Game Corner: Rocket Knight (Xbox 360)

GameCorner
RocketKnightLogo

Released: May 2010
Developer: Climax Studios
Also Available For: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox One

The Background:
Mate, how absolutely brilliant was Rocket Knight Adventures (Konami, 1993) back in the day? Back when cute, anthropomorphic mascots were all the rage, Sparkster (the titular “Rocket Knight”) really stood out thanks to some absolutely gorgeous graphics, kick-ass music, and fast-paced, rocket-based combat. I used to play that game so much as a kid but never actually managed to finish it (maybe one day); the game did well enough to receive two sequels, one for the Mega Drive and one for the Super Nintendo, but Konami’s long-forgotten and short-lived little franchise went dormant for far too long after these releases.

Sparkster’s time in the sun was all-too-brief considering the quality of his titles.

Then, out of nowhere, a revival of the franchise was thankfully put into production thanks to producer Tomm Hulett. A 2,5D, digital-only title, I first played Rocket Knight on the PlayStation 3 but I didn’t hesitate to snap it up once it went on sale on Xbox One so I could get into it again. It’s not an especially long or difficult game but, as one of my favourite franchises that has been sadly lost to the mists of time, I could never not jump at the opportunity to charge up Sparkster’s signature rocket pack once more.

The Plot:
Fifteen years after bringing peace to the Kingdom of Zephyrus, Sparkster has been living a quiet life as a family possum. His peaceful life is shattered when the Wolf Army suddenly invades the Kingdom; heeding the call to adventure, Sparkster dons his trademark armour and rocket pack and returns to the fight to defend his home once more.

Gameplay:
Rocket Knight is a 2.5D action/platformer in which players take control of Sparkster, a “rocket knight” who seeks to defend his land from invasion. All of Sparkster’s moves and abilities from his debut game return here, meaning he is armed with a large sword for some basic close-quarters action and which is also capable of blasting enemies from a distance as well.

Blast through enemies with Sparkster’s trademark rocket pack and sword.

Sparkster’s unique selling point was his rocket pack; by holding the B button and pointing Sparkster in a direction, players can blast ahead, mowing down enemies and ricocheting off walls to reach higher areas. Sparkster can also drill through certain breakable elements by tapping B again and briefly hover with a tap of the A button to aid with tricky platforming sections.

Sparkster’s abilities aren’t too deep but they are useful and simple to master.

However, Sparkster’s rocket pack isn’t finite in most stages; you’ll have to keep an eye on the energy bar in the top-left of the screen as you won’t be able to blast away if it’s empty. Luckily, this bar refills quite quickly, meaning you never have to wait too long to burst into action and Sparkster can also blow his energy reserves on a cartwheel-like attack that is super handy for bouncing dynamite back at enemies. Sparkster can also clamber across vines and bars with his tail; sliding down these will allow you to jump higher and further and you can also attack enemies by whirling around in a rocket-powered swing.

Take to the skies in auto-flying stages to mix things up a bit.

Stages are generally a simply case of moving Sparkster from point A to point B, with a smattering of enemies and platforming segments to contend with, but every so often you’ll be thrust into a sidescrolling auto-flying stage where you can fly indefinitely. In these stages, enemies, obstacles, and mines will try to slow your progress but you can blast at them with Sparkster’s energy shot. You can also hold X to charge up your shot and unleash a screen-clearing beam of energy that is perfect to taking out tricky enemies.

You’ll need to master Sparkster’s rocket pack to contend with later stages.

Other stages introduce more complex elements, such as when Sparkster finds his rocket pack affected by extreme cold. Your rocket fuel won’t regenerate in these stages unless you pick up a fuel icon or find a burning torch to defrost Sparkster. Other stages have you dodging and ducking fireballs, blasting from airship to airship while massive cannons try to knock you from the sky, hitting switches to open doors or lower energy fields, jumping from precarious moving platforms or navigating short, simple mazes to progress further, or outrunning a massive explosion.

