Sparkster isn’t like those other guys
If you had my Goldstar 3DO Interactive Multiplayer at gunpoint and demanded I tell you what my favorite Sega Genesis game is, you probably wouldn’t believe me. It’s not Sonic the Hedgehog 2, not Streets of Rage, and not Gunstar Heroes. It’s Rocket Knight Adventures, a game that got snubbed from being included on the Genesis Mini.
Rocket Knight Adventures was directed by Nabuya Nakazato, the same guy who directed both Contra III: The Alien Wars and Contra Hard Corps, so it has its papers. A glut of mascot platformers following Sonic the Hedgehog all but buried the game in 1993. But Rocket Knight Adventures doesn’t belong in the same dustbin as Bubsy and Aero the Acrobat. It belongs on a pedestal, and I’m putting it there.
The story of Rocket Knight Adventures exists largely in the instruction manual, but the essentials can be gleaned from the game’s cutscenes. A pig army is invading and there’s an evil knight dude who steals the princess. You play as Sparkster, the titular Rocket Knight, who’s just doing his job, trying to save the kingdom.
The gameplay may initially hit you like a factory standard platformer. Swinging Sparkster’s sword emits a projectile, and the big hook to platforming is charging his jetpack and launching him across the screen. However, platforming is maybe 25% of the game. Maybe less. Instead, you’ll be doing all manner of things unrelated to jumping across floating chunks of rock.
This is where the Contra DNA finds its way in the mix; Rocket Knight Adventures is something of a situation rush game. You’re never really doing the same thing twice, and that begins with the first level. It has a habit of throwing single-use sub-bosses your way, pushing you through horizontal shoot-’em-up, or sometimes weirder situations. It never goes as far into left field as something like Earthworm Jim 2 — the mechanics always remain the same — but you could never accuse it of being formulaic.
The jetpack isn’t really helpful for platforming, either. Sparkster absolutely speeds off whenever it’s charged and unleashed, and there’s no way of controlling it beyond your initial vector. It’s more useful as a weapon, bashing the little knight into his foes with no care for concussions. There are moments on the ground where you need to use it to quickly move out from under a crushing ceiling, but if you wanted to land gently on a far-off platform, good luck to you.
It’s an interesting mechanic that once again sets it apart from other platformers. It could have been a glide or double-jump, but instead, you just fling your hero at their enemies. It can backfire, however. You’re largely invincible while at high velocity, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll land in an ideal spot. Being touched by an enemy often paradoxically carries more damage than getting hit by their projectile. The worst instance I noticed of this was one where physical contact with an enemy caused 2 ½ hearts of damage, but their projectile only caused a mere ½ of damage.
Likewise, the damage caused by Sparkster is a bit of mystery to me, even after countless playthroughs. Sometimes he seems to hit enemies multiple times, whether it’s when hitting them with his physical sword or smacking into them with his jetpack. However, whether this actually counts beyond the initial hit is unknown. For certain, I know that hitting with the metal of his blade is more effective than relying on the projectile, but beyond that, I couldn’t really figure it out. Boss battles are too hectic for me to count my successful connections.
There’s also the fact that Rocket Knight Adventure is harder than a day-old taco. That might be overselling it, but the truth is that Konami’s penchant for limiting continues rears its ugly head here. You’ve got a scant few attempts to reach the end, and once you get there — you need to play on a harder difficulty.
Yeah, it’s one of those games. It gets cut short if you’re playing on easy, so you’re given an ending, but not the ending. To get further, you play on Normal and take on some extra bosses, then get an ending, but not the ending. No, you have to put on your big pants and play it on hard in order to fight all the bosses and reach the finale. Then they rub it in by unlocking Very Hard difficulty, but screw that.
The worst part is that the end sequence is a long, exhausting series of bosses. And not your typical “okay, now beat all the bosses you already fought again before you fight the end boss.” No. These are all new bosses with all new patterns of attack that require new strategies.
The result is that it could take you a few runs through the game before you see the excellent final sequence. It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s a kick in the wind hole when you make it to the end and drop your last life.
I spent the last few paragraphs covering the game’s negatives because they’re definitely there and they’re something you should be aware of. Also, I find giving criticism easier than giving praise. Otherwise, I want you to play Rocket Knight Adventures and then try and tell me it isn’t infectious.
There’s a boss that is a lava-dwelling fish robot that you defeat by hitting its pilot when he gets literally spit into the air. One level has you fire yourself out of a cannon and into an airship, decades before Doomguy pulled the same maneuver in Doom Eternal. You then travel along the entire exterior of the ship before finding your way back inside to fight a boss that attacks by viciously gyrating. And I don’t want to give the end boss away, but it’s pretty amazing and unconventional.
I feel that Rocket Knight Adventures didn’t get the chance it deserved. I had never heard of it as a child, and I only came across it while bargain hunting as an adult. The first time I played it, love happened. It maybe broke my heart when it told me that Normal wasn’t good enough, but I loved it all the same.
What initially strikes me is how goofy Sparkster looks. He’s an opossum, clad in bulky armor. It’s a stark contrast to the wise-cracking, eyebrow-raising protagonists of the ‘90s. His foil, Axel Gear, looks more the part in his dark armor with sleeker lines. Sparkster smiles his way through the adventure. A charmingly stoic little hero who doesn’t need to tap his foot impatiently to endear himself.
It’s a top-shelf little Genesis title that doesn’t seem to get the fanfare it deserves. It did, however, receive sequels.
There were two immediate follow-ups, both of them called Sparkster. One was on Genesis, the other on SNES, but while they both have the same name and cover art, they’re completely different games. What unifies them is that Konami went over the character design and made him more… Sonic. A tuft of spikey hair, a sleeker suit of armor, and pointy ears helped ‘tude the little opossum up. It seems like a cynical effort to make the character more marketable. I mean, they had already pulled that with Rocket Knight Adventures. They did the Kirby edit, making the North American Sparkster have an angrier expression. The games were fine, though. Not anywhere near as exciting as the original, but still enjoyable.
Then there was a revival in 2010 for digital marketplaces. Titled just Rocket Knight, it wasn’t terrible, either, but again, it wasn’t near the level of Rocket Knight Adventures. Still, it was exciting to see Sparkster back in action. It gave me hope that we might see more of him, but over a decade late, and with Konami in the state that it is, that seems extremely unlikely.
At the very least, the original title deserves recognition. A simple re-release would satisfy me, a collection would be ideal, but a remaster in the style of the recent Zool Redimensioned would… honestly make me uneasy.
As it stands, however, do me a favor and seek out a way to play Rocket Knight Adventures. You can hate it, if you feel that way, but I want more people to experience it. I want more people to know who Sparkster is. If possible, I want them to love it as much as I did. But start by playing it, then we’ll talk about our feelings.