Rocket: Robot on Wheels (by Jex the Gamer)

My passion for 3D platformerRocket_Robot_on_Wheels_Covers/collectathons just got reawakened thanks to a hidden gem on the N64. That game is Rocket: Robot on Wheels developed by Sucker Punch.

Wow. This game is fantastic.

I had heard very little about this game before playing it. I only knew that it was a solid 3D platformer on the N64 much like Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and Donkey Kong 64. But I didn’t know much else because it’s hardly talked about online or otherwise.

Like other 3D collectathons, Rocket has tons of items to find throughout each stage. These items come in the form of tokens and tickets, which correspond with the amusement park theme of this game. I felt that the locations of the items were just challenging enough to make this game really fun. If items are just strewn anywhere and everywhere in a game, that game becomes boring and monotonous; hide them too well, and the game becomes tedious and loses its fun factor. Rocket finds a perfect balance in its item-collecting, in my opinion. It was a pleasure to seek out the 100 tokens per level and find every last ticket in the game.

But what really makes this game so enjoyable—and what makes it stand out from other 3D platformers that I’ve played—is the game’s physics. Your avatar is a little unicycle robot who has a grapple beam attached to the side of his head. You roll around, jump, and use said beam to pick up items or to swing yourself around Indiana-Jones style. In all movement, you can just feel the avatar’s inertia. You have to gain momentum while swinging to propel yourself to lofty heights. You have to get a running start before making those long jumps. You take a second or two to pick up speed while rolling around. When you pick up objects with your grapple beam, they actually feel heavy. I don’t know how the game did that, but I distinctly felt that some objects that I picked up were heavier than others.

Even more incredible were the vehicles. Rocket the robot encounters a unique vehicle in every level! That’s quite an achievement for a game, especially considering that these vehicles actually work really well. The physics on them are spot-on. My favorite was the hovercraft in the Classic Rome stage. I could have driven that thing around for the rest of the game!

Some games have a few interesting levels and then retread old platforming puzzles and gameplay for the rest of the playthrough. Not so with Rocket. Every stage is unique and interesting. I can’t think of a single “location” that I didn’t enjoy. The platforming was addicting, the puzzles were exciting, and I felt my “exploration itch” get scratched as I wandered around in immersive, imaginative worlds. I just never knew what the game was going to throw at me next; it felt like there were secrets around every corner. It was so fun to explore!

So with all of these great characteristics, why didn’t this game receive more attention from the gamer community? Well, the game has one major flaw: the camera. This isn’t a unique problem; lots of 3D platformers suffered from it, but it is especially bad in Rocket: Robot on Wheels. I had to constantly adjust the camera, and it wouldn’t stay in place even after I set it where I wanted it. The camera had a mind of its own, and it almost made the game unbearable.

But you know what? All of the pros of this game outweigh that single con. Despite the horrible camera, the game is extremely fun and a great example of the 3D collectathon genre. If it were re-released today with a fixed camera, it would be an instant hit. I really believe that.

In fact, I believe 3D platformers are going to take the indie scene by storm in a few more years. We’ve had almost a decade of reveling in retro 2D platformers—the shining example of most recent memory is Shovel Knight. But very few 3D platformers paying homage to the N64-era are being made. There are a few: A Hat in Time, Kiwi 64, and The Last Tinker: City of Colours come to mind. But those aren’t enough. I think the indie community of today could do a spectacular job at recreating the magic and joy of 3D platformers. I hope other gamers feel the same way.

Now that I’ve played Rocket, I can’t wait to see a second golden age of the 3D platformers/collectathons! Please make it happen, game developers.

Notes from THERetroGamerNY: I never played this game enough to have any real comment on it. I will have to rectify that, because it looks really fun. =)

hoverplatformingswinging

Flight Simulators, Part 3

SMOOTH IS BETTER THAN CHUNKY

Frames Per Second, or FPS, is the lifeblood of any good game – and most gamers know this. But back in the 1980s, that term wasn’t even a notion in most gamers minds, because home computers were permanently fixed at a specific operating speed, and there was literally nothing you could do to improve the FPS of any given game. It was 100% up to the game designer to make sure that the game played at a smooth rate.

