Friday, January 11, 2013

Retro done Rocket Knight right: The post I accidentally didn't write yesterday

at 1:27 PM
Before I shot off on a tangent faster than the sun shoots lazers at the moon, I was going to write yesterday (now it's two days ago, since I didn't finish this post Thursday as intended) about the underrated Rocket Knight and reigning eShop fan-fave, Mutant Mudds.

[Things are about to get a bit hairy nomenclaturally speaking - the Rocket Knight/Sparkster series is confusingly titled. Let me give you a "cheat's sheet" here. There are four completely distinct games in the series:
Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis, 1993)
Sparkster: RKA2 (Genesis, 1994)
Sparkster (SNES, 1994)
Rocket Knight (XBLA, 2010)
and the main character is the same throughout, known dually as Sparkster and the Rocket Knight. Note that I'll always bold the titles, so if you see the names in tiny text, it means I'm referring to the character or the series whole. The sign of good writing is the need for a "cheat's sheet", though I think the blame this time rests firmly on Konami.]

I chose RK and MM because they're on opposite ends of the retro spectrum, whatever that means. A spectrum doesn't really have opposite ends, ya know, it's a continuous FINE who cares. Rocket Knight is retro game type I: a revival of a long-forgotten (or long-missed) property with intent to continue rather than reboot. Megan Man 9, Double Dragon Neon, and dare-I-say Street Fighter IV fall into this neighborhood. Mutant Mudds is retro type II: an entirely new property created as if in the past, like La-Mulana or Dark Void Zero. And remember, I said it's a spectrum, so games like Bit.Trip fall somewhere in between. Whichever the means, the intention of each type is for you to sit down and feel as though it's 19XX again.
Let's take a look at these means, since the degree to which they're successfully executed becomes the degree to which the game accomplishes the goal of retro (recall: to evoke a specific time, place, and packaging). At first it might seem as though Rocket Knight has the easier task; it's already got characters, setting, and gameplay to draw on. "Isn't any game starring Rocket Knight immediately retro?", you ask. In fact, that franchise nature makes things a lot tougher - see Donkey Kong Country Returns for a game unable to overcome the same baggage. It's not good enough to regurgitate the iconic series elements and say "ta-da", because saying "ta-da" has historically accomplished little to nothing in virtually any situation. At best that constitutes a fan-game - it's too easy to assume that a classic game is classic because of exactly what's in it, that to recreate greatness, all you need are the elements of greatness. The original Rocket Knight Adventures earned its belovation through innovation, uniqueness, and the solidification and expansion of ideas established by the sequels. By varying the core concepts of the original game, the continuing entries reflect on their predecessors and clarify their identities, while also incorporating new ideas into the body of work. This is why even the less-than-fun Rocket Knight Adventures 2 is valuable. Its weird insistence on super-hidden collectibles (basically Chaos Emeralds) calls focus to the element of exploration within the series that is otherwise easy to ignore - after playing RKA2, what seemed like aimlessly open environments in Sparkster become open-world mazes, promising exploratory platforming rather than accidental footholds.

So what we're really looking at isn't how Rocket Knight duplicates RKA and Sparkster(s), but how it presents new means of experience in congruence with the ideals of the older games. Rocket Knight presents the familiar (if you're Golem or I) anthropomorphized possum/pig/wolf world of the series, once again torn asunder (yeah boy) by war between... apparently an entire army vs. Sparkster. Though war has always been the backdrop of the games' stories, this time it's immediate, all-consuming, and epic. This is partially accomplished simply by an increase in resolution - with 1080 eyes to work with, a lot more can be jammed onto the screen, an opportunity Rocket Knight uses to populate the landscape with lively battles between pigs, wolves, and their war machines (sadly for RKA2 fans, the lizardmen do not return - get your fix from Skyrim instead). The choice of environments also keeps Rocket Knight focused - there aren't any detours through giant-musical-instrument-world this time around. Sparkster himself has become a more violent avatar, with more attacks than ever, an emphasis on close range combat, and an overactive jetpack. All of this serves both to recall to us the omnipresent world-at-war atmosphere of the Rocket Knight and to bring it to the fore, providing a new element of focus to go back and rediscover in the classic trilogy.

Mutant Mudds, on the other hand, gets a blank slate to write on. It's emulating a time period - let's say 1990, just for simplicity's sake - and thus can pick and choose from anywhere in the massive berth of game design of that era (or just pull heavily from Super Mario World and Virtual Boy Wario Land). Where Rocket Knight had to prove that there was still something to be done with the series, some way to evolve it creatively, Mudds isn't really out to prove that 1990 can be more than it already was. Instead, it wants to show us how simply fun a game can be without contrivance, how the olden standards remain not just functional, but viable. The success or failure of Mudds doesn't establish it as part of classic canon or prove that it would or would not have been awesome and original had it been released in 1990, rather it says "hey, guy. This old baseline, this still works. So there's nothing stopping you from innovating on top of it."
Someone should point out that I seem to be trivializing Mudds, shrinking its goals so it's easier to declare as successful. Well, that someone should go play the game and then see if they can stand by their contention, because frankly, if you can see any kind of ambition or experimentality in there, you have keener eyes than I (and everyone knows that I have the eyes of an eagle - an eagle which has lazerbeams for eyes. An optometrist told me this. I am not kidding.). The game gives you Firebrand's hover (Gargoyle's Quest), Mega Man's cannon (Mega Man), and drops you straight into the level hub, which is just a room full of doors. There are exactly 100 'coins' and one hidden door in every stage. You have infinite lives/continues and there are no checkpoints. It pretty much says "look, platforms, okay? You know what to do."

The platforming aspect of the game isn't so interesting to discuss, though I will say it works as well as any reviewer might have you believe, if not better. Mudds' true success as retro is in showing us that there are still fun characters to make, even without dialogue, duologue, diatribe, dissension, declamation, double talk - double talk, IT'S ALL TALK. You tell 'em, Adrian Belew. The titular Mudds are an alien species serving the role of Goombas and Koopas, varying in size and appearance corresponding to their function. Sure they're all brown, but I came to affectionately nickname each of them by the time I'd collected all forty water sprites (more specifically, I nicknamed each one "Tim"). The game's protagonist is definitely named Alex or Maximillian, I don't remember which, but he too is a success. Though clearly inspired (consciously or un-) by Earthbound's Jeff, the developers give Aleximillian just enough personality - his dorky, overly enthusiastic wave at the player when the controls go silent, the brief flash of buck teeth as he strolls along, and of course the shorts. The game makes you wish we got more such colorful 8-bit silliness, simply by non-referentially throwing us an example.

No one likes an excessively long post, which is why I decided it would be perfect to end this week of being too busy to write. If you made it this far, your special reward is that I'll remind you that you can demo both of these games for free! And both are available on PC with relatively modest system requirements! So if you're reading this post, you can probably have them downloaded and ready to play by the time you finish reading this post, had I put this paragraph at the beginning!

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