Jetpacks and opossums probably wouldn't mix too well in the real world, but the offbeat combo is a match made in heaven in Rocket Knight. Climax Studios has done an outstanding job with this sequel to Rocket Knight Adventures, a Sega Genesis platformer that developed a cult following during the goofy animals craze in the early '90s--that bygone era when everybody was ripping off Sonic the Hedgehog. This game takes you right back to those days, too, with little new added to the formula, save smartly updated graphics and sound. About the only serious negative you could come up with here is the price, which is a little steep at $14.99 for such a familiar style of game that you can finish in one or two sittings.
You play as Sparkster, an armored knight who blasts all over the place with the aid of a jetpack, swings from rails with his prehensile tail, and also hauls out a sword to slay the game's selection of anthropomorphized barnyard animal enemies. The story picks up 15 years after the first game, with Sparkster in retirement after saving the possum kingdom of Zephyrus from an invasion of evil pigs. Those nasty porkers haven't given up, though. Under the guise of a truce, they've infiltrated the kingdom and set up a new plan of conquest. Pigs, wolves, a selection of big bosses, and Sparkster's nemesis--a rogue rocket knight in red named Axel Gear--are all on the roster of baddies to be beaten into submission. Hearts serve as your health, just like in classic Castlevania games, while you collect blue and red gems to boost a score multiplier, as well as earn bonuses like points or extra lives.
Straightforward combat isn't really the focus here. Although you spend a fair chunk of time battling a variety of foes, including pigs with steampunk guns and wolves with stone-age rocket launchers, Rocket Knight is really all about nifty jetpack tricks. You can use the handy little device to increase your jumping ability, ricochet off walls to scale great heights, spin around in a circle, whirl around a rail, fire blasts of energy, smash down doors, and even plow through packs of enemies with the business end of your sword leading the way. Jumping puzzles are the biggest challenge. Levels are packed with intricate platforms in fairly complex patterns, forcing you to go up, down, or around a variety of enemies and obstacles. Much of the architecture will be familiar to veterans of old-fashioned platformers. Elevators slide around, steam pipes burp hot death, turrets blast away--that sort of thing.
Still, it all feels shiny and new despite the fact that the game formula dates back to Bill Clinton's first term of office. The updated visuals look fantastic, as if the developers dropped a 3D cartoon in and around Sparkster. There is a good range of backgrounds, too. The opening of the game takes place in the Ewok-like village homeland of the possums, complete with tree houses and log bridges. The middle section moves to the frigid mountain of the wolves, complete with driving rain and snow. And the latter section shifts to the steampunk-ish underground lair of the pigs. You're always given a lot to look at, and puzzles often reflect the environments. The possum kingdom features a lot of swinging, for instance, while the chilly wolf land boasts big glowing braziers that you need to visit to keep your jetpack fuel from freezing. As an extra hedge against boredom, a few levels take you off terra firma entirely, letting you fly around to blast airborne baddies like wolves in gliders and floating bombs that look like underwater mines.
Length and untrustworthy difficulty are the only minor problems here. You can finish the game in four or five hours, depending on how often you get killed and have to retreat to the start of a level with a continue. Length seems padded, too, because you only have three continues per game, and when they're gone, you have to start from scratch. This is a great game, but there are better deals out there for $15. Difficulty sometimes soars in odd places but then drops to cakewalks in boss battles. You can run into stretches of murderous jumping puzzles, die repeatedly, then make it to the next boss and kill it in one try. This is a classic retro platformer--one of the best released in some time--even if it is a little pricey.