"Developing a game specifically for the N64 was a move that could be viewed as either reckless or cunning. The systemís inability to rise out the shadow of the more commercially successful PSX meant that any exclusive games would have a limited reach by default, but then a good game has a better chance of garnering attention in an altogether less eventful library. Rocket: Robot on Wheels effectively turns both of those theories upside down. It fits squarely into the platformer categ..."
Developing a game specifically for the N64 was a move that could be viewed as either reckless or cunning. The systemís inability to rise out the shadow of the more commercially successful PSX meant that any exclusive games would have a limited reach by default, but then a good game has a better chance of garnering attention in an altogether less eventful library. Rocket: Robot on Wheels effectively turns both of those theories upside down. It fits squarely into the platformer category Ė the one type of game that the N64 has plenty of. And as a result, it was overshadowed by the bigger, safer franchises, the ones youíre already familiar with because you were too busy playing them when you could have been enjoying Rocket.
Of course, I could run through my usual routine here, but I can sell you on the sheer creativity of this game right now by telling you that in one level of Rocket, youíve got to reach higher ground by picking up sheep with a tractor beam, sticking them to a particularly thorny wall and using them as stepping stones. End of review.
Post-script: In retrospect, itís pretty easy to see why Rocket went ignored, because it follows a relatively mundane formula that any serious N64 fan should be familiar with. ďGo to these worlds and collect these shiny objectsĒ is a good summary, yet the brilliance of Rocket is not in its structure, but rather the individual ideas that propel it. The main character himself is, as the title very blatantly suggests, a robot on wheels named Rocket and he controls unlike any character Iíve ever seen in a video game: With momentum. He picks up speed as he moves. He accelerates when going downhill, and canít climb a steep slope without getting off to a run first. Itís as if Rocket himself is a vehicle, which would make sense given that heís a machine.
This may seem like an odd choice for a character meant to execute precise feats of platforming, but I assure you that Rocket performs as well as he should given the circumstances. There is, for example, no trace of traction in his movement, as some would fear: Take your thumb off of the analog stick and Rocket comes to an immediate halt. The challenge of the game is derived from how unusual the controls themselves are. Iím reminded of my recent thrashing of Tonic Trouble, a platformer that was only ever difficult because its broken mechanics made it so. Rocket is difficult because the mechanics function exactly as theyíre supposed to Ė itís simply an adjustment. I could see those turned off by platformers being unable to tell the difference between the two, and thatís when I realized: This isnít meant to convert anyone. This game was created for those who love platformers and want to see them expanded upon. If youíre one of the precious few whose ears perk up at the mention of Rayman 2 or Donkey Kong 64, keep listening.
Much of Rocketís gameplay revolves around a physics engine so ahead of its time that Iím wondering if Valve took a few pointers from developer Sucker Punch on this one. Rocketís main gadget is the aforementioned tractor beam, and the mere act of tossing around objects and watching them react realistically to the world was one of Rocketís greatest pleasures. (Not so much today, I guess, but itís certainly fun to see such an impressive engine being utilized in an N64 game.) Water effects are especially remarkable: Jump onto a floating crate and itíll rock and sway as a floating object really would. One brief but ingenious platforming exercise has Rocket leaping across a set of buoys that tip over at the slightest disturbance. The solution, you quickly realize, is to never stay on a buoy long enough to fall off.
So thatís great and everything, but how is the physics engine used in-game? Well, thatís a tricky question, because itís used for everything. The game moves from one intriguing idea to the next at such an alarming rate thatís itís difficult to pinpoint one key aspect of Rocket that makes it work so well. I guess itís variety. Even the best platformers donít really ďchangeĒ from beginning to end. They simply ramp up the difficulty, and the levels vary in basic structure and aesthetics; thatís it. Rocket literally feels like a different game every time you boot it up thanks to the wonderful gameplay motifs that give each level a sense of distinction. One fantastic stage early on offers puzzles that revolve around changing color; a later level, set in a mine, has players blowing things up and manipulating large objects. Any of the ideas present in Rocket would get old if stretched to the duration of a full-length game. Itís that theyíre compiled into one consistently varied package that makes Rocket work so well as a whole.
I mentioned that Rocket takes place in an amusement park, and they get the generic Coney Island locale out of their system early on; eventually, the theme park setting is merely used as an excuse to provide some of the wildest and most varied cosmetic themes one could ask for. Furthermore, one of the chief mechanics present in the game Ė controlling vehicles Ė is one that becomes increasingly more relevant as the game progresses, with the realization that each vehicle fits well with the themes presented by the subsequent level. Those color-changing puzzles I mentioned are accompanied with the Hoversplat, a wonderful little mobile contraption that comes equipped with a paintball cannon. The delightfully acrophobic Arabian Heights, a city nested in the clouds, seems intimidating until you pilot the magic carpet provided from the start.
With all of this jumping around from one idea to the next, Rocket could have potentially come off as feeling like one massive tutorial, and itís a feat of development prowess that the game is intuitive from start to finish. One of my favorite examples of ďdoing a lot with a littleĒ is also one of the first challenges of the game, in which players are tasked with building a roller coaster from the ground up so that the finished product will travel through five numbered targets, in order. It sounds easy, and the tool set youíre given is deceptively simple. The challenge is in minding the ďrulesĒ by which the coaster can be built, and using your limited capabilities to their fullest. Itís such a brilliant puzzle that I was hoping the mechanic would make a return later in the game.
Outside of its lounge-esque soundtrack and occasionally uncooperative camera (which sometimes seemed confused with the instructions I was giving it), this may be Rocketís biggest flaw: So many excellent ideas have been forced into this package that very few of them feel fleshed out. I can see some being turned off by the gameís attention-deficit nature, and I once made the same complaint about Conkerís Bad Fur Day, which to me felt like the philosophy of a mini-game compilation applied to an action/platformer universe. But while that gameís randomness was its greatest detriment, this is somehow never an issue with Rocket. This game knows exactly what itís doing.
What is it doing? Providing us N64 fans with a gold mine of ingenious content for us to sink our teeth into. Those who yearn for the good old days of the collect-a-thon platformer get a figurative slap on the wrist for ignoring this one. Now track down a copy of Rocket and consider it your very own time machine.
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