Friday, April 29, 2016

A (Relatively) Short Dissection of Rocket Knight Adventures, My Favorite Game

I write a lot about game design on this blog.  I write about how to do it right, how to do it wrong, and why certain concepts are really important to consider.

Now, considering how much I perseverate on these topics, you might be wondering what the ideal is for me.  Sure, I've brought up some games I really like, such as Super Mario Brothers 3, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Saint's Row: The Third...

But what is the ideal?

The ideal is Rocket Knight Adventures on the Sega Genesis.

Let's start

What is Rocket Knight Adventures?

Rocket Knight Adventures is a game about being a hero against ridiculous odds using ridiculous means.  There is a war between the mostly helpless opossum kingdom and a ruthless army of pigs who utilize superior technology and industry to destroy everything in their path.  There is a more in-depth story given in the game manual, but who cares?  It's an army of pigs with mechs attacking the poor old opossum kingdom.  And who will stop them?

Who is the Rocket Knight?

Rocket Knight Adventures stars a opossum named Sparkster.  Sparkster is a legendary Rocket Knight, which fortunately is exactly how it sounds.  Rocket Knights use a jet pack to fly, charge, spin out of control, and launch rings of lit rocket fuel with their swords.  If somebody told you that and you didn't immediately think that that sounds badass it's because you're deaf.

Controlling Sparkster is simple to learn and a bit difficult to master.  The game is ostensibly a simple 2d platformer where the player can walk left or right, jump, and swing their sword at what is in front of them.

The player can also swing their sword using the attack button.  Swinging the sword creates a ring of fire as a projectile which can take out most of the weaker enemies right away.  This is what most beginning players will use for all of their attacks.

Out of all of the player's attacks, the fire projectile does the least amount of damage.  The next way to deal damage is to charge into something by holding the attack button down to charge the jetpack and then charging straight into your foes.

You do, after all, have a jet pack
You charge when you let go of the attack button with a full charge and hold a direction on the D-pad.  However, if you aren't holding any direction Sparkster will spin in place which can do rolling damage to any enemy unfortunate enough to get close to you.

This would be a pretty perfect place to use that.
Additionally, you can use your jetpack dash for mobility purposes.  In fact, you will need to use your jetpack dash for mobility purposes during certain areas of the game.

On top of that, your mobility is also greatly enhanced by your ability to swim, fly through some auto-scroll levels, dangle off of poles by your tail...

...and even control a mech.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Oh, and one thing that I forgot to mention that kind of pulls everything in terms of character control together...

The Genius Sword Mechanic

We haven't forgotten that a knight's money maker is his sword, right?

So, I mentioned that when you mash the attack button Sparkster swings his sword and a lackluster little flame ring comes out and does a little bit of damage at long range right?  Well, that's all good and dandy, but what really kicks ass and deals some of the hardest hits in the game is actually smashing an enemy with your sword.

"I am going to mess you up" -Sparkster
The closer you are to an enemy when your sword strikes them, the more damage you do.  Damage is rolled out multiple times over the course of the swing, and the game does this really satisfying thing where the frames actually kind of slow down and you can hear multiple strike sounds playing one after the other during the course of the entire swing, while the entire time the enemy or boss flashes colors to indicate that they've been hit.  All that you need is the first few moments of this video to see exactly what I mean:

While the projectile keeps you safely away from the danger, the risk you take by getting up close and personal is met with high reward.  This is only made better by the fact that, if you ever get in over your head, you can just charge your jetpack and jet away.  Every part of this game's initial setup going in gels together in this beautiful cohesive design that just gets me all hot and bothered.

Makes me want to dance

But what is a sword without foes to slay?

Your sword certainly isn't just for show.  Those mechanics I detailed above count for every bit that you master them.  See, the game starts out easily enough with a bunch of pig soldiers running at you, but it isn't long before you're fighting almost exclusively killer robots.  I mean, the second level intros with a giant robot raccoon, middles with a giant robot sea serpent, and ends with a giant robot train with grabby arms and a front-loaded canon.

There's a couple things about this, however, that are absolutely genius.

1. Use your powers to attack the weak spot

During the first boss you're introduced to a concept that continues through the rest of the game: attack whatever is red to win.

This concept is immediately reinforced by that robotic raccoon I mentioned earlier, who ambushes you at the very start of the second level.  Guess which part of him is the weak spot:

Go on.  Guess.
After that you'll see this theme appear multiple times during the more complicated fights.  There's a battle where you fight a giant metal fish swimming in lava, and the only way to attack is when it vomits its pilot into the air- the pilot who is wearing red!

Makes sense... I think?
Or another battle where you're facing a giant dancing robot who dances so damn hard he literally brings the roof down.

There is no me, only the boogie.
Between his crazed dancing, his stomach opens up and gives you a chance to attack his red core between his firing massive energy balls from it (naturally).

If you don't see yet why this is my favorite game we can't be friends.
As the game goes on it becomes more obvious that certain weak points can be attacked most efficiently if you have certain skills in the game mastered (especially during the final boss, which I won't go into here).

2. Managing Expectations

So, first level sets up everything about how you'll be playing this game.  Let's talk a little bit about the musical leitmotif of the game.

In the first level, you meet your first miniboss: a pig riding a tank.

A flame thrower tank, none the less.
When you first get onto the bridge the camera adjusts and the music changes to what will be known as the miniboss theme of the game.

