November 27, 2014

In RETROspect: Rocket Knight Adventures

So the masters of the Cartridge Club finally got their shit together and added a Genesis title to the roster, and the game in question for November 2014 was Konami's Rocket Knight Adventures! This is a game I've had in my arsenal for a long time, and I've always enjoyed playing it so I figured this was a great opportunity for another In RETROspect blog!

When I first cracked into the game many, many moons ago, I only recall feeling like it was a classic platformer, which was a game genre I spent a great deal of time with back in the day. It's a quick, fun game with a unique hero leading you on this multi-territorial adventure. And because you're an opossum I don't know when the "o" happened (teehee!), it was just "possum" when I was a kid... there are a few handy gameplay mechanics that you won't see in any other game.
Upon replaying… it's harder than I remember. This particular title emphasizes the need for excellent timing and a great deal of platformer's instinct and frankly, I'm a little rusty. I do have to mention that one area RKA excels in is sound effects! They are phenomenal! There are not many games in which simply deploying a parachute will make you smile. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty tight, too. Not the greatest of the era, but certainly catchy and the upbeat tunes will keep you motivated throughout. And for the record, the game still looks amazing; very sharp, and some of the best 16-bit graphics I've seen.

This is a prime example of a game in which the manual is a good thing to have. It's not difficult to figure out the controls or how to navigate the levels, but without the manual you'll really have no idea what's going on, what things are or what you're to be doing to beat the game.

The story takes place in a world called "Elhorn," where possums in armor are a totally normal sight…
Anyway, in the past, the King of Elhorn fought off a group of invaders that attempted to conquer the world with their all-powerful ship, the "Pig Star" blatant Star Wars reference and once defeated, the ship was protected by the King and his assembled troupes, the Rocket Knights. This is where Sparkster comes in. But Sparky didn't anticipate another Rocket Knight - Axel - going rogue and wounding Sparky's father, so he sets off in pursuit of Axel, chasing him for years but never quite catching up.
Now, Axel had shown his face while the kingdom is under attack by the hypnotic Devotindos, and the bastard has kidnapped the princess. Real original, Axel! It turns out the princess knows where the legendary Pig Star is hidden, and Axel wants it. So basically Sparky has to save the princess and thereby the world!
To do so, the player navigates seven stages which cover the spread: caves, rivers, jungles… outer
space. You name it. Most of the stages employ the typical side-scrolling platform design, but RKA really takes it to the next level; some levels require you to swim or surf, or fly nonstop in which case your jet pack will automatically power up for the duration. There is a constantly changing landscape, water, sky, land, etc. and sometimes forces you to discover clever tricks like moving BEHIND a waterfall or using your reflection in lava to get by. These are really impressive effects for their time! One particularly annoying stage requires you ride a moving platform and slash at the up or down arrows to control the beast. Brace yourselves for that one.
You have at your disposal jumping, hanging/swinging from trees, and the crucial rocket launch (with your jet pack) to get around, and Sparky comes equipped with a short-distance projectile sword to take down baddies. From time to time it is also beneficial to use your fully charged rocket launch as an attack. In a pinch, this technique will often negate an enemy attack as well! 
While the levels are very well designed, they are fairly linear and in most cases you can't traverse backwards much. Periodically, a "go!" arrow will pop up to show you the way but it's really not necessary. Along the way you'll discover various items like fruit as well as little gems, and the game is very generous with 1-ups in every level.

Occasionally there will be a cute setup scene before the level, detailing a small portion of the story - like the King launching you into the sky with a cannon - but other than that, you're on your own.
At the top of your screen is your life count ("rest"), your score, and your hearts - or how many hits you can take before you lose a man… er… possum - and just above that is your charge meter for your jet pack! When it's fully lit up, you can release a rocket launch.

On the Genesis controller, holding down A or C will charge your jet pack allowing you to make an uncontrollable launch in any direction you push the D-pad. If you don't push your D-pad, you'll simply perform a cool spin attack. This move is key to beating the game, and can be annoying to execute on an angle, which you will have to do a lot (by pressing up+left or right together). Once you launch, you have no control over our possum friend's movements, meaning you'll have to line up your launches just so to complete the task. This can take some time to master and is easily the most annoying aspect of the game. Additionally, there are also some moments in which it is crucial that you DON'T use the rocket launch, so mastering this tool is a must!
Beyond that, the controls are very simple: start will pause the game; you navigate Spark with the D-Pad; B is jump and A and C are both attack. You can alter these settings in the options if they don't suit you.
I'd argue that the game was a little ahead of its time for controls anyway, but for what it's worth, I remember the launches being a little easier to handle with the smaller, 6-button "turbo" controller rather than the default Genesis brick.

