Reviving retro franchises can be a tricky business. Change too little and, without the benefit of rose-tinted glasses, a game can feel tired and old-fashioned. Change too much and the whole point of a remake is lost amongst a swath of unwelcome ideas. Rocket Knight is unique in that it falls into both traps simultaneously; by changing many of the more likeable aspects of the original cult hit, and emphasising some of the less likeable ones, Climax Studios manages to prove that some franchises must be dealt with very delicately.
It seems strange that it has taken fifteen years for a successor to the original Rocket Knight Adventures game to surface; the time of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro and other twee platformers in the late nineties seemed to accommodate Konami’s Sparkster character far better than the current generation. But nonetheless it is within the aesthetics and mechanics of these franchises that Climax Studios’ overdue sequel is rooted. Rocket Knight plays like any game from its genre, filled with anthropomorphic animals, collectable jewels and colourful environments that tick all the boxes relevant to a post-Super Mario 64 platformer.
The original Rocket Knight Adventures distinguished itself with its steampunk-esque visual style and, most importantly, its use of Sparkster’s rocket pack. While the former has now been replaced by an attractive, if very conventional visual style, the Rocket Pack remains in a familiar form. This serves as a vital element of Rocket Knight‘s platforming; all of Sparkster’s rocket pack-related abilities are tied to a power meter which determines his ability to zip around the screen, cover large gaps or reach high platforms. It’s an interesting system on paper, and Konami used it to great effect over fifteen years ago. But Climax Studios have made the mistake of adopting an automatically recharging ‘Burst Meter’, rather than the manually-charged ability seen in the original Rocket Knight Adventures. This results in a gross overuse of the rocket pack in place of more traditional platforming and combat. Whereas in Sparkster’s original outing the rocket pack was used more strategically, here it is employed for practically everything, from crossing every gap to fighting every boss.
It is this overuse of ideas that serve as Rocket Knight‘s most damning issue; the game simply lacks variety. Climax Studios have attempted to mix things up with flying shooter sections in the vein of R-Type, but while these were mercifully short in the original title, here they are long meandering affairs that fail to endear you to the game in any way. Further attempts at variety come in the form of cold environments that freeze your Burst Meter and areas filled with lasers that must be turned on and off using switches.
If these sound like insipid ideas, that’s because they are and only serve to highlight the game’s lack of creative flair. They do a poor job of injecting variety into what is an otherwise extremely repetitive game and add little to the experience other than a way of padding out its short length. This is a genuine shame, however, as things truly begin well. Opening with an attractive and colourful environment the game seems to promise vibrant visuals and interesting, varied uses of Sparkster’s rocket pack, a promise that, while not fulfilled, proves that the game at least has potential. Furthermore the swordplay, while basic, does a great job of making the combat quick and punchy in the earlier stages. As it is, Rocket Knight certainly doesn’t get anything disastrously wrong, it’s just disappointing that it doesn’t do anything particularly right either.
But once those colourful environments are replaced with dull mechanical labs, and the few rocket pack-related ideas presented in the first stage are reused ad infinitum, any initial enthusiasm is dispelled quickly. Of course Rocket Knight gets the benefit of the doubt for not being a full release, but with the competition out there, how could it ever be? With Nintendo and Media Molecule seeming to have almost maxed out the potential of the platformer genre in very different ways, Rocket Knight needed to do a lot to even qualify its own existence in the first place. It perhaps scrapes that qualification by being fundamentally inoffensive, but today inoffensive simply isn’t good enough and all it ultimately amounts to is a game that is far too content in its own mediocrity.