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Hands-on: Rocket Knight


With everyone focused on the 2D return of a certain cerulean hedgehog, I'd like to point out that another nocturnal hero in blue is making a comeback: Sparkster, the armor-clad, jetpack-wearing opossum star of Rocket Knight. Konami has brought in UK developer Climax to resurrect the series, which hails from the 16-bit era and included two games: Rocket Knight Adventures and Sparkster.

Having played through the first couple of levels from this XBLA, PSN and Steam release, I can say that not a whole lot has changed from Sparkster's adventures of yore -- and that's a compliment. There must be something inherently difficult about capturing the feel of a 2D game using entirely polygons, since the number of remakes that have gotten it right far outnumber the successes. But, like Bionic Commando: Rearmed and even Street Fighter IV, this snappy action platformer should feel like revisiting a childhood home for retro junkies.

Gallery: Rocket Knight (Konami Gamers Night 2010) | 12 Photos

The demo I played kicked off with -- what else -- the bad guys invading the countryside in their flying machines. Sparkster, seemingly retired and a family man opossum, wastes no time digging out his super-duds, sword and rocket pack, flying into action against an old foe. Gameplay starts out in the forest, with some minimally intrusive tutorial banners explaining Sparkster's moves -- i.e. burst attacks, ranged attacks, melee strikes and the rocket bursts that send him soaring skyward.

In a throwback to the original games, this level is filled with suspended rails, from which Sparkster can hang and slide using his tail. Using the rocket burst is the only way to reach their higher rungs, where many of the best items (hearts, extra lives and red gems) can be found. Being a multitasking marsupial, Sparkster can attack his enemies whilst hanging.

Like I said before, the core gameplay just feels right. The speed at which Sparkster moves on foot, the speed of his attacks -- everything is snappy and true to the series. The level designs have gotten even more complex, introducing more interiors and vertical action, but this isn't a "Metroidvania" affair; it's strictly arcade action.

This becomes even more evident in the second stage I played, where, using his rocket pack to its fullest, the fuzzy hero takes to the sky in a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up reminiscent of R-TYPE. He encounters the same wolf enemies here, only they're on gliders, towing bombs and firing rockets in an effort to blast him out of the air.

So far, Rocket Knight is feeling like a retro revival done right. It also manages to capture the look of the previous games, pumping everything up with vibrant 3D backgrounds and little character animation touches that add up to give Sparkster and his enemies loads of character. Plus, the whole thing's set to remixed tunes from the earlier titles. Even if you've never experienced the series before, you'll want to keep this game on your radar.

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