Bosses in RKA are really impressive. There are so many required techniques and variations and the game demands you do more than just dodge an attack and throw one back. There are a number of obstacles thrown at you during boss fights, like projectiles, disappearances, patterns, fire, guessing games… sometimes it can take a sec to figure out what you have to do, but it's straight forward enough. Once again, timing and instinct will help you survive the many bosses - usually 2 or 3 per stage, and many have several "forms" or substages, such as the train boss, who'll take three variations and dozens upon dozens of hits to conquer. This isn't like some of the other plats from the time in which nearly every boss was virtually identical and if you could master one technique, you could beat the game with relative ease.
Sometimes even the normal baddies can throw a bit of challenge at you, like the ones that require you to counter projectiles to get past barriers, but for the most part, the pigs go down with one hit. BACON! GET YER BACON, HEERE!
Towards the end of the game, it starts to get a little crowded in the combat department and this does decline the "fun" factor of the game sharply. That said, there are few better feelings of accomplishment in this world than when you defeat these stages. Or Battletoads, but let's not get into that.

Then you're met with this here results screen! You earn points from collecting gems, as well as taking down baddies. Acquiring ALL of the gems in a level will reward with a 1-up! Having more full hearts at the end of the level will add to your overall score, too. You'll also come across fruit like apples or bananas which will give you health, and help you boost your final score.

The cast of RKA is pretty short and sweet. We have:
Sparkster, our possum hero;
El Zebulos, the legend;
Axel Gear, the rival;
Princess Sherry, the damsel;
The King, the desperate father;
Devligus Devotindos (say THAT 10 times fast), the evil guy;
and an array of Angry Birds enemy ancestors.

Regarding difficulty, Children, Easy, Normal and Hard modes are available in the North American release of RKA. The chief difference is number of lives and continues you're allowed for your playthrough. Beyond that, the game is a fantastic demonstration in platforming, so the challenge of the game depends on your comfort with the genre. Personally, I'm a little out of practice, so it took me about and hour and fifty minutes to conquer the game on normal mode, after revisiting it beforehand on Children mode to get back into the swing of things. This is a tip I recommend to anyone who's struggling with this game!

Overall, RKA is just a very challenging and thereby extremely fun platformer. It's decently paced and a lot of fun to play so I'm glad the Cartridge Club brought it out of forced retirement for me. I'm reminded how absurdly good looking this game is, and the great deal of enjoyment that comes with it. If you're not convinced, I implore you to hop online (…I guess you're already here...) and look at some gameplay footage. If you still don't want to give it a try, you're dead to me…

…okay fine, you're not dead to me, but I don't understand how anyone could resist this title!

It's not technically a cheat, but I've noticed that against some bosses, if you throw a rocket launch attack at the precise moment you're hit, it will actually negate the attack and register as one against the boss instead.
Beyond that, I'm not actually aware of any cheats for this game! I know there is a level select cheat, as well as unlock mode cheats in the Japanese version of the game ("normal" and "hard" modes were not immediately available in that release!) but I'm not knowledgable of any that work with the North American cartridge.

As I mentioned before, RKA was the spotlight game for the Cartridge Club this month, and while the accompanying podcast does not feature me, I still insist you join the club and download this month's podcast! It features my pals Duke from Retro Nonsense, the illustrious Ram Vox and of course, the Bros! Clicky clicky! (If the RKA episode is not there now, it will be in the next day or two! Listen to something else in the meantime. I recommend Bioshock...)


  1. Well said Lo. I always did (and still do) say possum too. I was glad to discover this gem through the club that escaped me as a child being a Nintendo fanboy and all. This game defintley shined in its variety of game play. The graphics and sound were impressive as well - but you said it much better then I ever could. So I'll just say that this game is a near perfect platformer from the 16 but era that, in my himble opinion, is WAY better then Sonic. Very nicely written.

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