Rocket Knight isn’t especially long but has a surprising amount of fun and variety packed into it.

Rocket Knight is not an especially long or complex game but it’s simple, easy to play fun that challenges you by increasing the difficulty of its enemies and stage hazards over time. Fortunately, checkpoints are plentiful throughout the game’s stages; Sparkster can replenish his health by collecting hearts, which are sporadically found throughout each stage, and earn extra lives by collecting 1-ups and earning enough points. Points are accumulated by collecting blue and red gems, finding power-ups, and building a combo by defeating enemies in quick succession. Each time you clear a stage, you’ll earn additional points for how fast you completed a stage, encouraging speedrunning and a degree of exploration as you hunt down hidden gems.

Graphics and Sound:
Rocket Knight is not an especially ground-breaking game in terms of its graphics but it has a simple, adorable charm; favouring a 2.5D aesthetic over the gorgeous sprite art of its original games, the game resembles a cel-shaded cartoon more than anything. Characters pop out from the background and are lively enough (though Sparkster could be a little more animated when left idle), appearing big and chunky and almost anime-like in their appearance.

Pantomime-like cutscenes relate the game’s simple story.

The game’s simple plot is told through pantomime-like cutscenes, as in the original game, with a brief synopsis greeting the player as each stage loads. These cutscenes are amusing and quaint, getting the point of the game’s uncomplicated narrative across easily enough and are thankfully not bogged down by copious amounts of voice acting (they are also entirely skippable if you prefer to just jump right into the action). The game’s music is just as good; Rocket Knight wisely opens with a remix of the memorable and catchy “Stage 1” music from the first game (still one of the greatest videogame tracks of all time, in my opinion) and takes its cue from there, punctuating each stage with plucky tunes that could maybe have a bit more oomph behind them but are nevertheless enjoyable.

Enemies and Bosses:
For the first portion of the game, Sparkster will have to contend with the Wolf Army; these are generally little more than cannon fodder, running head-first into your sword and attacks and easily dispatched of. Soon, they start tossing dynamite at your head (though these are easily knocked back with a swipe of your sword) or clinging from walls and ceilings to toss throwing stars at you. They’ll also pop out of the background or try to overwhelm you with sheer numbers, attack with bazookas, or drop bombs on you but are, for the most part, pretty easy to deal with.

Wolves and pigs will try to skewer you and blast you to pieces

However, after taking out Ulfgar the Merciless, the King and leader of the Wolf Army, Sparkster is betrayed by former-enemy-turned-ally General Sweinhart and must contend with a renewed invasion from Sweinhart’s Pig Empire. These swines are far more dangerous enemies, taking multiple hits to defeat and blasting at Sparkster with energy pistols, hiding behind shields, erecting electrical force fields, and piloting intimidating mechs to try and squash Sparkster flat.

Sparkster’s rival, Axel Gear, makes for some of the game’s more thrilling battles.

Since Rocket Knight is only a short game (it’ll probably take about an hour to finish on the “Normal” difficulty), you only have to contend with three bosses and two sub-bosses. The sub-boss battles are a one-on-one duel against Axel Gear, Sparkster’s hated rival; Axel has many of Sparkster’s abilities, including his energy beam and rocket pack-based attacks, but also circles the screen leaving damaging clouds in his wake and tosses grenades Sparkster’s way at any opportunity. These are some of the most fun bouts in the game, though, as it’s thrilling to go against Sparkster’s dark opposite; however, they can be frustrating when attempting the game on “Hard” mode.

The first boss is big and can be tricky but has a glaringly obvious weak spot.

The first true boss you’ll encounter is a giant mechanical forest shredder that tries to stamp, swipe, skewer, and explode you at every opportunity. The boss’s weak spot is the big, red metal “mask” on its head and you can choose to either rocket yourself into this or try to reflect the dynamite it tosses your way back at it but you’ll have to dodge its rockets and giant, scenery-destroying buzz saws as the fight progresses.

The second boss is largely immune to your attacks, requiring a different strategy.

