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Nintendo Switch Rocket Knight Adventures: Re-Sparked Review

Rocket Knight Adventures is a title that sits comfortably alongside Gunstar Heroes in the pantheon of exceptional games overlooked in their heyday.
 
 

Official Review

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'Underrated' is a term too often applied recklessly, but for Rocket Knight Adventures, a series that struggled to reach global stardom despite Konami's three-pronged stab, it's appropriate. Its initial entry resides in the upper echelons of everything 16-bit and is one of the finest titles on the Mega Drive. Yet, Sparkster, despite hitting all the right notes for an anthropomorphised gaming hero of the '90s, inexplicably underperformed at market.

The Re-Sparked collection features Mega Drive entries Rocket Knight Adventures (1993) and Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2 (1994), as well as Sparkster for the Super Nintendo (1994). Additionally, there are a wealth of options and bonus features on board in the form of art museums, music players, boss rush modes, CRT filters, wallpapers, rewind features, and save states.

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Emerging from Konami's most celebrated development period, Rocket Knight Adventures — the series debut — is godly. Everything in its assembly, from aesthetic to mechanics to its dazzling stage variety and incredible music score, hits exactly right. It's unquestionably the best of the three, and remains a salient example of how to hone an action-game experience with boundless invention and zero fluff.

Set in a fantasy kingdom that fuses traditional castles, knights, and princesses with giant steampunk machinery and smog-spewing, oil-caked towns, intrepid Sparkster is tasked with recovering a fair maiden from the clutches of Axel Gear — his knight nemesis — and the pig warrior horde known as the Devontidos. It's a journey that will take him across land and sea, through giant airships and right into space; a movie-quality adventure whose Back to the Future-styled font screams 'cinematic', and delivers with aplomb.

Sparkster is equipped with a close-range sword slash, a jump, and a rocket pack that underpins the series' integral gameplay mechanic: the boost dash. Holding the button charges the rocket pack in seconds, allowing its near-constant use. It has myriad applications, too, able to be used as an offensive weapon, piercing through enemies, as a defensive manoeuvre when you need to haul tail, and as a way to traverse scenery, often revealing treats hidden just out of view. Konami designed its stages around the rocket boost to chef's-kiss perfection, having you ping-pong between tunnel walls and skate away from impending dangers. It's a game ploughed with invention, hitting you with one new action set piece after another; a tornado-like cocktail of arcade principles spread over an impressive canvas. Whether dodging columns of fire or soaring over stormy cityscapes; facing off against giant bosses or hitting rollercoaster ramps at breakneck speed, Rocket Knight endlessly dazzles. From fantasy Earth to fantasy starscape, where you find yourself inside a pig-shaped version of the Death Star, the game reaches a thrilling climax of gravity gimmicks and giant mecha battles.

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While executed to nigh-on perfection and stylistically bold, Michiru Yamane's musical composition ices this 16-bit cupcake with a superb range of stirring and infectiously memorable tracks. Genius as she was and is, she took Konami's specifications and made it epic across the board. Special mention needs to be paid to the gloriously arresting chainsaw grind she reserved for the game's last stretch: a piece so unremittingly filthy it raises the stakes beyond all expectation. In a game where you play a Knighted cartoon possum, the blood-pumping aural brutality Yamane serves up for the finale is almost paradoxical - but oh, how we revel in it.

The sequel, Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2 is a curious thing. When placed side-by-side with its predecessor it feels like a straight-to-video sequel. Sparkster still looks the part, cast meaner and leaner, but visually it's less gritty, more cartoony, and the overall scale is reduced. It's more a console platform game in the traditional sense, losing the bold arcade motifs and breathless variety that defined its predecessor. The landscapes lack variety and detail, and the layouts would be formulaic if it weren't for the emphasis paid to the boost mechanic.

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Here, your rocket pack charges automatically and faster, and the correct way to attack the game is to spam the hell out it. Once you learn to boost, boost, boost, there's fun to be had here. It replaces the pig army with lizards, and thankfully gets less cluttered from stage three onwards. Even though it feels clunkier and more generic, there are still some nice elements and ideas involved, like corkscrewing giant rivets, racing out of the depths of a pyramid, and negotiating trap-laden tunnels during the finale. On its own terms, it's still a solid action game for the Mega Drive, and therefore worthy of attention; and Michiru Yamane returns, opening stage one with a track so heroic it's now the Rocket Knight de-facto theme.

Finally, Sparkster, the third and final entry in the collection, hails from the pastel climes of the Super Nintendo - and its graphics really pop. Again, Yamane inspires the audio with driving tunes, and there are some nice set pieces scattered throughout the adventure. Sparkster can be tricky in places, partly due to stage design that doesn't have the same grace as the original. And, while it looks the part and is definitely the second-best game here, it still doesn't achieve the same highs as the series debut.

This is, in part, down to pacing issues, and the constrictions of a traditional platform game structure. This becomes evident as early as stage two, which resembles a Sonic stage with its expansive, multi-tiered levels and conveyor gadgetry, where gung-ho boosting will get you insta-killed in various rock crushers. That said, it's still a strong Super Nintendo action adventure, and one that looks great, with mammoth bosses and unique vehicles to ride. It captures the spirit of adventure, features Sparkster's wonderful charm, and fans of the series will have fun returning to a title whose DNA is closer to the original.

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Regarding emulation quality, the Re-Sparked Collection feels about right. Having played these games endlessly over the years, there were a few teeny oddities that gave us a moment's pause, and a lot of debate as to whether or not it was our imagination. The vast majority of players, however, wouldn't bat an eyelid.

In addition to all the neat bonuses on board, you can even play different regions of the games for little presentational differences, and the art museum is particularly fleshed out, full of original flyers, magazine ads, manuals, and concept art for all three titles. There's also an all-new animated introduction that's very well done — even if it doesn't pip Japan's original 1993 TV spot — and an updated remix of Sparkster's theme to enjoy.

Conclusion

Rocket Knight Adventures is a series comprising two fine games and one stellar, timeless piece of work. While the sequels are above average for '90s platform gaming, it's the series debut that really informs this review's score. Rocket Knight Adventures is a title that sits comfortably alongside Gunstar Heroes in the pantheon of exceptional games overlooked in their heyday. It does everything an arcade action adventure needs to, and more, outdoing a vast number of actual arcade games in the process. Its constantly evolving stages, incredible variety of scenarios, and driving cinematic soundtrack make it one of the best of its kind. If that's not the very definition of underrated, we don't know what is.

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