Not all game designers stuck with doing this, which seems to go against common sense. Like in the previous post I made, the designer of Flight Simulator II opted to trade off smoother FPS for more advanced graphical options. The result was a sluggish, chunky, complex simulator (albeit of tremendous popularity).

Contrast this to The Dam Busters, from the same era, and the ultra-smooth FPS that game managed to capture.

The importance, and benefits, of a high FPS in any game is fairly obvious. In fact, unless the game is a piece of Interactive Fiction, FPS can make a great game feel like a horrible experience on any given system.

Advertisement for F-15 Strike Eagle, showcasing how an actual USAF pilot was behind its design, as well as a new book about it being published.

Advertisement for F-15 Strike Eagle, showcasing how an actual USAF pilot was behind its design, as well as a new book about it being published.

F-15 STRIKE EAGLE

My first experience with a semi-high FPS game on my clunky-slow C64 didn’t even really register with me. I, as did thousands of other gamers, just knew that the game was FUN.

This little company, by the name of Microprose, set out to design an air combat simulator that would accomplish a few important goals:

  • It would be fast, because jets are fast. Compared to Sublogic’s ultra-slow and unresponsive JET game, this game would toss scenery right out the window in order to maintain a high FPS.
  • It would be FUN. The jet in the game would be loaded with missles, guns, and bombs, and the player would be in a target-rich environment – able to blow anything and everything up.
  • It would be designed by an actual USAF reserve pilot: One Major Bill Stealey.

Released for the Commodore 64 sometime around 1986, it would sell an astonishing 1.5 million copies by the time 1987 rolled around, and was the best-selling C64 game of that time period.

The fun little sim would eventually be ported to the Amstrad CPC; Apple II; Atari 8-bit; Atari ST; Game Boy; PC-8801; Sega Game Gear; MSX; NES; IBM PC; and the ZX Spectrum! This was a wildly popular flight simulator of its time!

There were even a couple of spiritual successors to the sim: Super Strike Eagle on the SNES, and Jane’s F-15 (which was basically Strike Eagle IV).

It would spawn two full sequels – the second of which would later be the model on which an exciting full-sized arcade cabinet game would be made.

In fact, it laid the core ground work for the entire golden-era of flight simulator games in the 1990s period, because it did everything correct in so far as aiming a semi-realistic, relaxed flight game at as broad an audience as possible. Anything “boring” that a fighter pilot has to endure was just tossed right out the window: Take-offs, landings, heavy drag due to weapons, etc.

The game won the “Action game of the Year” in the magazine’s 1985 reader poll. And Compute! magazine listed the game in 1988 as one of “Our Favorite Games”, stating that it “makes jet fighter combat nerve-wracking and fun at the same time”.

Here’s a play-through of the first mission in the game, played by myself, and uploaded in nice HD resolution. The game is certainly nothing to look at nowadays, but for its time it very nicely leveraged the available home technology of the day, and was a big hit.

DIFFERENT PCs DOING DIFFERENT THINGS … WELL, DIFFERENTLY

During this time period in my life, my family and I were living in Puerto Rico, on the Naval base down there, and it was during these 2 years on that island that I had a revelation about something that it seems most gamers either refuse to acknowledge, or just fail to see: Different computing, or console, platforms are all wholly legitimate forms of gaming, and they all seem to do different things. None of them is “better” or “worse” than the other, even when the hardware is significantly different between them.

This way of thinking is with me to this very day. For example, I fail to see how any other console is “better” than the Nintendo Wii, since that is the only console in which Super Mario can be played. And I fail to see how the Playstation 4 is “better” than the other consoles … well, for similar reasons.

Back in the 1980s this difference in hardware, and the games played on said hardware, was really odd, and here’s why (and how it relates to flight simulators). In 1983 my family bought the Commodore 64, a home computer that was destined for huge success based on a few design ideas that the company had – and some of those ideas were for better or for worse. The key to the C64’s success was that it coupled rather brilliant graphics and sound capability with a very affordable pricetag. In 1982 the system launched at $595 (for just the base computer – no drive or anything). This was a very low pricetag, and compares to about $1,500 in today’s purchasing power.

