Rocket Knight Adventures
Based on: Never needing to "get" it (because you had it all along, baby, and don't let no one tell you otherwise).
Article by Nicola Nomali | June 20, 2008
In their short time on this earth, video games have provided numerous marvels that have risen to the forefront of public attention, not unlike any other creative medium. And like any business, they've also been flush with imitators looking to capitalize on any popular phenomenon. For every The Legend of Zelda, there's a Golden Axe Warrior; for every Street Fighter II?, a Fighter's History; for every San Andreas?, a Saints Row. At their best, these genre clones uphold the precise qualities that made the originals famous in the first place. But at their worst, they follow the path of least resistance, aping only the superficial, and quickly fall apart when it comes time to actually play them. And perhaps no other trend in gaming has remained so infamous as the mid-'90s glut of mammalian mascots cast in the smirking mold of Sonic the Hedgehog?.
Sega certainly deserved the flattery; after their Master System utterly failed to dent the NES's dominion over the console market, they came back with a vengeance with the Genesis -- a success largely won through sheer advertising. Especially in America, they subverted the fact that Nintendo had reached institution status by painting them as a doddering relic of the 8-bit past. And at the forefront of this contrast was the stylish blue hedgehog who left Mario, with his moustache and overalls of pragmatic conception, weeping impotently in a cloud of dust.
Of course, Sonic also starred in quite a fun little game, featuring inventive, momentum-based gameplay, surrealistic environments, and universally endearing characters reminiscent of Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat. Yet, as they would prove, the opportunists saw nothing more than the smirk -- the lofty wagging finger, the impatient tapping foot. Sonic was sold on attitude, and so attitude became the focus.
And what did it get us? Rocky Rodent, Aero the Acro-Bat, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, Awesome Possum ("Kicks Dr. Machino's Butt," I'm told), Bubsy, Punky Skunk, and on and on. Some are worse than others, but to call any of these products "soulless" would be charitable.
So far removed is Rocket Knight Adventures from this trainwreck that one might not even think of it now as part of the same trend, yet given Sonic's sheer magnetism at the time, it's difficult to say that its cast of characters don't in some way owe him their very fur. Still, it has a charm entirely its own, more Disney than Messmer, with a joyful hero whose idle animation shows him not frowning at the player for not keeping pace but cheerfully emitting a word balloon that reads "LET'S GO!" Don't let the grimacing American box art fool you: Sparkster doesn't kick anyone's butt so much as he slashes off his enemies' clothes, forcing them to retreat in their cartoon underpants. Through both normal gameplay and cut scene intermissions, he and an array of enemies and NPCs emote beautifully via a series of unique animations, carrying out a better drama in silent movie format than most games of the era could muster with all the words their ROMs could ever contain. And all of this is escorted by a soundtrack deliberately antiquated to match the fantasy setting; the mid-boss music in particular could have come right out of The Nutcracker.
Speaking of the setting, it, too, is more than it appears. While the outset of the game takes place in the typically medieval kingdom of Zephyrus, its invaders, the pig race of Devotindus, raze the countryside in rugged jeeps and crude mecha. As Sparkster chases the swine to their home turf, the environments gradually take on more modern appearances, until he's flying high over a steampunk cityscape where gritty metallic spires issue a haze of smoke into the sky. The final stages take Sparkster above the atmosphere, then onboard a futuristic space station for the ultimate showdown (although, in the classic Star Wars reversal, the "Pig Star" is actually ancient technology from A Long Time Ago).
As these two motifs clash, it seems no coincidence that the world of the game is named after a nineteenth-century novel, Erewhon, by one Samuel Butler. The book observes a satirical utopia ("Nowhere" backwards, almost) where, among other things, the citizenry renounce machines out of fear that they could attain autonomy and rule over humans. This struggle is reflected in the idyllic, pastoral Zephyrus, with the technologically-inclined Devotindus as the steel oppressors. And at the center of it all is Sparkster, the titular Rocket Knight: by breastplate and broadsword, goggles and jetpack, he's a soaring contradiction who bridges styles in aesthetics as well as gameplay.
On the surface, RKA is a traditional platformer; Sparkster hops along the terrain, swings a sword, climbs trees, swims, and, yes, even rides a mine cart at one point. But just one element, the aforementioned jetpack, completely shifts the direction of the action. At the push of a button, he can shoot himself in any direction, cutting cleanly through hordes of pigs with a jet-propelled blade or just ricocheting to otherwise unreachable paths and power-ups. Several scenes even allow him to fly indefinitely for some shoot'em-up action, digressing into a series of increasingly blatant Gradius? homages.
The jetpack is such a pleasure, in fact, that the only places where the game suffers are in the parts where you're not allowed to use it freely. In a strange facet of such an otherwise friendly experience, RKA was directed by Nobuya Nakazato, the future director of games as famously sadistic as Contra: Hard Corps and Contra: Shattered Soldier?. And it shows. Sparkster doesn't die in one hit, but rocketing around whimsically becomes ever more dangerous as the game goes on, firing the noble opossum headlong into a variety of unavoidable deathtraps with no prior warning. The methodical play this design demands occasionally pays off in some interesting platforming situations, but none so engaging that you wouldn't much rather be cutting loose with that cylinder of rocket fuel strapped to the hero's back.
Even so, Rocket Knight Adventures remains a dearly memorable experience, a diamond in an especially scummy rough stretch of video game history. Two distinct? sequels? were made for the Genesis and SNES, which extended the original's formula in interestingly divergent evolutionary paths, but despite this apparent enthusiasm on the developer side, history indicates that Sparkster was lost in the shuffle of tepid Sonic knock-offs after all. Besides the exceedingly rare cameo -- unusually rare for Konami, who usually revel in cross-franchise Easter eggs -- nothing has been seen nor heard from the property since 1994. If it had a spiritual successor, it must have been Namco's Klonoa?, a similarly delightful series that also made good on the furry mascot trope before it, too, was put to rest.
The last Klonoa game was produced in 2002, long after the mascot boom had ended, so maybe Awesome Possum and the like really did poison gamers' taste for wide-eyed woodland heroes for good. We can only hope the opposite: that time indeed heals all wounds, and the populace may give these elite a second chance should they ever return -- not to reject them as mass-produced threats to creativity, but to receive them as steadfast individuals, autonomous from mediocrity and crass commercialism. If not, we'll truly have gotten Erewhon.
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