unforgiving in its intricacy, so I respect that it wasn’t a phone-in to sell merchandise. But, even though I’m not a very skilled gamer, it could have struck a better balance between being challenging and being rewarding. While it wasn’t an easy-breezy, anyone-can-and-will-play-this, it should still be somewhat encouraging to players. Sonic has great moments of levity, where you release all the captured enemies as you complete the level, but Rocket Knight Adventures is a bit of a slog. It was an interesting choice, to let the game flow from set piece to set piece, but it is at the expense of the game’s longevity because it is hard to remember these story aspects in any real sequence.
Overall, I’d say that if you are a fan of challenging, weird retro games, this one will capture your attention. But if you play retro games to unwind and to return to beloved sequences that you remember fondly, Rocket Knight Adventures is no walk in the park. It’s a sprint along a path, then a run through a castle, then a fly through the air, then a leap through a waterfall, a jump onto a zeppelin, and on and on it goes. It may not be my cup of tea, but it could be your shot of hallucinogenic sambuca.