So, take the low price tag, put nice graphics and sound onto it, and bestow a nice 64K of total memory, and the system was almost assured to sell like hotcakes (and it did, pretty much establishing itself as the most popular system ever).

Unbeknownst to me, at the time I was madly in love with it, the main reasons why the C64 was able to sell at such a low price was this: The CPU in the system ran at 1mhz. This is actually twice as slow as the Atari 8-bit systems that had been produced about 3 years earlier! Commodore was intentionally putting a cheaper CPU into the system to keep the costs down.

Also: The optional 1541 floppy disk drive was the slowest floppy drive ever created. Even to this day, no other floppy disk system was as slow as this beast was. Even when the 1541 hit the market in the 80s it was regarded as a very slow disk system!

Commodore did this intentionally: They were releasing even slower systems (the C16 and such) for even cheaper prices, aimed at tight budget-minded consumers. Their top-of-the-line system, which never gained as much success here in the USA as it deserved, was the cutting-edge Amiga platform.

One day, this really super-cool arcade flight game came out called “Rescue on Fractalus” for my C64, and it used this really neat math technique called “fractals” to display all these deep canyons and craggy mountains. Your mission in it was to rescue downed pilots on the planet’s surface, while fighting-off laser guns, alien ships, and other perils. A simple, and quite fun, game it is – produced by LucasFilm games no less (before they renamed to LucasArts).

I had a friend over at my house, and he was taking a turn at playing the game when he remarked, “Wow, this version is a lot slower.”

I was confused. Version? Slower? The heck does that mean?

Turns out his family owned an older Atari 8-bit computer.

This was news to me. The only Atari I had ever been aware of was the original Atari 2600 … with Pitfall and the like.

I asked him what he meant and he told me that the same game, on his Atari system, ran much faster and smoother.

During that same week, once after school, I stopped by his house, he loaded it, and sure enough: The game was nearly twice as smooth and fast!

Here is the C64 version that I owned and played.

And here is the original version, which was on the Atari 8-bit machine (The guy who did the video also does a nice bit at the beginning about how he came across the game, and he also talks more about it later – I really recommend watching ALL of his video, as it discusses the game in great detail).

You can very easily see the large disparity in FPS on the C64 port, and the original Atari 8-bit.

This “flight simulator” still manages to make me smile a bit to this day – though, for reasons I’m discussing right now, I prefer the Atari version. It is retro, fast, and fun. The graphics and gameplay are similar to the classic Atari games of old, and it has the simple goal of achieving as high a score as possible.

My major introduction to the IBM PC was also done via a helicopter simulator that Microprose later designed called GUNSHIP. I bought it for my C64, and started to prefer the IBM PC version (only available to me in the school’s computer lab) because, unlike the C64 version, the buildings were solidly filled polygons, and the FPS was much, much smoother. This helicopter simulator, just like F-15 Strike Eagle before it, introduced a few thousand gamers to upcoming military technology, and the basics of how helicopters fly.

GUNSHIP comparison, with the original C64 version on the left, and the improved version on the right.

GUNSHIP comparison, with the original C64 version on the left, and the improved version on the right.

NEXT: Flight Sims in the 1990s

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

box_frontIndiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (by Jex the Gamer)

So I’m not a “point-and-click adventure” aficionado. I’ve maybe played around ten of these types of games in my whole life, and I’ve never been able to complete a single one without a handy online walk-through to rescue me from time to time. But of the ones I have played, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis really stands out to me.

The game was released in 1992 by LucasArts—one of the top developers of the genre, so you know it’s going to be good! I have heard people say that this game is so good, that it could be considered the fourth installment in the movie series (you know, before the actual fourth movie came out). After playing it for myself, I have to agree with that sentiment. The humor is there, the archaeological adventuring is there, and Indiana Jones himself feels like the real deal (despite not being voiced by Harrison Ford).

But what really makes it a good game for me is that it avoids many of the problems that I usually stumble over in these types of games. In one word, those problems can be summarized as the “puzzles.” The puzzles of these games can be so frustrating! Some can leave you scratching your head wondering, “What am I supposed to do now?” while others drive you to slap the side of your computer as you shout, “How was I supposed to know to do that?!?” The truth of the matter is point-and-click games are notorious for obscure puzzles that don’t make sense to anyone in the world except the man who designed them.