Ulfgar the Merciless is a slightly less straight-forward opponent; impervious to your attacks, you must instead bait Ulfgar into charging head-first into blocks, knock dynamite back at him, or destroy the platforms he is standing on to damage him all while dodging his charging and melee attacks and the debris he causes to come crashing down from the ceiling.

You’ll eventually have to contend with General Sweinhart‘s massive pig-like mech.

The final boss is a battle against General Sweinhart himself and is also, fittingly, the toughest and most frustrating battle of the game. Sweinhart hides inside a titanic mech shaped in his image for most of the battle, randomly trying to squash you (or cause bottomless spits to emerge) or fry you alive with his laser eyes. When he leans in close, you have to quickly land an attack on his metal nostrils; take too long and he’ll spawn an enemy or three into the arena, which is only going to cause you more headaches. Land three hits and the mech goes down, spitting Sweinhart out.

Defeating General Sweinhart can be a challenge all by itself.

Here’s where it gets really tricky; you have to dodge Sweinhart’s laser and bombs all while trying not to touch the electrified parts of his downed mech and using Sparkster’s rocket pack to knock Sweinhart from the sky in such a way that he gets fried instead. If you’re quick about this, you can significantly knock a lot of Sweinhart’s health off but it’s so fiddly and tricky to dodge his attacks and get him to land in the right place that you’ll have to contend with his giant mech at least two times in a standard battle. To make things worse, the game is really stingy with health in this battle; when fighting the other bosses, a couple of health power-ups are available in the arena but, here, it seems completely random when one will drop from the mech’s nostrils, making this far more frustrating than it needs to be at times.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
In keeping with the first game, there’s not much on offer to help boost Sparkster’s performance throughout Rocket Knight; gems will add to your score to help you towards earning extra lives, 1-ups are occasionally found in stages, and certain stages will see you get an instant refill of your rocket fuel but that’s about it. There’s no invincibility or speed up, no shields or damage increasers, and no upgrades to get or worry about; it’s just you, your sword, your rocket pack, and your wits.

Additional Features:
As you might expect, Rocket Knight comes with a handful of Achievements for you to earn; sadly, there’s not very many and they’re not especially varied in their content. However, while clearing every stage and beating the game on “Normal” might be easy enough to get, others, like beating every stage below the par time or finishing the game on “Hard” mode, can be a mite trickier.

Bosses need to be damaged, or defeated, in certain ways in “Hard” mode.

You can select “Hard” mode at any time; however, staying in “Hard” mode is easier said than done. The only way to stop the game from automatically dropping the difficulty back to “Normal” is to land a special attack on each of the game’s bosses (such as damaging the forest shredder with dynamite or causing Axel to fly into his own bombs).

Additional skins and gameplay modes are available to unlock.

Once you manage it, though, you unlock two additional skins: one that lets you play as Axel Gear (which is awesome) and the other is Gold Sparkster, which is also an even more challenging gameplay mode. You can input the famous Konami code on the title screen to unlock these at your leisure but I don’t think that allows you to earn the Achievements associated with them.

The Summary:
Rocket Knight is an extremely enjoyable, if all-too-brief, return to form for one of Konami’s more forgotten franchises. Fast paced and simple to play, there’s not much here to really test your skills or have you pulling your hair out as even the game’s trickier moments are fun to play through thanks to the appealing aesthetics of the game’s graphics and soundtrack. The controls are tight and responsive, stages are short bursts of action and enjoyment, and the gameplay is simple yet easy to get to grips with. It would have been nice to see the three original games included as unlockables or bonus content but maybe one day Konami will remember Sparkster and give all four of his titles a bit of a spruce up for a new generation.

What did you think of Rocket Knight? Were you happy to see Sparkster randomly return from obscurity or did you have issues with the game’s length and presentation? Did you ever play Rocket Knight Adventures on the Mega Drive or either of its sequels? If so, what did you think of them and would you like to see more games in the franchise? Either way, whatever your thoughts on Rocket Knight, leave a comment below.

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