Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rocket Knight, and Criticisms of Modern Platformer Game Design

I've always had a soft spot for Rocket Knight Adventures. As a kid, I squeed embarassingly when I learned that Konami, formerly devoted entirely to Nintendo consoles, would begin publishing their titles on my beloved Genesis. Most of it was just new installments in classic series - no offense meant, because Castlevania Bloodlines and Contra Hard Corps were both fantastic - but Rocket Knight Adventures was the first really good original property that Konami devoted to Sega's console. And so, I was pretty ecstatic to hear that they'd be bringing back Sparkster for a new HD title, one which would be a sequel instead of a strange homage title like the Rebirth series. It came out last week, and...honestly? I'm pretty disappointed by it, even though it's actually a pretty alright game.

I've actually never been one to understand the hate over the graphics that transpired when the game was first announced. It doesn't look overly fancy, and it's missing some of the pleasant griminess that tended to permeate Genesis titles, but for a cheapie downloadable game, it looks decent, and above else, it actually runs a 60 frames per second, which is vital for this type of game. I don't mind that it was developed by Climax Entertainment either - I hear people clamor that Konami has no right to make a sequel unless the original developers were involved, perhaps not realizing that Rocket Knight Adventures is fifteen years old at this point, and who the hell is actually still around at the company. Besides, Bionic Commando Rearmed shows that you don't actually need the original staff to capture the magic of an older game - you just need people that understand why the original was so awesome.

I always thought the reason that Rocket Knight Adventures ended up on the Genesis was that it was following the furry mascot craze that Sega popularized. But RKA's big draw is that it was, quite literally, Sonic as designed by the dude who made Contra III (and, later, most of the rest of the Japanese Contras.) The levels were divided up into "situation rushes", a variation of the "boss rush" term inveted by Gradius. Each level is broken down into three or four substages - these substages are only a few minutes long each, but all put Sparkster in different scenarios, each requiring different skillsets. While it never strayed from its core mechanics the way the Earthworm Jim games did, it provided a number of brilliant ways to not only keep the game fresh but show off some fairly impressive visual and design tricks.

The new Rocket Knight doesn't really have this, and what it does have, it doesn't do very well. The levels here are just like any bajillions of other 2D platformers - they are large, and they are filled with junk to collect. Said junk, outside of life restoratives, are mostly there for the scoring system, which increases a multiplier with the more items you get (or the goons you kill) in quick succession. It's a decent addition, but it doesn't make up for the fact that the levels are really long and drawn out. There are platforms to jump on, rails to swing on, walls to bounce off of, and enemies to kill, but there's no real thought put behind them. Throughout the first half of the game, you're never given any interesting challenges either. Things pick up by the third world, where you need to make better uses of the rocket dash, but it's too little, too late.

Beyond the level design, the big change is the way that the rocket boost is handled. In the original game, you needed to charge it for a few seconds, before it would send you rocketing maybe two or three screen legnths. In the new one, you can boost as much as you want - provided you have enough boost, which regenerates pretty quickly - but you only travel less than half the length of the screen.

This change drastically alters the feel of the game, and not for the better - as a whole, it simply lacks energy. In the Genesis game there was a visceral thrill in launching Sparkster up off the screen and watching up flail helplessly to the ground seconds later, or bouncing off the walls maniacally, or perfectly time a rocket dash so you hit an enemy in its weak point and properly bounced back to safety. There's a little of that magic contained within, but it feels so much weaker, lacking in the speed, strength, and most importantly, precise design, that made Sparkster such a classic.

You know what the new Rocket Knight reminds me of? Ratchet and Clank. Sure, it's 2D, but the approach towards design is fairly similar. The levels in both are fairly large, long, and kinda generic. The music is pleasant, if bland. On a moment to moment basis, it's pretty fun, but it's not terribly engaging nor difficult (even on the Hard mode), and you really only end up dying if you do something stupid. You might come back a week or two later and find that the experience has completely exited your brain, having been rendered entirely inconseqential.

