Whimsy has long been a dirty word in the evolving world of video games. When it comes to the filthy job of cataloguing the history of interactive entertainment the “brown age” will stand as to the dark period when every third game involved locked and loaded bromeos battling turd monsters from dork hell and/or inexcusable racial stereotypes. I’m calling you out, neckbearded developer homogenate.
It wasn’t always like this. Once every 3rd game was an openly desperate attempt to chase the success of Super Mario. An age of hideous forced novelty followed: Earthworm Jim (he has a suit!), Sonic (he runs fast and creates new sexual fetishes for the lonely!), Bubsy the Bobcat (he has Korsakoff’s sarcoma!) and Awesome Possum (formicophilic, compulsively steals from clothing outlets). The 1990s were a grim void of imagination and it’s not hard to imagine the recent spate of bland cover-based darkness as a spiteful reaction to Sprocket, the electric frigging duck.
Sparkster was one of the second wave of mascot wannabes, emerging from Konami’s Contra team just after after Sega blew a Sonic-sized sucking chest wound in Nintendo of America. Sparkster was a cute little possum with a rocket pack, replacing Sonic’s extreme tiresome eco-anarchy with extreme deference to autocratic hereditary monarchy. Character début in Rocket Knight Adventures was a thoughtful and tasteful class in all-ages fun, but future entries tarnished Sparkster by making him pissed off and edgy, much like the glut of Sonic also-rans the series had initially risen above. The excellent Gameboy Advance Astro Boy license offered a similar mix of fighting, rocketing and shooting, but the genuine article sank out of sight for 15 years.
Rocket Knight is the fourth original title and it immediately reminds you mascot design is a lost art by filling your screen with Jak and Daxteresque character models and sub-manga HD art. British developer Climax might have failed on it’s initial brief to make the new Sparkster charming and but they do manage to show an appreciation for what made the first game work. The threadbare plot is sketched out with silent little pantomines, while stage text summaries are instruction manual-short. There’s a keen eye kept on level design with no bullcrap gimmicky padding. Enemies react semi-intelligently to Sparkster, crawling up walls and throwing explosives you can bat right back in their stupid faces. A sensible tone has been kept while avoiding the insanely angsty drama Mega Man, Spyro and Sonic once descended into. If you like meat and potatoes platform games you’ll appreciate the restraint.
My main problem with Rocket Knight is that it feels underdone. The dramatic set-pieces from the first game aren’t here and the lack of end-of-level bosses gives you the feeling Climax were straining against a budget and a development cycle. Sidescrolling greatness is hinted at but never reached. After the perfectly done Mega Man DLC sequels Rocket Knight feels like a worthy second which may disappoint hardcore fans of VTOL-enabled marsupials.
Bottom line: if you’re someone with reasonable expectations and you could use with a solid Genesis-style platformer, download. If you want to leave your childhood unsullied, go cry over Alien Bicep War: Inappropriate Touching With Chainsaws. You’ll feel better about yourself and insanely self-righteous.