The Rocketeer (NES) review
"Watching Cliff plod through a stage wouldn't be a problem, for example, if the stage were interesting instead of a void of color and personality. Repeating a stage after smashing your toe in a gear wouldn't be quite so bad if you knew the poorly-timed jump was your fault. And so it goes, with each problem compounding the next."
Before you start chuckling at me for having The Rocketeer in my collection, I'd like to make two things perfectly clear: first, there are worse games out there; second, I got this game as part of a bundle of old cartridges on eBay that contained much cooler titles. In plainer terms, it's not my fault!
As you may or may not have heard elsewhere, Bandai's adaptation of the big-screen flop The Rocketeer has mostly bland environments, a character that moves too stiffly for his own good, frustrating level design and gameplay that borders on redundant or derivative at the best of moments. That's not the problem, though. The problem is the way these lackluster elements combine to make The Rocketeer so dull that you'll forget its positive aspects and beat yourself up for buying it (unless, like me, you got it off eBay with little or no choice in the matter).
I already mentioned the bland environments, but they really deserve more than a cursory phrase that insults them and moves on. Or do they? From the minute you appear in the first of the game's levels, you'll likely be thinking to yourself ''Boy, I sure am glad I didn't pay a lot of money for this on eBay'' (or perhaps that's just me). The artists seem painfully aware of the color tones they already used for the main character, a displeasing selection of browns and lighter browns that looks like a cat crapped on a canvas and declared it art. The hangar in the first stage is brown, light brown, and pale blue, with airplanes parked behind you so that you don't realize you're bored out of your skull. From there, stages seldom deviate from such lows, with the only true standouts being the city skyline and the forest. These areas look very nice, with sufficient color variation. This quickly makes apparent the fact that the NES isn't entirely to blame for the game's shortcomings. Instead, I cite developer suckiness.
That ineptitude extends to play control. Though I've seen some people praise the way the character moves around on-screen, such platitudes only make me think the poor suckers bought the game somewhere other than eBay, and thus paid enough money that they feel the need to justify the purchase. Because, to be quite honest, Cliff (I think that's his name) clumps around like he needs to take a massive dump and is afraid sudden movements will soil his pants. His jumps seem slow and forced, yet he also glides far enough that one might forget he has a rocket strapped to his back. Thankfully, the game doesn't require a lot of precision jumps. What it does require is aerial maneuvering, and it's here that the game again drops the ball.
It seems that Cliff can fly for short distances (most of the way through some levels, provided the player has sufficient fuel and a clue where to go next). Considering that this is obviously the gimmick intended to make players scream ''I must buy that game and show it off to all my friends so they buy it too and make Bandai wheelbarrows full of money!'' (at least, back in the pre-eBay times), its execution is underwhelming. Cliff tends to fly in spurts, and will suddenly jerk into a different direction with such speed that Sonic the Hedgehog was surely taking notes back in the day. As a result, it's not uncommon to bump against various barriers in the given stages, such as the (apparently rock-hard) branches of trees, or the roof of a hangar, or the mystic barrier that blocks some skylines. Sometimes, poor control over Cliff's flight can lead to frustrating situations where you see a bullet coming but can do little or nothing to avoid it.
Part of this is the design of the stages themselves. Many of them feel as if they were designed by your average eBay user, not paid professionals. For a game that revolves around flying, the stage design is better suited to a typical platformer. Prepare yourself for the miracle of rotating gears, the wonder of generic (though pretty) forests with falling branches you need to dash under, city skylines at night and even mazes designed to test your intuition. In most stages you can find jet fuel, but jetting off into the wild blue yonder is likely to get you nowhere. There are few exceptions, and these almost always revolve around the few boss fights, such as a shootout with an aircraft of some sort, a fist fight with some goon, and a battle with some gun turrets. Aside from those instances, the forest is the only place where you'll find yourself flying at all, and that's mostly just because there is a heart and some ammo stashed up above the treetops.
Speaking of the life bar and the ammo system (and I was, if only indirectly), they're the two things this game does right. However, even at its best, The Rocketeer is the scourge of the used game listings on eBay. The way the game works is this: you run around a stage avoiding goons and keeping an eye on your life meter as you gather up ammunition so that you can shoot anyone foolish enough to stand in your way. Cliff has eight slots on his life meter, after which point another hit will trigger a cool set of stills that depict him falling to the ground in a barrage of bullets (naturally this happens even if bullets weren't the culprit of his untimely demise). Picking up a pink heart will add one more slot to his meter, while the extremely rare purple heart does even more for his stamina. Though you can find some such power-ups scattered throughout levels like popcorn bags and half-eaten nachos on a theatre floor, most of them are gleaned from the corpses of dead enemies. The same is true of the ammunition.
Though Cliff starts with only his fists, you can pick up ammo belts to add ten shots to his gauge. You won't have to rely on your fists for long at all. Unfortunately, it seems that every villain (except for the gray-suited ones that pour endlessly from the doors that seem to occupy most every stage) takes three pistol shots to kill. Though you can switch to other weapons by pressing 'select' on your controller, this is dangerous due to the fact that some of the other guns are good only in specific cases. There's little more frustrating than switching to a grenade, taking out a soldier, then finding that your weapon passes right over the head of the next enemy and allows him to punch you while you're trying to cycle through your list of weapons to something more practical (the only thing that even comes close is finding you've been suckered into purchasing a game like this on eBay). Even if you are happy with your artillery, the more powerful weapons take up more ammo with each shot, and thus can't be used for long before you're back to granny punches as your only means of defense. Gah!
If somehow you're still not convinced this game sucks, please hold off your mad dash to eBay for just a moment longer. I said the game's problem is the way all these elements come together, and so it is. Watching Cliff plod through a stage wouldn't be a problem, for example, if the stage were interesting instead of a void of color and personality. Repeating a stage after smashing your toe in a gear wouldn't be quite so bad if you knew the poorly-timed jump was your fault. And so it goes, with each problem compounding the next. Suddenly, those aspects of the game that are handled competently don't seem to matter, because you'll be wishing you were playing something else instead. Suddenly, even John Madden will be entertaining in comparison.
In the end, then, The Rocketeer is as annoying as my constant references to eBay throughout this review (see, you knew there was a reason for them). Like I said already, there are certainly games worse than this one. But at least they have the grace of being so bad you can gain entertainment from their stench. With this game, there's no such saving grace. It's a bland title that belongs exactly where you'll find it: at the bottom of the bargain bin or sneakily placed within a group of titles offered on some online auction site...
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 12, 2004)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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