I guess it's for that comparison that I can't completely write off Rocket Knight. It really doesn't feel like a game developed for fans of the 16-bit games - rather, it's "modernized" with a brand of design that might be appealing to today's younger gamers. Somewhere back in the 32-bit era, people's attitudes towards gaming value changed, and thus demanded longer experiences. Beyond the perception that 2D that was outdated, this was one of the driving factors in people believing that shorter, arcade-style games were no longer relevant. Rocket Knight, while still fairly short and beatable within a couple hours, follows more closely to this philosophy - quantity over quality. I would've preferred a much shorter game with more care put into the levels and at a higher difficulty, but it's just getting with the times, and I can't fault it too hard for that.


  1. This post made me not want to buy it even for nostalgia purposes. Why didn't Treasure make the update :-(

  2. Same here, no buy for me. Could we at least get the originals on Wii?

  3. I really miss games of old. Sure they had errors and crazy difficulty levels but they were so good!

    None of that 'lets make it easier for 'casuals' without adding a hard mode' stuff.

    Also Treasure would of done a great job at this, I agree. Though maybe not, remember Wario World on Gamecube? Not saying it wasn't a good game, because it was great, but it was just so... easy, short and dissapointing.

  4. I thought it would be like this when I first saw the trailer. IMO "Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2" for Genesis was already going in this direction, with large and generic levels.

  5. The original character designer was Shuzilow HA, I really miss his style.

  6. I've also heard that the new Rocket Knight is really realllllllyyy short.

  7. A quick rebuttal:

    "In the new one, you can boost as much as you want - provided you have enough boost, which regenerates pretty quickly - but you only travel less than half the length of the screen. This change drastically alters the feel of the game, and not for the better - as a whole, it simply lacks energy."

    I have to disagree with you there. Having never owned a Genesis or Mega Drive, I've only briefly played RKA on an emulator about a decade ago. So I don't have a ton of experience with the original game.

    However, I really have to say that the changes to the rocket pack, to me, really feel like they're for the best. As someone who is essentially new to the series (as far as my muscle memory is concerned), I appreciate the ability to instantly boost without too much fear of going out of control. It just plays a lot more newbie-friendly than the original. It's still very much a hardcore platform game with lots of different moves relying on different combination of buttons (when they say "controller recommended" THEY AREN'T KIDDING), but the moves are generally easier to learn and use right away.

    Considering how small the hardcore platform gamer contingent is on the PC, and there hasn't been a Rocket Knight/Sparkster game released in over a decade, I'd say it was a darn smart move to make it friendlier to new players. Sure it may "lack... precise design" but in trade you get more precise control over Sparkster and you (hopefully) expand the potential audience beyond only those who are very familiar with, and willing to tolerate, the particular quirks of oldschool platformers.

    More people buying it = better chance of a sequel with more creative level design.

  8. @MadTinker
    You're definitely right. Rocket Knight is much more precise than its ancestors, plus the way it's handled, it's almost a more integral part of the game - you rarely needed it for platforming before but in the new one it's pretty much the crux on the entire game. It's one of those things you could technically argue is better...but it also removed what I loved so completely about the first game, which again, was less a traditional platformer and more Contra, a style of game I definitely prefer.

    Also, the game is far from long, but it's longer than an average platformer from the 16-bit era. For a downloadable title it's a decent length.

  9. I've got the first two on MD, this one looks... questionable :P

  10. I don't know about you guys, but I've heard it's at least good enough for me to buy. And after all, if Rocket Knight gets enough sales, this might convince Konami to bring the Sparkster/Rocket Knight games to Virtual Console. Even better, Konami could greenlight a sequel that would have a much, much, better developer at the helm. Like, say the Bionic Commando Rearmed team.

  11. The rocket pack is the same from the genesis sparkster game.

    It plays more like that than the first rocket night or the SNES sparkster.

    I also do not think the art style of sparkster needed to be changed from his old games he looked cool as is and timeless as mickey mouse and mario/yoshi.

    but so was sonic and they changed him anyway.

    the sword swing is also more wimpy than in the genesis sparkster AKA rocket knight 2 when he was hacking up dudes with the sword in that game you felt it.

    I don't like the changes but I don't hate them all either it is better than no sparkster I there has only been 3 16-bit games and this new game was not horrbile I will take it.

    I bought it just to vote for sparkster hope it sells so rocket knight gets another go, just buy it if you want more rocket knight of any kind.

  12. By buying this game you are promoting them to make more games like this. Not more games like Sparkster.