Nintendo’s 5th gen console – the Nintendo 64 – was a powerhouse that stood toe to toe with high end PCs of that gen and even had several technical showpieces to prove that point: Super Mario 64, Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Wave Race 64, Perfect Dark, Turok 3, Rayman 2: The Great Escape, F-Zero X, Sin & Punishment (JP only), Resident Evil 2, Conker’s Bad Fur Day being some games that pushed the N64 to it’s limits.
However another such game – perhaps the most technically impressive N64 title – that went under the radar is a unique 3D collectathon platformer that very few know about: Rocket – Robot On Wheels.
Published by Ubisoft, it was Sucker Punch’s very first video game (yep, the same studio that is now owned by Sony and makes the inFAMOUS games for PlayStation), as well as the first home console game to use a realistic physics engine. So everything in the game, including puzzles, platforming, actions (like picking up and throwing stuff) and vehicles (yep, there’s drivable vehicles) are governed by laws of physics, like inertia, mass and force. As an example, floating wooden boxes bob realistically; move to the edge and you’ll tip over. This was something not even Nintendo themselves considered possible at the time. In fact, Sucker Punch’s founder, Chris Zimmerman started the project with exactly that in mind: achieving the impossible, and with this game, I’d say the studio passed with flying colors..
The plot is simple but charming: the titular Rocket, researcher Dr. Gavin’s robot unicycle is supposed to take care of his futuristic amusement park called Whoopie World, during his absence. Unfortunately, the park’s mascot, Jojo the Racoon escapes from his cage, takes over the park and kidnaps the park mascot, Whoopie the Walrus scattering Tickets and Tokens all across the seven worlds in the process; now it’s all up to our tiny one-wheeled robot to bring the park under control.
Visually, the game may not be striking, but the art design is well done; character models look decent and are well animated. Environments are quite vibrant and detailed too.
Gameplay wise, it’s quite reminiscent of another N64 classic that’s also a 3D platformer: Banjo-Kazooie by developer Rare. Yep, Rocket also employs large explorable worlds that are very different from one another: a mini-amusement park, a forest-like area with Roman structures, an Arabian themed flying carpet level and so on. While I appreciate the variety, one design flaw that’s hard to miss is the fact that only one of the 7 worlds actually resembles a theme park (since that’s the game’s setting) – i.e. the very first world. I mean, an Aztec temple filled with lava doesn’t make for a fun family trip, does it? Likewise, another downside of the game is that it’s levels are too empty; there are large stretches of nothingness that are especially apparent when you consider the fact that the game lays an emphasis on puzzle solving more than run & jump platforming. Neither of these are a problem in Nintendo’s or Rare’s 3D platformer offerings on the system.
Now those nitpicks aside, levels do have a good variety of puzzles to solve, Tokens (the game’s take on Super Mario 64’s coins) to collect and Tickets (reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie’s Jiggies) to find. Upgrades and new moves can be obtained by collecting Tokens to trade with Tinker (a fellow maintenance robot) while new worlds can be unlocked by collecting the required amount of Tickets.
As mentioned before, in addition to physics, the game’s major highlight are vehicles – ranging from a hotdog shaped car to a hovercraft with a paint canon and even a robotic dolphin to help Rocket traversal water bodies.
While the puzzles are usually based around manipulating the environment to get that specific Ticket/Token, ranging from standard problems like a match-the-picture puzzle to odd stuff like like creating a rollercoaster for eg. (ala Roller Coaster Tycoon) and even Tic-Tac-Toe. Some of these are fun to solve, and some, not so much.
Sound design is generally good with some decent jazzy tunes but the sound effects are quite spot on, from Jojo’s squeaky noises to the electronic sound made as you adjust your camera.
However, the game’s not without it’s problems though:
- Poor camera (especially an issue in crammed spaces).
- Some awkward platforming and puzzles that haven’t been well thought out.
- Annoying enemies (like those flying drones that move and hit far quicker than Rocket can).
But it’s still a pretty enjoyable game for the most part, thanks to a fresh take on the genre and bold design. Rocket: Robot On Wheels is (in my opinion) definitely on par with the other N64 heavyweights. It does something that few games try to do nowadays: revitalize a genre and push the boundaries of what’s considered to be the limit.
If you’ve still got an N64, you owe it to yourself to pick up this hidden gem and play it (or just emulate it); it’s a great experience. Now only if Ubisoft would work on a remake or a full blown sequel… we can dream, can’t we?