Abandon all hope, ye who clicked on this article! This is Franchise Fatigue, the biweekly traipsing through the muck and the mire of gaming’s franchises big and small! My name is Brian, and this week I’m going to talk about Sparkster, because this is my outlet and I can do whatever I want.
Although, in all honesty, I probably shouldn’t. As is often the case in the insular world of retro gaming, there’s already been more than enough words written about Sparkster, the cherubic Rocket Knight, courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101. By all means, go there if you’re even remotely curious about the scant few Sparkster games, since it covers the nitty-gritty of the series pretty well, plus Hardcore Gaming 101 is an invaluable resource everybody who is interested in retro games should regularly look out for and all that jazz.
But I’ll tell you one thing, Hardcore Gaming 101 missed something important about Sparkster. Namely, my own point of view!
One of the bigger aspects of retro gaming that doesn’t necessarily get enough coverage in the discussion of old video games in the same breath at stuff like emulation and collecting is the art of Speedrunning. I’ve been watching a ton of Speedrun videos on YouTube these days, as I was listening to the 8-4 Play podcast one day and the hosts of the show were gushing about some speedrun-related livestreams. That’s something I never even knew about! YouTube is filled with tons and tons of Tool-Assisted Speedrun videos, which are fine if you’re into that sort of thing, or if you do that kind of thing yourself; for me, though, cheating-free speedrunning is where it’s at. Just an insane human with video-gaming superpowers doing things the game isn’t supposed to let you do so that you can finish the game in record time.
One of the games that popped up was Konami’s Rocket Knight Adventures. And I thought, “Oh, wait! I used to speedrun that game myself, all the time! I was speedrunning through a game before I even knew what speedrunning was!”
Of course, the crux of the entire franchise – all 3 of ’em- is that you’re Sparkster, the Rocket Knight, who defends a kingdom of animal-people from evil pigs or wolves or lizards, depending on which of the games you’re playing. You’ve got a jetpack strapped to your back that can fire in short bursts, and will send you flying like a lunatic through each of the stages – however, the jetpack isn’t entirely accurate most of the time, so if you’re just flying around all willy-nilly, chances are you’ll blast yourself straight into one-hit fiery or spiky death.
That was one of the joys of the original Genesis game, Rocket Knight Adventures. The game was less of a “traditional” mascot 2D platformer, and more of what you’d expect from a Konami game by their Contra team, who comprised the majority of Rocket Knight‘s dev team. In other words, it’s a conflagration of cool and weird boss battles, side-view shoot-em-up sections, giant mech battles, and trippy visual effects. With a light dash of 2D platformer levels as a garnish, to tie the rest of the insanity together. Rocket Knight Adventures is one of my all-time favorite games, for a lot of reasons.
One of which is the awesome music. I’ve mentioned this before, but most music on the Genesis sounds like the collective death rattle of a landfill comprised of broken, farting robots, but Konami’s experienced technical wizards wrote their own custom sound software that really created some unique, interesting sounds out of the Genesis’ paltry audio hardware.
The OTHER reason it’s one of my favorite all-time games is that it is NEVER, EVER repetitive! EVERY SINGLE LEVEL is markedly different from the previous one. It’s not a very long game because of it, but you’re never doing the same thing for very long. Look at the game’s first level – where you go from the “typical” 2D platform elements of jetpack-ing it around trees and vines while slicing off the clothing of evil pig warriors, and into a series of boss encounters, to a crazy scene where you have to fight the boss AGAIN while falling through a waterfall, and seamlessly melds into a side-scrolling shoot-em-up stage. It’s brilliant, in other words. In that same way that nearly EVERY 16-bit Konami game was always throwing new and unique ideas at the player to keep things fresh. Think of all the crazy visual tricks in Super Castlevania IV, or the level variety between both Contra III and Contra: Hard Corps.
And then… we have the sequels.
Dude, Sparkster, eyes up *here*.
