The Rocket Knight franchise is a great collection of games starring a possum with a jetpack. Did you see the way he dangles on his little tail? Totally adorbs. Unfortunately, these four games contain one of the most confusing naming schemes in the history of gaming. So let us take a quick break to review the games starring Sparkster, and delineate which games appeared when and where. This will simultaneously be informative and note how many games contain giant robots (it’s all of them).
Rocket Knight Adventures
If there is a reason there is a “Rocket Knight” franchise in any tangible way, it is because of this game. And not just because this is the one that started it all! Rocket Knight Adventures is clearly a labor of love by a team that not only was interested in what was next for gaming in 1993, but also Konami’s illuminous past.
As an obvious example of Sparkster showcasing what was contemporary in gaming, we have how this awesome possum moves. This little dude is all about speed, and, complete with a jetpack perpetually tied to his back, Sparky is ready to literally fly through levels. But, while much of the level design is built around seeing how far you can get this rocket knight to ricochet around the world, it is not all simply spin-dashing to a brighter future. This knight and his projectile-blade recalls the combat of Mega Man X, and giant, mechanical bosses would be right at home in any Maverick lineup.
Oh, and there’s a minecart stage. You do not get anymore 16-bit than a minecart stage.
But there are also homages to the past of gaming littered across this (then) modern title. For one thing, one of the shoot ‘em up stages straight up includes a pig piloting a Gradius big core. It isn’t remotely subtle! And there are some some more understated “old school” bits tossed around Sparkster’s world, too. It is clear that this game was created by people that were beholden to the glorious arcade past of Konami (or they, ya know, worked there. Could go either way).
Regardless of the reason, Rocket Knight Adventures perfectly balances the contemporary (animal mascot platformers that gotta go fast) with the (oftentimes difficult) past of Rocket Knight’s ancestors. And, couple this with a few amazing gimmick levels (did I mention the giant robot rocking and socking boss?), and Rocket Knight Adventures is a sight to behold.
In America, the only Rocket Knight title to ever launch on a Nintendo console is simply “Sparkster”. In Japan, it goes by the longer title, “Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2”. So which is it? A parallel game on an entirely difference videogame system, or a sequel that hopped between platforms? The answer is… confusing.
In a lot of ways, this game feels like an example of the 16-bit mainstay of a game appearing in two totally different versions across two systems. Much like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, this initially looks like two Konami games both playing to their system’s respective strengths. Sparkster seems to showcase a more expressive rodent that moves at a faster clip (yes, Virginia, the SNES was capable of its own kind of blast processing), but entirely drops “hardware tricks” like the Genesis reflection lava cave. The graphics are entirely different, and seem to be deliberately adapted for the different color palette and more integrated HUD. And the plot is much the same (for a 16-bit game), with wolves in place of pigs, and Axel Gear still on the side of the devils.
But then there are bits that seem to paint this as a deliberate sequel. The shoot ‘em up sections have now changed from Gradius-style 2-D horizontal shupping to a top-down, 1942-esque vertical affair. We have lost our giant robot boss fight, but replaced it with a stage full of ridable giant robot ostriches. This satisfies our robot quotient and supplicates the need for a minecart. And, if you really need some giant robots, plenty are offered as all-new, all-different bosses. Sparkster does feel like an improvement over its predecessor in a lot of ways, but not all of those upgrades cannot simply be attributed to moving between systems.
Regardless of how it was created, Sparkster is still an amazing experience. It does not feel quite as artisanal as its prequel/portmate, but it is still one of the best platforming games on the Super Nintendo. And that’s pretty amazing, considering this is the same system that hosted Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit!
Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2
The Real Sequel
Okay, maybe the Super Nintendo game is supposed to be a port of this Sparkster title. Whatever! Sparky is back on the Sega Genesis here, and we have another game that is immediately evidently unique and different from the previous two. Much of the same gameplay is carried forward (rocketing around, spinning when allowed, firing endless sword beams), but there are a number of innovations across the title. Not all of them are strictly upgrades, though…
Look, your mileage may vary on whether or not you see an improvement here, but Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2 gets pretty close to going full collectathon. Whereas previous Rocket Knight titles locked their best endings behind difficulty levels (old school!), now you are going to have to find a hidden sword in each stage (and never skip the intro level) if you want to see “Golden Sparkster” conquer this latest threat. And, while the powered up yellow possum is highly reminiscent of Super Sonic, this is a much less useful hyper mode, as it is impossible to obtain before the absolute final battle. Couple this with some sprawling stages that require a lot more exploration than previous titles (and, by “exploration”, we mean “it is entirely possible you will get lost going up and down the same stupid pipes in that same stupid airship stage”), and it seems like the directors of Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2 wanted more than another straightforward action game. Unfortunately, when “straightforward action game” is the reason you’re playing the game in the first place…
But this is still a great game! The final boss fight includes one of the greatest gimmicks that has ever existed in an action game (you and the main villain “swap brains”), and, while it may not immediately lend itself to other climaxes, it is surprising and a curious way to play the game. Similarly, the giant robot boss fight of the first Sparkster has now been expanded to a giant robot level, and I cannot be the only person that was begging for such a thing after getting a taste of it in the first title. And, again, this is still a Sparkster game, so even when you are stuck trying to find the right way out of a pyramid, it is fun to play. Sparkster still sparks around… just he might be better suited to his earlier adventures.
