Friday, March 3, 2017

Rocket: Robot on Wheels

Released on October, 31, 1999 by Ubisoft, developed for the Nintendo 64 by Sucker Punch Productions, Rocket: Robot on Wheels sends the titular robot on a 3D platforming journey that instead of defying, greatly adheres to and explores the laws of physics.

Why you looking at me like that, Robot?

The Nintendo 64's legacy contains numerous contradictions. One may often hear it referred to as the home of many great 3D platform games, but when one presses the person who makes that claim to name those "great 3D platformers," the given answer is often, "Uh...Super Mario 64...Banjo-Kazooie...Banjo-Tooie?"

Pictured above: not Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, or Banjo-Tooie.

It turns out, there are actually more than three worthwhile 3D platformers--adventure games that often feature precision jumping and item collection--for the Nintendo 64. While Mario and Banjo are the gold standard of 64-bit platforming games, the Nintendo 64 actually features a cavalcade of great 3D platformers. Perhaps the most often overlooked title deserving recognition is Sucker Punch Productions Rocket: Robot on Wheels.

Nobody tell him he's actually just a Robot on "Wheel." He gets really self-conscious and emotional about that.

While many developers balked at the challenge of creating 3D games for the Nintendo 64, Sucker Punch challenged themselves to utilize the system's hardware to push the format. If a game needs a hook to be memorable, this one has a great one: a realistic physics engine. I not-so-fondly remember Physics as that subject I actually had to study for in high school, and also, as the subject that prevented me from completing that engineering degree in college. I don't normally associate "physics" with "fun," but Rocket: Robot on Wheels is an exception.

Plus, any game that lets you beat up a clown is a winner in my book.

Rocket takes its lead from the 3D platformer classics, but then blazes its own unique trail. Like Mario 64 with its stars, and Banjo with its jiggies, Rocket must collect tickets to open new levels, but the game's plot, centered around an interstellar theme park called "Whoopie World," is delightfully different. Whoopie, the park's live mascot, is a big goofy walrus, joined by a raccoon sidekick named JoJo. The night before Whoopie World's grand opening, its creator and owner, Dr. Gavin, decides to go to a party, and leaves Rocket, presumably his robot servant, in charge. JoJo immediately hatches a plan apparently years in incubating, knocking out Rocket, and kidnapping Whoopie, so that he can transform Whoopie World into "Jojo World." Rocket regains consciousness to find he must now collect eighty-four tickets and 1400 park tokens JoJo has scattered around the park, in order for Whoopie World to open on schedule--also, he's got to rescue that worthless walrus, and bring that joker Jojo to justice. Unfortunately, alliteration is not involved.

Fortunately, sheep are.

Whoopie World features six unique, diverse, and gradually inclining in difficulty environments for Rocket to traverse and search (think of them like Disney World's different sub-parks: Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, etc), plus a hub world that connects them all together. Thankfully, Rocket is well-equipped for the task. 
Rocket's most potent tool is a tractor beam on the top of his head. With the tap of a button, the player can use this to grab any nearby object, and manipulate it. For example, let's say that object is a sheep. Once Rocket has a sheep in his grasp, with another tap of a button, he can take aim at any reasonable spot in Rocket's vast, 3-dimensional environments. A red-line will highlight the sheep's potential trajectory.

Quit looking at me like that, sheep. This is for your own good.

With another tap of a button, Rocket can then toss that sheep through the air to the desired spot. This is where the game's superior physics-engine takes over, as the sheep will realistically bounce, roll, or sink depending on where it lands. Many of the game's ingenious puzzles are based on this dynamic, and incorporate magnetism, wind, and gravity.

And sheep. See, sheep, I told you this was for your own good. Now you're in a nice, happy little pond. A sheep pond.

Rocket can also use his beam as a tether to grappling points in order to climb, swinging himself backward and forward to gain momentum. Eventually, he'll reach spinning objects with grapple points, allowing the game to create platforming moments utilizing centrifugal motion. I like centrifugal motion way more when I am making a robot jump over a bottomless pit than when I am answering questions about it on a final exam that will determine my career path.

Pictured: my career path.

The challenging, yet-fair gameplay in Rocket contains even more diversity, though. The game's first world, Clowny Island, not only brilliantly introduces the player to the game's mechanics, but shows the gameplay variety Rocket is capable of. There's a midway full of carnival games (my favorite is tic-tac-toe against a surly chicken), an ambitious build-your-own roller-coaster area that works perfectly, and a chance to drive a vehicle.

Who hasn't dreamed of hitting the beach at night with their weinermobile?

Every stage features at least one drivable vehicle, all creatively designed, and featuring unique abilities. For instance, the second world, an ancient-Rome-themed land centered on color, features a paint tank, with a fully equipped sniper scope, and the ability to change the color of about anything in the level to whatever shade you want (granted the shade is one of the eight ones the game offers). Every stage not only has a unique look, but a comparable hook like this, as well, as Rocket completes various tasks to procure tickets.

So just an average day then.

That's what you get, walrus statue.

