Dust off your Hot Wheels and bust out the green ketchup, kids. It’s time to take a trip back to the 90’s. You may know Sucker Punch, the production company that brought us the likes of Sly Cooper and InFamous, but did you know their first game was actually released on Halloween of 1999 for Nintendo 64, a good three years before the first Sly Cooper game? I did, because I played that game when I was a wee lad. A curious little ditty by the name of Rocket: Robot on Wheels (which is actually a misnomer, since Rocket only has one wheel).
It’s the night before the grand opening of Whoopie World, the galaxy’s greatest theme park, designed and built by the brilliant Dr. Gavin. The good doctor has to leave for the night to attend an unspecified party, and leaves his unipedal helper robot, Rocket, in charge of overseeing the park until morning, as well as keeping an eye on the park mascots, Whoopie the walrus and Jojo the raccoon. Literally the split second the doctor leaves, Jojo escapes his cage, knocks out Rocket, swipes the tickets and tokens that power the machines, and kidnaps Whoopie, all with the intent of taking over the park and turning it into a monument to himself. Rocket must take back control of the park and stop Jojo before the park opens. Considering the amount of exposed machinery and bottomless pits this park has, though, I’d be expecting lawsuits on opening day with or without the evil raccoon.
The game is a platformer collect-a-thon, a genre the N64 did best, with some rudimentary physics elements thrown in. Rocket has a small tractor beam mounted on his head that allows him to pick up and throw small objects, as well as grab and swing from circular grapple points. A lot of platforms will tilt and sway with Rocket’s weight, so you’ll need to be on the move almost constantly to avoid falling down a pit. The game is usually pretty fair about checkpoints, so even if you do miss a jump, you usually won’t be set too far back. If I had to make a complaint, it’d be that since Rocket moves around on only on wheel, it’s a little hard to stop him once he gets rolling, which can result in rolling merrily right off a cliff. Also, the camera control is not great, which can be an impediment to platforming, but this was before the days of analog camera control, so I’m willing to give a mulligan for that one.
Every world in the game is a different attraction of somewhat dubious safety, and hidden in those attractions are tickets and tokens, as well as parts of a special machine that open up new areas of each world. Tickets allow Rocket to operate the ticket switches that control the higher functions of the park, which opens up more worlds. Tokens are given to Tinker the maintenance bot in exchange for new upgrades for Rocket, including a slamming attack, a rocket-powered double jump, and my personal favorite, a freeze ray that can make platforms in water and stop enemies. In addition to these moves, every world has a unique vehicle tailored to the world’s theme that Rocket can operate once he finds it. These include such gems as the Dune Dog, a dune buggy shaped like a hot dog, the Hoversplat, a floating chariot that launches paint at things, and the Bat Bike, a motorcycle that can glide around on bat wings (and still maintains a position in my “coolest video game motorcycles” top ten).
Rocket: Robot on Wheels was one of my favorite N64 games when I was a kid, and I think it’s because it wasn’t afraid to be whimsical. The game is vibrant and colorful, and that’s not even mentioning the catchy-as-hell jazz soundtrack. Seriously, I still catch myself humming the Whoopie World lobby theme sometimes. I won’t say it’s better than, say, Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64, but it’s definitely a contender for the bronze medal in the N64 library. I can definitely see the beginnings of Sucker Punch’s style in the game’s presentation and mechanics (at least for the cartoon-y Sly Cooper games, not so much on InFamous). That being said, you couldn’t pay me to set foot in Whoopie World. I like my legs unbroken, thanks.