Xbox 360 / Playstation 3
The Modern Remake
After a little over fifteen years, Sparkster returned to us via a downloadable title created by Konami fans that were now firmly established on Konami’s payroll. Rocket Knight is a very different animal from its forebears (well, still a possum), as the “charging” system for causing this knight to rocket around has been dramatically altered. The ABC rule of “always be charging” has now been forsaken for something slightly less active, and it does create a slightly more leisurely feel. However, once you get past that change, this is definitely Rocket Knight like you remember it, with enough ricocheting to make a Hanna-Barbera rabbit blush. And new innovations like projectile reflection or drilling add just enough new gameplay variety to make your average wolf/pig encounter more remarkable than in the 16-bit days.
Unfortunately, some of those innovations just make you long for what may have been. Rocket Knight feels like the definition of a 2010 videogame download title (“Xbox Live Arcade Title”). It is amazing! But it is quick! There are basically four worlds here, and a whole quarter of that count is given over to a few stages that are very much glorified tutorials. By the time we are hitting the interesting stuff (like an icy world that freezes your jetpack or a thrilling escape from an exploding factory), we are already practically done. While Rocket Knight seems to be about the same length as its predecessors, it still feels like it ends just when it was getting exciting.
Oh, and there are plenty of giant robots to fight, but not a single one that you get to ride. I could take that giant pig-bot out for a spin, but noooooo…
But one way or another, this is the end of the Rocket Knight franchise. Will we ever see that possum ever again? Maybe! But at least he flew away on a high note that left us wanting more.
Even if we still need a guide to determine which game was which..
FGC #635 Rocket Knight
- System: Xbox 360 to start, with Playstation 3 and PC following shortly thereafter. Full disclosure: this whole article was inspired by purchasing an Xbox Series X, and discovering to my delight that Rocket Knight was fully backwards compatible and waiting for me on the new system.
- Number of players: One of these days that princess is going to have to suit up and be player two. Until then, we are sticking with one rocket knight.
- Favorite Level: I cannot emphasize enough how the gimmick of the ice level freezing Sparkster’s rocket pack makes for simultaneously new/exciting gameplay and makes perfect, in-plot sense. A miraculous combination of gameplay and setting. Really makes me beg for a universe where this title had a little room to stretch its legs.
- Favorite Boss: I generally do not like the final boss, as it spends way too much of its existence in something of an invincible/unhittable state. That said, he is a giant, golden pig robot… so I kind of have a hard time getting mad at the guy.
- Shoot ‘em Up: Rocket Knight returns to the 2-D, horizontal scrolling shoot ‘em up levels of the original adventure. However, it would not be incorrect to state that these levels are much more robust than anything that appeared back in the 90’s, and flying around with this possum leads to some of the best experiences in the game. So what I’m saying is can we finally get a modern Gradius from the same team? Please?
- Gotta Collect ‘Em All: Rocket Knight now has collectathon elements, as a ranking on each level is based on finding every last gem and doodad throughout the level. A number of these items are “normal”, and would be found easily through traditional level traversal. Unfortunately, there seem to be a couple in every stage that require some dedicated searching or jump-blast coordination, and… Can we not? Can we just have fun zooming around, and not worrying if a 1-Up is hidden in that little alcove over there? This was the worst part of Rocket Knight Adventures 2…
- Goggle Bob Fact: Like Mega Man 9, this is one of the first titles I bought as “digital only”, and did not simply wait for a physical release like I had for every other title. It seems appropriate that it used to require “modern update on retro franchise” to get me to go outside my comfort zone.
- Did you know? Rocket Knight was a free “games with gold” title for Xbox in November of 2021, eleven years after its release. So if you were waiting for a “sale” for over a decade, have I got a deal for you! That expired!
- Would I play again: Probably… albeit in another few years. Even with all the baubles to collect, there isn’t much to this game. It is there, it is fun, and then it ends. I have no great drive to immediately return… but I know it will happen eventually. Thus is the magnetic pull of such an excellent possum.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64! We’re going from the squeaky clean knight to the belligerent squirrel. Please look forward to it!