Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit: Rocket Knight Adv.
Everything's better with a jet pack!
Howdy, folks! Who's your favorite possum?
If you're a fan of A Goofy Movie, you probably know the answer to that question as "Lester". But we here at Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit have a different answer, and it's Sparkster - The star of Konami's Rocket Knight Adventures for the Sega Genesis!
Let's take a look at our hero, shall we? Look at the Sonic-style smirk all full of attitude, even when he's hanging upside down by his tail. Check out that cool blue armor he's wearing. And although you can't see it too well in this particular picture, did I mention he has a jet pack strapped to his back that propels him to incredible speeds? That's right, a frickin' possum with a jet pack! That makes him indefinitely more awesome than Lester, if you ask me.
So, the character was cool, the game he starred in was one of the best titles in the Sega Genesis' massive library, and he had the backing of Konami, one of the major game publishers of the day. So, what went wrong? Why isn't this character more well known, and why doesn't he have dozens of sequels under his belt, along with merchandise and a cartoon series? Well, let's take a closer look...
ROCKET KNIGHT ADVENTURES
RELEASED: AUGUST 1993
Come with me if you will to the early 90s - A time when everybody was trying to cash in on the "animals with attitude" trend ever since Sonic the Hedgehog made his debut back in the summer of 1991, and blew the gaming world away. Thanks to Sonic's massive out of the gate popularity, we were bombarded with a slew of forgettable games starring animal mascots that tried so desperately to show us how cool they were. Off the top of my head, I can remember such failed mascots as Bubsy the Bobcat, Awesome Possum, Mr. Nutz (a squirrel), and Punky Skunk. You wanna know how bad things were back in those days? President Bill Clinton's pet cat, Socks, almost got his own video game where he was going to be reimagined as a cartoon cat with shades and attitude. I kid you not. The game was canceled before it was released, but images of it exist, and I have the horrible, terrifying proof.
This was almost a thing, people! This was almost a thing!!
So yeah, it was dark times indeed. But Rocket Knight Adventures stood out from the pack for a number of reasons. For one thing, it wasn't just a simple platform game with an "animal with attitude" slapped in. It was a full-fledged action/adventure game set in a lush and lavish fantasy world that the game programmers took time and pride in designing. There was also a somewhat intricate backstory to the game, which seemed to suggest Konami had big plans for this little guy. Not only that, the graphics and music were of the highest quality, and some of the best the Genesis had seen in that time, with a Disney-style look, incredible animation, and special effects like transparencies that you didn't see too often back then. But most importantly, the game was just incredibly fun to play, and a great challenge to even the most seasoned gamer. I owned the game when it came out, and I haven't been able to beat it until just recently for this article.
It's clear that Konami thought Sparkster was going to be a huge hit with the kids. Not only did his debut game have a free t-shirt giveaway offer (as advertised on the box), but the instruction manual even had an offer for the buyer to join the Sparkster fan club! This brings about sad images of the little guy attending his own fan club meetings, and having nobody else show up. Yes, even though Rocket Knight Adventures won critical praise and was seen by many in the industry as one of the best "mascot" games of the era, nobody seemed to notice. They tried again to make Sparkster a star with a sequel for both the Super Nintendo and Genesis, but again, nobody took notice. Even though he was better than everything else out there at the time, poor Sparkster was doomed to join the ranks of the failed animal mascots of the 90s.
So, let's take a closer look at what made this game so great and underappreciated, starting with the background story.
Sparkster's story is set on the far away planet of Elhorn, where the peaceful kingdom of Zebulos resides. The kingdom of forest animals is ruled over by the wise King El Zebulos, who years ago, protected his people from invasion by an evil army of pigs who attacked with a powerful spaceship and weapon known as the Pig Star. When the king defeated the invading forces, he put a seal upon the Pig Star so that it could never be used again. However, over the years, evil forces have sought to break the seal and use the Pig Star for their own purposes. And so, the Rocket Knights were formed to protect not just the seal, but also the people of Zebulos.
Sparkster and Axle Gear battle one another in giant robots in the game.
In the game's backstory, Sparkster is a war orphan who was adopted and raised by the leader of the Rocket Knights. The young possum was trained to follow in his adoptive father's footsteps, and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming one of the finest Knights. However, a rival Knight known as Axle Gear became jealous of Sparkster, and sought to become greater than his rival. Axle challenged Sparkster's father, and a battle ensued between the two. In the end, Axle Gear was defeated and banished from the kingdom, but not without great cost, as Sparkster's father was severely wounded in the battle, and could no longer lead the elite Knights. Sparkster was named the new leader of the Rocket Knights, but he also wanted revenge, and would spend any time he could searching for Axle Gear to make him pay for his crimes.
As the game kicks off, Sparkster must cut his search for revenge short and return to his home kingdom, as the Devotindos Empire led by Emperor Devligus Devotindos has launched an attack on Zebulos. This army of evil pigs have kidnapped the king's daughter, Princess Sherry, because she happens to know how to break the seal on the Pig Star. Not only that, but the treacherous Axle Gear has joined up with the Devotindos Empire, and is aiding them in their invasion campaign. This makes the mission all the more personal to Sparkster, as he attempts to not only defeat his rival once and for all, but also save the very land itself.
