GameSpite Journal 10 | Sparkster

Sparkster | Dev.: Konami | Pub: Konami | Genre: Platformer | Release: Oct. 1994

The 16-bit era is commonly known as “the console war,” and with good reason. “Genesis does...,” is a battle cry still heard on forums if you dare bring up either console with the wrong group of 30-somethings. If we’d all been less focused on competition, however, the era would have been known as “Mascots, Mascots, Mascots,” (or more appropriately: “Mascot Mayhem: starring Oat Turner,” the localized version of “Mascot Panic!!” identical but for Ohto Tanaka’s angry eyes on the U.S. box art). Yes, with the overwhelming success of Mario and Sonic, game companies the world over came to the obvious(ly misguided) realization that to be successful they needed to develop a mascot character. Back to that whole nasty war business -- Konami, never content with ease of development, made a habit of crafting entirely different experiences for each console. After the Genesis-only Rocket Knight Adventures made a small splash, they set out crafting its sequels, both called Sparkster, but both very different.

Of the two Sparksters, the SNES version hews far more closely to the design of the original Rocket Knight. On paper, they’re nearly identical, the differences being more or less cosmetic. Beyond this, however, Axelay director Hideo Ueda and his team (including Konami’s newest composer, a young Akira Yamaoka) made a much different game than Nakazato’s.

Most notably, Sparkster replaces the “boss rush” feeling of its prequel with much larger, expansive stages, each with just one main boss. Mini-bosses aren’t unheard of, but appear with far less frequency than in Rocket Knight. In theory, these multi-path stages should be a perfect use of Sparkster’s rocket pack (criminally underused in the first game), and in some cases that’s true (stage two’s factory is a blast to bounce around). More often than not, however, it results in stages that drag on far too long, offering nothing outside of the mascot platform milieu. Also, one would think having fewer bosses would result in grander, meticulously choreographed encounters, upping the prequel’s ante. In practice, unfortunately, this is not the case. Bosses are RKA homages at best and unimaginative at worst. Lastly, the brief shooter stages of the original are replaced by a single top-down segment late in the game. Watching Sparkster from above removes much of his personality and that of his opponents, resulting in a bland Axelike with none of its inspiration’s bombast or flair: An odd choice for a game that boasts the appeal of its star.

Though I think Sparkster’s new direction was ultimately the right way to steer the franchise (obviously; I copied most of it), fans agree the game was missing something. It lacked a certain flavor -- a spark, if you will -- that made the original Rocket Knight so compelling and charming. This may be one case where the superior power behind the SNES actually worked against it, in fact. On the Genesis, RKA’s team had to fight for every animation, every impossible trick, and every piece of delicious eye candy. With Mode 7 and all kinds of transparencies and colors, Sparkster’s developers had no reason to struggle past limitations, which is probably why one game feels like an über-team showing off, and the other just an exercise in going through the (colorful and fun) motions.

While Sparkster wasn’t perfect, and was anything but financially successful, it did help cement a fanbase strong enough to deeply love the opossum 15 years later. So much so that no sequel -- regardless of quality -- could ever match their memories of what it was like to play the originals. That’s more than you can say of Aero the Acrobat, at any rate.

By Tomm Hulett? | Feb. 13, 2012 | Previous: RoboTrek | Next: Final Fantasy III