Indiana Jones does away with some of these problems in very simple ways—so simple that I wonder why every game doesn’t copy this game’s innovations. For example, it felt so good when I realized that when my cursor was over an interactive object, the name of that object popped up at the bottom of the screen. Why doesn’t every game do that!? This meant that I no longer had to click on every single thing in the room—and waste tons of time doing so—but rather just the objects which had their names flash on the screen.

Another nice design choice is that when interacting with an object, one of the words out of the list of possible actions the player can take will get highlighted. This a shortcut for the player—instead of left-clicking an action and then left-clicking an object, I can just right-click the object, and the highlighted action will be performed. Sweet! Another time saver.

The game branches-off into three different adventures depending on the choice made in this conversation.

The game branches-off into three different adventures depending on the choice made in this conversation.

Overall, the developers of Indiana Jones just put a lot of thought into the details. Multiple paths onscreen are obvious (not always the case in these types of games), interactive objects are noticeable (again, not always the case), and the actions available to the player actually make sense all the time.

The graphics aren’t that great, but hey, this is 1992 we’re talking about here! However, the environments which Indy traverses are really interesting. The backgrounds and foregrounds interact in effective ways to make the game feel three-dimensional even though it’s not. The gameplay switches to an overhead view from time to time, and this really keeps the interest alive. So do the fist-fights with Nazis; these moments reminded me of Prince of Persia’s duels a little bit.

Dialogue is witty and humorous. Indy’s tag-along girl isn’t annoying. Plenty of sarcasm and charm. Fantastic music throughout. Nods to previous movies, segments of “map-traveling” just like in the movies, and a great plot with comical villains. What is there not to like? This game has it all.

On top of that, there are branching paths and at least two different endings. And I was shocked the first time that I died in this game! Yes, death is a real possibility in this point-and-click adventure. How often does that happen?

As I’ve already said, there is a lot to like about this game. But not everything is perfect. For one thing, there is no evidence of whether or not the end of the screen is also the end of the path. Several times I wandered around, trying to find a way forward, only to discover that the end of the screen was not a dead end. A little indication of that would have been nice.

Also, the ending of the game is bittersweet. I won’t spoil it for you, but near the end of the game, the location looks incredible and the action is building up to something epic, and then…a disappointing final dialogue puzzle. I won’t say anything specific about it, but I was really disappointed in how it played out. Oh well.

Overall, this is a really great game that isn’t perfect but definitely has the charm you’d expect from Indiana Jones. I recommend it as a point-and-click adventure, but I also recommend it just as a video game. Lots of fun!

Happy whipping!

Original magazine scan of the game's advertisement.

Original magazine scan of the game’s advertisement.

Notes from THERetroGamerNY: This is one of those many games that I wasn’t in any hurry to get around to typing about, mostly because it is so famous that most gamers already know about it. I love this adventure game to death – it is so fun, and perfect, in almost every way (though, yes, I agree that the conversation puzzle that comprises the ending could’ve been a bit better.)

Also, for me, the graphics still sparkle with a hand-drawn cartoonish look that is timeless for me.

Basically, it is three entire adventures in one. The game always starts off the same, but at a specific conversation point it branches-off into one of three separate ways: Lots of action and fistfights; lots of puzzles and thinking; and working things out alongside another character’s help. All three separate adventures lead towards the same ending.

I bought, and played, this on the original CD-ROM edition, which featured excellent voice-acting throughout, and had a full hint book tucked inside the box for free.

If you are a fan of adventure games, and an Indiana Jones fan, this is truly a MUST PLAY game.

A careful eye will note that the front box cover featured the name of Hal Barwood – a name of modest renown that LucasArts saw fit to display, and for good reason: His script for the game is the primary reason for its success. If you’d like to get more details on this man, here is a good Wikipedia entry.

GOG.COM has recently acquired the ENTIRE LucasArts games catalog, which is a massive boon for gamers everywhere, and Fate of Atlantis is among those titles (all nicely packed-up in a custom DOSBox installation that is idiot-proof and ready to play. Along with the manual, reference card, and the hint book – for the bargain price of $5.99 no less)

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