The game is set over seven levels, covering a wide variety of environments. You start off in Sparkster's home kingdom, where you fight your way through the castle while it is under attack, trying to prevent the Princess from being snatched away. From there, you explore the fields and lush forests of Zebulos, and even dank caverns, until you finally reach the mechanical home of the pig empire, which has a heavy steampunk theme and influence. After that, you will rocket into the stars for the final confrontation on the Pig Star itself in a last ditch attempt to destroy the ultimate evil behind it all.
So, let's take a closer look at the gameplay, and see what makes this a Hidden Treasure of 16-Bit.
Unlike the large majority of animal mascot games that were out at the time, Rocket Knight Adventures is much more of an arcade-style action game than a platformer. While the levels have plenty of the standard "run left to right" aspects, as Sparkster slashes attacking enemies with his sword, and there is some platforming involved (He can also hang from tree limbs and ledges upside down by his tail.), the game would love to throw in little action scenarios, like shooting stages while flying through the level. It also had some wonderfully inventive sequences thrown into every level that not only kept the game fresh, but showed off some really impressive Genesis special effects that had not been seen at the time.
Not only was this transparent lava effect cool, it was vital to completing the level!
For example, one part of the stage is set against a waterfall, with certain platforms placed in both the foreground and background, and you would have to make your way between both in order to be successful. In another area, there is a pool of lava which rises up and down, showing not just Sparkster's reflection, but the reflection of everything around him. This was actually vital to this level, as the foreground blocks part of the level from your view, and you would have to rely on the reflections in the lava in order to pass through this area.
Other innovative moments included a platform that you would have to control by hitting an "up" and "down" arrow on the platform itself in order to navigate a large field of spikes. And of course, there is one of the coolest parts in the game - the final battle with Axle Gear. First, you would battle your rival in a pair of giant robots (as pictured above), and once that fight was won, your opponent would cause a giant breach in the hull of the ship you were fighting in. So, Sparkster would have to hold onto a set of poles by his tail as he fought Axle, who was floating uncontrollably around him. If Sparkster ever let go of the pole he was hanging onto or missed a jump, he would be sucked into the vacuum of space.
There were just so many awesome little moments thrown into the game, and of course, most of them revolved around Sparkster's jet pack. It allowed him to not only reach out of the way platforms, but he could also rocket up shafts and passageways to reach higher areas. There were also "chase" levels built into the game, where our hero would have to either rocket to the exit in time, or have to outrun some enemies who were chasing him down a twisting maze-like corridor. This obviously added a ton of variety to the usual side scrolling levels, which were fun enough on their own. But the programmers in this game obviously had a lot of great ideas for their new mascot, and really wanted his first game to stand out.
And let me tell you, if the gameplay didn't grab you, then the graphics and sounds definitely would. Rocket Knight Adventures looked like nothing else on the Genesis, with huge bosses displaying individual rotating segments and parts, the previously mentioned transparencies, and a highly detailed cartoon look. Not only that, but the characters just had a lot of personality. There are lots of cute little animated sequences in the middle of levels, such as early in the game, when Sparkster is running through a burning castle, and comes upon a mysterious wrapped gift lying in the middle of the ground. Sparkster stops, a question mark appearing over his head. But when it opens, his rival appears, and takes off to capture the Princess. The game uses the expressive and often funny animations of the characters to tell the story, instead of through text or dialogue. It gives an extra layer of polish to what is already an excellent game. As for the music, given how weak the Genesis sound chip was, it's amazing what the composer (best known for their work in the Castlevania games) was able to pull off, giving an appropriately grand and somewhat orchestral sound to your quest.
Like the other games I have covered for this series, there is no one single thing that stands out about Rocket Knight Adventures. The attention to detail in the characters and the world, as well as the numerous little touches that you didn't see in a lot of animal mascot games made it stand out. It's simply mind boggling that this game didn't get more attention back in the day, and was considered a flop. If you go back and play this today, I guarantee you will see this as one of the finer action titles of the 16-bit era.
WHY I CONSIDER IT A HIDDEN TREASURE OF 16-BIT:
Um...Have you even been reading this article? Seriously, there is so much invention and creativity behind this title, you can tell why Konami was hyped about it, and certain that it would be a success. I may be wrong, but I believe that this was Konami's first game for the Genesis. If true, then they really kicked off their library for the system with a huge bang. The only possible downside I can see is that the game can be incredibly hard, and will take quite a while to beat. Don't let the cartoon graphics fool you, this one is quite a challenge. But hey, that just means you get to enjoy it longer.
After his debut game, Sparkster did get a sequel for both the Genesis and SNES, appropriately called Sparkster. And even though they both shared the same name, they were completely different games. I have not played this, but I definitely plan to correct that as soon as I can. After that, there was years of silence, but once again, Sparkster returned in the form of a downloadable title for the Playstation 3 and XBox 360. Again, I have not played this, but plan to correct it. Sparkster also made some cameos in a number of Konami games afterward, but the little guy never achieved the stardom he deserved.
I implore anyone who is into retro gaming to seek out and give this one a chance. It's one of the most fun and original action titles available, and is pretty much the definition of a hidden treasure. Play it for yourself, and see why this game deserved to rank right up there with the classic Sonic games back in the day.
That's all for this installment. Next time, we'll be looking at a cool little spinoff of the Ghouls 'n Ghosts franchise for the Super Nintendo. Until then, fellow retro junkers, keep the past alive!