First of all, this is something that I don’t think has been done before or since – release a multiplatform game, which is ACTUALLY two completely separate, different games. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. Imagine if, like, Bioshock Infinite on the Xbox 360 was one thing, and the PS3 version of the game was a 3rd-person action RPG, and the PC port was a real-time strategy game.
Okay, so it’s not like that exactly – both the SNES and Genesis Sparkster games are both 2D platformers, both starring a newly-designed Sparkster sprite who attacks with a sword and still charges his trademark jetpack – but they’re quite unique. Also, sadly, they’re rather inferior to the original Rocket Knight Adventures. Let’s look at the two of them, Pros and Cons!
SPARKSTER (SNES): There’s a lot of Pros here. The graphics are super-colorful with tons of cool effects, thanks to the SNES’ improved color palatte. The Con, though, is the frequent slowdown when things get a bit hectic. PRO: the music is still terrific, and since this is the SNES sound chip we’re talking about, it uses completely superior instruments!
PRO: It plays a lot more like the original Rocket Knight Adventures when compared to the Genesis game. CON: It doesn’t quite get what made Rocket Knight Adventures work as well as it did. The levels are bigger and more open, giving you a lot more room to fly around in your jetpack, but they’re pretty boring. There’s also a few-too many levels that are comprised of very confining corridors, requiring you to judiciously use your jetpack skills to jet across dangerous magma pits; which is nothing but pure gaming frustration, as one slip-up with the game’s finicky jetpack controls will send you to your instant death.
Yup, this will kill you.
All in all, it’s perfectly fun and fine, and if it were on its own as a one-off SNES game without a Genesis precursor looming over its shoulders, it would still be a fondly remembered game today.
SPARKSTER (GENESIS): Now this one is nearly completely different from the original game. Not so much for Good, mostly for Ill. But I’ll say this; at least it’s different enough from the original game that I do prefer it to the SNES game.
PRO: There’s a TON of wacky ideas in this game, rivaling even some of Konami’s weirder forays into insanity as far as bizarre concepts for levels, power-ups, and so forth. One of the weirdest and most aggravating is the “Slot Machine” power-up window, which I’m sure those of you who played the SNES version of Animaniacs will recognize. Basically, if you collect three of ANY of the same collectible bauble or trinket in a row, the game will switch into some kind of nutty slot machine, and drop either ANOTHER useful power up, or – more likely in my case – a BOMB will rain down on you from above, which you’ll need to quickly avoid or face a precipitous loss in your lifebar.
Death by BOM.
Of course, dodging stuff in this game isn’t easy, because it is slow. Sparkster himself slogs around the screen at a snail’s pace, instead of briskly jogging through each level like in the previous game. On the PRO side though, the jetpack controls are a lot more manageable this time. Instead of holding down the attack button to charge your rockets, they fill automatically, and activating your jetpack is done with its own button. Also, you can chain together multiple jet boosts, which comes into play during certain weird boss fights.
Another departure from the original is that there’s an awful lot of puzzle elements. The levels are a lot bigger and broader, at the expense of the first game’s frequent boss fights and shoot-em-up scenarios. There’s a ton of hidden rooms and unlockable stuff, and there’s usually one or two obstacles that’ll leave you scratching your head in frustration before you figure out the chain of events you need to do in order to move onward.
So, kudos to the Genesis Sparkster for breaking the formula a little bit, even if it’s not exactly successful at it, and its certainly not as much fun as Rocket Knight Adventures. The SNES Sparkster sticks to the formula, but makes a few small tweaks that, unfortunately, detract from what made the original game memorable and exciting. And let’s not even get into the recent downloadable title from 2010, which is as generic a 2D platform game as any that’s ever been made.
Sparkster has a weird pedigree, and while I’m not sure either myself or the internet-at-large is necessarily clamoring for more Rocket Knight games, I am a little bit sad that Konami went through the trouble of prepping their forgotten 16-bit mascot for a modern-day reboot and were greeted with tepid sales.
If anything, hopefully we’ll see Sparkster show up in another dating-sim.