It sounds great.  It's the perfect mix of menacing, labor-some, and goofy that the minibosses exemplify in this game.

So what is so great about this?  Well, remember that raccoon robot?

"Hello again!"
Well, by all means, he looks like he should be a miniboss.  He shows up and the player can't progress because the screen is preventing forward motion until this thing is defeated.  There's some new music that you haven't heard before, maybe each miniboss has its own music?

But then you defeat him and continue through the level and- wait, no, the music is still playing.  That giant robot was just a normal part of the level.  Sure, you only fought one of him, but the level considers him a throwaway enemy compared to the real miniboss.

And that's not the only time the game uses its musical establishment to screw with your head, either.  Throughout the entire game, you're taught that this is the boss music.

Every time you hear this music, you know you've reached the end of the stage and are at your final fight.  This is true in every level except for the last level.  I don't want to spoil too much about what happens, so I won't go into specifics.  It goes something like this: you face off with what seems like perfectly fitting final boss for the game.  However, the music hasn't changed to the boss music yet.  Well, after you fight this boss for a bit, he suddenly enters a second phase that involves him performing an action that is actually really intimidating.  And then the boss music starts playing.

If you want to see the fight that I'm talking about and don't care about spoilers, click here (the particularly intimidating thing that I mentioned happens about 45 seconds into the video).

When you finish this battle, a note of finality seems to be present in the way everything ends.  And then an entrance to the rest of the level opens up because this time the boss music was playing for what is actually the miniboss.

Yeah, you've still got a world of pain waiting for you.
Just the way the game uses its music in conjunction with the threat levels of bosses gives you a sense of "OH DEAR GOD WHAT COULD WARRANT THIS BREAK FROM THE ESTABLISHED RULES?"  And it pays off.  Oh boy, does it pay off.

3. Lack of Repetition

This part is a huge reason that Rocket Knight Adventures is one of my favorite games: there is only one enemy that is reused in the entire game, and it is only used in two screens.  The rest of the enemies are constantly changing.  You know those pig soldiers that you fight in the first part of the level?

Those were the days.
After you transition to the second part of the first level, you never fight those again.  You fight some guys that look kinda similar but they're always changed up somehow in the way they behave.

Sometimes they're on fire...
...sometimes they're hiding in wait in a present...
...sometimes they're clinging to hot air balloons above their city to attack you in mid flight...
...sometimes they attack you on waverunners...
...sometimes they're firing at you with bazookas...
...and sometimes they're hanging on for dear life.

One thing is for certain: the enemies in this game don't repeat themselves.  In every level you can expect to find new and interesting challenges tailored to that level in particular.

And it isn't just the foot soldiers either.  There's all sorts of weird mechanical menaces in every level that just make things really fun and interesting.

4. The Black Knight

So if Sparkster is a Rocket Knight, he should have a Rocket Knight rival, right?

Enter Axel Gear.

Axel is like an opposite to Sparkster.  He works with the Pig empire, is less than chivalrous, and his color scheme is dark purples and reds compared to Sparkster's bright blue and gold.  As the enforcer for the Pig empire, Axel does an excellent job of evading Sparkster and being a constant thorn in his side.

During the first half of the game, the player is chasing Axel.  During the second half of the game, the player is actively engaging Axel in combat.  And yes, Axel brings new toys to each fight.

Axel means business.
The only time Axel actually duels you in only his standard Rocket Knight gear is during the last time you see him.  It makes for this great three part rivalry that the player actively takes part in:
  1. The chase, which takes some four levels
  2. The skirmishes, which last until the final level
  3. The final battle
This really sets things up so that the player's final battle with Axel is really charged with a sense of tension and confrontation.  When you finally face off with Axel for the last time, you've been waiting for it through the entire game.

Those are just a few great examples

The game has so many great things I can say about it, and lots of these things are really in the moment.  I love how some levels take place entirely in jetpack flight.  I love how the fourth level has the player constantly facing off with the captain of an airship who is always improvising new ways to get in your way.  I love how there middle section of the fifth level has the player maneuvering around these invincible metal pigs that kill you in one hit, and then right before the miniboss you open a bridge and they all fall into lava and I'm just like THIS IS FOR ALL OF THE GRIEF YOU ASSHOLES HAVE GIVEN ME!

I love how in the lava caves your vision is obscured by stalactites and you have to use the reflection on the lava to see where the next platform is.  I love all of the music in the game.  I love it all, dude.  I love it all.

But that's all that I can really fit into a simple blog post.  Perhaps one day I'll make a level-by-level dissection of every great thing that this game does (I'm serious, I think that this game is perfect) but for now I'm going to leave you with that basic description.  There's so much more to cover, from the art design to the little ways that levels keep challenging you, but those will have to wait.

In the mean time, if you want to check the game out for yourself, I highly recommend checking it out.  Nothing beats the Sega Genesis experience, and unfortunately that's all that you have because the game was never rereleased on modern consoles.  There's always emulators, but I would never condone piracy.  Never.  Never ever.  I wouldn't do such a thing.

But seriously, go play it.


Oh, also there were some sequels of the game.  There was one on the Sega Genesis, one on the Super Nintendo, and one on more modern systems.  I don't recommend any of them.  They all messed with the formula that made the game great and ended up with something subpar instead of better.  They all have inconsistent pacing, terrible level design, and inferior art styles that feel way more generic than the unique feel that the original game had going for it.  Maybe I'll talk more about those later as well, but frankly the thought of doing so depresses me.

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