(Review archived from January 26, 2019)
Despite the fact that Rocket Knight Adventures is a Konami title, I can’t help but draw mental comparisons to some of the better known Treasure games released for Sega systems. And because Treasure was actually formed by ex-Konami employees, I can’t help but wonder whether that connection actually has some merit in reality. OTOH that might be fanciful thinking on my part – Treasure was formed in 1992, and released its first game Gunstar Heroes a month after Rocket Knight Adventures released in August of 1993. Some of the similarities are striking though.
In point of fact Gunstar Heroes might even be the closest point of comparison I can make to this game. Although Rocket Knight Adventures is not as ‘shooty’ as Gunstar Heroes, it maintains a similar atmosphere of arcade style bombast and spectacle. There’s a steadfast focus on non-stop action with particular attention given to frequent multi-stage boss fights. The moveset is easy to grasp, yet takes practice to master. These are some hallmarks typical of Treasure games, and Rocket Knight Adventures follows a similar philosophy to an almost uncanny degree. It also needs to be said that this is a difficult game, probably even moreso than Gunstar Heroes, IMO. And that my friends is how we know we’re still in Konami territory. The difficulty in Rocket Knight Adventures rarely feels cheap, but it’s also very unforgiving. This is a game you learn by dying … a lot … which of course is all part of that good ol’ magic Konami touch.
I don’t mean to indicate that Rocket Knight Adventures is in any way derivative though. There are a number of areas in which it excels beyond even the mighty Treasure Sega library. One of those areas is in characterization. Treasure (IMO) never particularly exceled at developing memorable characters. Konami was a bit more savvy in this regard, and if ever there were a mascot-type character in need of something to actually mascot for, it could very well be the titular Rocket Knight (née Sparkster). This game exudes the type of charm and style characteristic in so many ‘flaghip mascot’ lines. In point of fact I have to wonder whether the game’s difficulty is the very aspect that prevented it from catching on in a greater capacity. Although this looks like a kid oriented, family fun type of game, it certainly doesn’t play like one.
While ostensibly a shooter/platformer, that description is probably a bit overly reductive. For one thing your jumps are extremely limited. So in order to make bigger ‘leaps’, you’re often required to charge up your rockets which are capable of launching you in 8 directions. This means of mobility is also instrumental in launching airborne attacks, and some bosses are only vulnerable to rocket based attacks. The game is also interspersed with a few side-scrolling shmup style levels which you tackle jet pack style. Variation in playstyle is always welcome in games like this, but unfortunately I feel that the shmup levels are a weak point in Rocket Knight Adventures. They’re not bad per se, but they just don’t feel quite as ‘dialed in’ as the rest of the game … which is a bit odd coming from the ‘House of Gradius’, but here we are. (There are actually a couple of great callouts to Gradius in the shmups levels which admittedly is a really nice touch)
Rocket Knight Adventures sits in this weird nether realm between ‘hidden gem’ and ‘well regarded classic’. It deserves to be remembered though, because this is one of the best Genesis games I’ve played in a long while (that wasn’t a replay). Highly recommended for action game fans, particularly so if you enjoy Treasure’s output on Sega systems.