Rocket can also use his abilities to take down foes. By collecting the aforementioned tokens, which are scattered throughout the game, and bringing them to Tinker, the park's maintenance robot, Rocket can learn new moves, including a sweet grapple bodyslam and a freeze ray. While the game doesn't admittedly feature many enemies (mostly just maliciously programmed bots scattered around each stage), it's nice to get to break them into pieces when they raise their ugly metal heads. Vanquished foes also provide energy for Rocket's depleted health meter...which can be extended permanently by one hit in every stage, if Rocket finds that respective stages coveted "boost pack."

"Do you expect me to talk?"

"No Mr. Robot, I expect you to die...and also to give me your energy so that I can refill my depleted health meter."

All of this illustrates that, while it may share the skeleton of the genre's stalwarts, Rocket manages to put an original spin on just about everything it tries to do, is full of unique personality, and sets itself apart from its Nintendo 64 platformer brethren nicely. Thankfully, its production qualities are also up to snuff. 
Graphically, the textures are admittedly not quite equal to the impeccable Rareware standard (Rareware created Banjo), but they're also not leagues below it--for a first-time Nintendo 64 developer, Sucker Punch acquit themselves quite well in this department. Colors are vibrant, animation is excellent (the way Rocket bobs and weaves when the player stops moving him is mesmerizing), and the game manages to move at a smooth speed, almost completely free of graphical slowdown, even with the game's moderate lighting and shadow effects. Environments are large, free of the fog third-party developers often had to utilize to make their games playable, and feature only minimal pop-up, mostly of just small items and enemies--in a large, open area, the player can see clear to the other side, and what they see, they can reach--the hallmark of any well-made Nintendo 64 3D platform game.

With the added bonus that Rocket has to travel all that distance, and you get to literally twiddle your thumbs and eat Cheetos.

The game's audio is solid, if not remarkable. The soundtrack is composed of a strange sort of jazz-lounge hybrid. At its best, the music is memorable, even a little atmospheric, and fits the areas of the game it backs perfectly (the secret room music for instance), and at worst, is just there (the Food Fright world music). Outside of Rocket's excited exclamations when he gets an item, the game features no voice acting. Sound effects are solid, though the squeaky noise that occurs every. single. time. the player uses one of the controller's C-buttons to change the camera angle makes me want to dive Rocket into hot lava. That's because the player sometimes has to tap them a dozen times to get a decent view. Oh, yeah, there's my complaint--many third-person Nintendo 64 games, even Banjo Kazooie, struggled to give the player control over their point-of-view. Unfortunately, this can sometimes plague Rocket, as well--there are a couple of tricky jumps Rocket has to make where the player just can't quite get the right view. Overall, though, this isn't a major detriment to the game...just a quiggle...which is not an actual...real word...apparently.

Hmm, should I try to fiddle with the C-buttons, or pray, and hope God cares about the outcome of video games?

As far as lasting value, Rocket isn't the longest game out there--it includes seven worlds, including the hub, as well as an obstacle course of death at the end. While the game can be completed in about 15 hours, that obstacle course at the end requires a full mastery of all the techniques learned in the game--it's a great old-school challenge that this old-school gamer vastly appreciated. There isn't any sort of multi-player to add to the playing time, though honestly, I don't need multi-player from this sort of game--just give me a fulfilling single-player experience, and I'm happy. Rocket is quite fulfilling, though I wouldn't have minded another world or two.

Not Rocket, though. He's still only halfway to that waterfall from two pics ago. Get a move on, Robot Boy!

So here we have a unique, memorable game, featuring excellent gameplay, a lovable main character, and innovative, well-done game design. Why wasn't this thing a massive hit? Why don't people mention Rocket in the same sentence as Mario or Banjo? Why has everything Sucker Punch Productions touched since Rocket turned to gold, while Rocket itself languishes in obscurity?

Maybe it's because someone is taking too long to round up all these tickets.

Sadly, I don't think Rocket's lack of recognition has anything to do with the actual game. I think it has everything to do with the game's generic box-art, and the way the game was marketed. I can say with authority that those are the reasons I overlooked Rocket 18 years ago. Even a 9/10 review from the at-the-time ultimate authority, IGN 64, wasn't enough to win me over. I had recently bought a Dreamcast, and I just didn't care about some silly, kiddie, robot game. It turns out I, and all but the original 120,000 people who purchased Rocket, missed out on one great ride.

Meaning, those who haven't played it have nowhere to go but up--just like my life did 20 years ago!

Thankfully, all existing copies of Rocket weren't scrapped in a dump, ET-style, when the game didn't strike commercial gold. You can easily find a cheap used copy of Rocket for sale today, or emulate the game online (though, really, you gotta play an N64 game with an N64 controller--which I guess you can also do on your computer, if you're clever enough). I'm glad I finally gave it a chance all these years later. Rocket: Robot on Wheels certainly deserves it.

Good job, Robot. Good job.

Bright, colorful game, with solid textures, good animation and lighting effects, and little to no slowdown or pop-up. Nice work from Sucker Punch.
Music and Sound
Solid, mostly upbeat soundtrack, with a few standout moments. Fitting sound effects, though no voice acting or recorded speech.
Unique, diverse, adventurous and fun single-player platformer action.
Lasting Value
Relatively short single-player campaign (15 or so hours), and no multi-player, though the game's singular nature warrants more than one play-through.