Retro game scribes spill more than their share of ink explaining the mascot factor in the 16-bit console wars. Few, however, draw comparisons between mascots and the companies they represented. How Nintendo is a principled workhorse who always gets the job done, though maybe not in a flashy way—just like Mario. Or the way Sega often rushed onto the next innovation without checking for hidden obstacles. TurboGrafx fans might say NEC’s adopted son Bonk personified its own hard-headed tenacity despite top-heaviness. OK, so maybe the mascots themselves had almost nothing to do with the companies that spawned them—other than Sparkster the Rocket Knight, that is, whose abilities parallel Konami’s strengths as perfectly as his weaknesses lay bare the company’s own.
Konami took special care in crafting the woodland creature that would represent them, going so far as asking the Western branch over in America for input. In a wise move, they then ignored the suggestions of making Sparkster a surfer with a weakness for Mexican food and instead settled on a noble opossum knight—one with a rocket pack.
The core gameplay in Rocket Knight Adventures was twofold: First, Sparkster ran and jumped through platforming stages, using his rocket to catapult quickly in a single direction. If he hit a wall, he ricocheted in another direction. Secondly, every so often he’d rocket into a side-scrolling shooter segment. This seemed like the perfect balance for a Konami mascot, given the company’s roots developing not just big, colorful licensed platformers like Tiny Toons, but also reflex-heavy arcade shooters like Gradius. In addition, Konami built its fame creating big colorful arcade games, allowing them to fashion Sparkster into a lovable scamp with tons of personality, just like The Simpsons or Ninja Turtles. If there exists a recipe for a perfect mascot game, surely Konami found it: Sparkster rode the perfect balance between Mario and Sonic. His moveset embodied the designs Konami was known for, and he had the company’s finest resources at his disposal.
Unfortunately, though Rocket Knight Adventures definitely oozed personality and hinted at gameplay brilliance, something got lost in the execution. Nobuya Nakazato’s penchant for boss and situation rush gameplay created a kind of Battletoadsian sensibility, chaining together a ton of cool ideas rather than polished stages. This manic pacing often forgot to take its hero’s skills into consideration, and the rocket pack became an afterthought. While you could always trigger the boost, doing so usually sent you to certain death. Speed runs show it is possible to use the rocket constantly, but doing so skips most, if not all, of the stage design. Mario’s stages encourage his abilities. Sonic’s feature obstacles that kill players who use his speed thoughtlessly. The problem with Sparkster’s journey is that it often fails to consider him at all, which is a shame, because there’s plenty to love about the little guy.
Article by Tomm Hulett
GameSpite Journal 12: Rocket Knight Adventures