Considering how gamers go gaga over retro games, I’m surprised that Konami isn’t getting a lot of props. Over the last few years, they’ve done two retro revivals of Contra and Castlevania, along with Gradius and the relatively obscure Vandal Hearts series. Now, Konami has given us Rocket Knight, a game tasked with rebooting a seventeen year-old franchise that only saw modest success in its early days.
Personally, I never thought the Rocket Knight Adventures series was anything special; the controls were too wonky, and the camera moving only left and right made the game feel too claustrophobic. Thankfully, the team behind Rocket Knight understood this, and addressed both of those problems, while adding a few new moves for our hero to perform. Now, we’re in business; this is definitely what the Rocket Knight Adventures series was always striving for.
Just like the previous entries, Rocket Knight‘s story involves our hero, Sparkster the Rocket Knight, defending his native land of Zephyrus from a horde of anthropomorphic animals. RKA1 saw us fighting off pigs, and RKA2 decided on lizards. This time, our invaders du jour are a kingdom of evil wolves. Sparkster will have to deal with them using only his sword, his rocket armor, and a variety of special moves that are so excessively awesome and fun to pull off that they ought to be illegal.
Aside from using simple melee and projectile attacks, Sparkster can also do a stationary spinning cartwheel, use his rockets for a small boost in his jump, and even use his sword to reflect certain enemy projectiles back at them with hilarious results. The most fun to be had with Sparkster though – and the staple attack of the entire series – is the Rocket Burst attack. Sparkster can use it to jet forward at incredible speeds in any direction, simultaneously taking out all foes that stand in his way. Besides going through almost every enemy attack in the game, it can be used to bounce off walls or even break through them! Clearly, the rocket boost has a lot of utility.
Beyond the typical platforming levels, there are also shoot ‘em up levels a la Gradius where Sparkster flies across the skies, taking down enemies in a series of dogfights. Here, Sparkster can fire a normal shot or a charged laser shot that can take down several enemies at once. He can also use the rocket armor to boost his speed while flying in any direction at all. In both gameplay modes, any maneuver that uses the rocket armor – which is damn near everything – depletes from the “Burst Meter”, a gauge that depletes as moves are exectuted, but quickly recharges. This prevents outright spamming of certain moves while ensuring players can still perform them very frequently.
The key to this game’s brilliance doesn’t lie in any new gameplay concept, but a combination of new features and refinement of old concepts from the previous games. The single most important change is that the camera can move in all directions instead of just left and right, allowing for far more interesting level designs that really take advantage of the Rocket Burst move. Now, there’s a good mix of action-platforming mixed in with exploration for a full package.
The controls are done very well on console, with just about every function in the game being available on the front buttons and the shoulder buttons – a minor convenience that goes a long way in giving the players a feeling of absolute control. There’s never a time when I make a technical error that feels like it was a fault of weird or unresponsive controls. While this sounds like a silly thing to praise, it never speaks well for a game if it feels like the mistakes are never your fault; an indication that the controls and interface could use some improvement. I submit that Rocket Knight has absolutely no need for improvement in this regard whatsoever.
The attention paid to these two things make Rocket Knight feel fluid, fast, and fun. There’s a level of excitement I have when controlling Sparkster, zipping across chasms and through the skies, and running enemies through with my sword; a feeling I don’t get from a lot of other games. It’s been quite a while since I last played a game that made me happy enough to laugh out loud, without any jokes to try and get a rise out of me. RK accomplishes this, and with such simple changes!
There are two different ways of playing the game: Arcade Mode, which plays like a typical old-school platformer (simply go through all the levels in sequence until the game is finished) or Free Play mode, which allows players to select any stage in the game and play it. The Free Play mode allows not only for practice of any level the player might find too difficult, but also allows players to refine their strategies for a speed or score run for the leaderboards.
The only complaint I have about this game is that the Normal Mode is too easy. Screw all the complaints about game length – the game takes about two hours to beat, and then you can replay it on two harder difficulties. That’s fine with me. No, the real problem is that Normal Mode is an absolute cakewalk, and Hard Mode has to be unlocked. From the start, the player can only play the first set of stages in Hard Mode.
When a boss is reached, players have to find a special technique for damaging the boss with their own attacks to unlock the next set of stages in Hard Mode. This is just plain weird, and I would have rather just been allowed to play Hard Mode (which is more akin to what I expected from Normal Mode) from the get go. Beating Hard Mode unlocks “Gold Sparkster Mode”, which is the true Hard Mode; rather than just using more clever enemy placement, players will have half the life they normally did, and bosses will take much longer to be brought down.
Color me impressed. I really feel like retro games are improving all the time. Although I’m on record as a retro-hater, I absolutely love games that take gameplay ideas from the old days and use the advanced technology at their disposal to improve upon them, and Rocket Knight is a perfect example of this. It’s definitely one of the best platformer games I’ve played in years, and is without a doubt one of the best downloadable titles I’ve ever played (what a shocker!).
The animations and facial expressions, coupled with the sharp color tones, form an excellent cartoonish look.
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It has been years since I had this much fun playing a platformer. Withholding the harder difficulty levels is the only fault I can find.
A few themes from the old games mixed in with some new make for a solid soundtrack.
It took me about two hours to complete, not to mention replaying it on the harder difficulty levels. Not bad for a game emulating old arcade games that can be finished in thirty minutes.
This is a remarkable example of a series reboot, which remains faithful to the source material while making changes that increased its enjoyment tenfold. I recommend this game to anyone who has ever enjoyed a platformer in their life.