Sonic the Hedgehog started out with that nebulous demeanor known as "attitude." On the first game's title screen, he waves his finger, perhaps chastising the player for being less cool than he is. Leave him standing still for too long, and he'll tap his foot impatiently. Players everywhere loved it, and so did Sega, who reaped the financial benefits of such a quasi-lovable character.
Obviously, other game companies caught on, shoving more attitude down our throats than we could possibly imagine. Bubsy the Bobcat was voiced by a "famous" comedian, Rocky Rodent sported a radical hairdo, and Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel... well, he's irrelevant, because nobody liked him. Unfortunately, not many of these corporations realized that Sonic not only had attitude, he also happened to star in a damn fine game.
Sparkster was Konami's entry in the overcrowded "xtreme rodent" market. He's an opossum, but you can barely tell since he's clad in a thick suit of armor. He has a rocket pack and a sword that can shoot flames. Sparkster's smirk on the cover of his first game seems to be saying, "Yeah, I'm smarmy, and I'll totally kick your ass. Buy my game, and all my assorted action figures!"
Except there were no action figures. There were advertisements for a Sparkster fan club in the original Genesis manual, but the little bastard didn't exactly catch on. This is extraordinarily sad. It's easy to be cynical, considering he's crafted from the same "focus test approved" mold as Awesome Possum - but this game was made by Konami - the same Konami that pumped out some of the best 8 and 16-bit games ever made. Sparkster's original games were directed by Nobuya Nakazato, the man who directed Contra III and nearly every Japanese developed Contra thereafter. From the minute you start Rocket Knight Adventures, you know this is vintage Konami: clever graphical tricks, outstanding level designs, and bosses that refuse to die.
Much like Sonic, Rocket Knight Adventures puts a heavy focus on blazing fast speed. Charge up your rockets and you'll hurtle forward, sword thrust outward, skewering everything in your path. Sparkster also deflects off of walls and ceilings, allowing you to ricochet through tight hallways or scale towers. In addition, Sparkster can also spin in place, becoming temporarily invulnerable to enemies while slicing them to bits. Sparkster wields a sword, which will send out short range bursts of fire, but can also be used in close quarters to deal extra damage.
Sparkster's first title debuted on the Genesis under the title Rocket Knight Adventures. There are two sequels, one for the Genesis and the other for the Super Nintendo, both named Sparkster. Despite the identical names and cover art, they're completely different games, with their own unique level designs, graphics, music, and even control schemes. The Mega Drive version was subtitled Rocket Knight Adventures 2 on the cover, but this was dropped for all of the other releases. It still shows up on the intro screen to the Genesis version.
When Konami first started making games for the Genesis, nearly all of its titles were watered down ports of SNES games (Sunset Riders, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Hyperstone Heist) or new installments in established franchises. Rocket Knight Adventures was the first property exclusive to Sega's system, and it was a remarkable debut. You guide Sparkster through seven stages to not only rescue the princess, but save the kingdom from an army of evil pigs. The battle takes place through the fields and in the castles of the rodent kingdom, until Sparkster reaches the pig capital, a bleak series of mechanical castles with a heavy steampunk influence. After this point, Sparkster rockets into space to fight the final battles with a series of robots on a satellite orbiting the globe. In addition to the legions of swine, Sparkster also must face his archnemesis Axle Gear, who wears the same armor as him, and is encountered several times through the game. Unlike most animal mascot games, Rocket Knight Adventures is much more of an action game than a straight up platformer. The levels were divided up into "situation rushes", a variation of the "boss rush" term invented by Gradius. Each level is broken down into three or four substages - these substages are only a few minutes long each, but all put Sparkster in different scenarios, each requiring different skillsets. While it never strays from its core mechanics the way the Earthworm Jim games do, it provided a number of brilliant ways to not only keep the action fresh but show off some fairly impressive visual and design tricks. Because of this, Rocket Knight Adventures feels much more in the lines of an arcade-style game Contra, rather than following the lines of a typical console platformers like all of Sonic's other clones.
One part of a stage takes place against a waterfall, with certain platforms delivering you between the foreground and background, similar to the first stage of Super Castlevania IV. In another area, there's a pool of lava which rises and flows periodically, showing Sparkster's reflection. The foreground blocks the upper section of the stage from view, so you need to use this reflection to navigate these platforms successfully.
There are a few shoot-em-up segments, which feature plenty of reference to Gradius, and a particularly amusing fight in gigantic Rock-em-Sock-em style robots. While novel, these are actually the weaker points of the game, because you're too weak in the shooter segments, and the gigantic robots are difficult to control. Still, Konami had some of the best graphics programmers back in the 16-bit era, and they really put the Genesis to task, with reflections, multi-segmented bosses, and other crazy effects - only Treasure games like Gunstar Heroes or Alien Soldier prove themselves better. The music is fantastic too. The soundtrack, supplied by a number of Konami composers including Castlevania mainstay Michiru Yamane, weaves a theme song that sounds about as close to an orchestra as the Genesis FM chip can get. There's also a number of foreboding electronica themes used for the later stages as well as the boss fights.
If there's any major issue with Rocket Knight Adventures, it's that you only occasionally get to take advantage of Sparkster's rocket powers. They're absolutely vital when fighting bosses, since you need to properly time your blasts to strike at weak points, and find a way to ricochet back to safety. But most of the stages are fairly narrow, and flying around haphazardly is a good way to get yourself killed. That being said, it is remarkably fun to toss yourself into the air, off the screen, and watch as Sparkster drops to the ground seconds later, his arms flailing wildly. Konami definitely got the "attitude" part of Sparkster's character down, with his charismatic animations. He's much friendlier than, say, Sonic, as if you leave him idle, he'll smile at the player and give a thumbs up.
Despite the kiddie demeanor, Rocket Knight Adventures is in no way easy. While the "Child" difficulty is manageable up until the final stages, the other difficulty levels greatly reduce the number of lives and continues, posing quite a challenge to even the most diehard gaming vets. This is the game's other sore point, because in the North American version is ridiculously difficult. The "Easy" mode offers two players and three credits, "Normal" offers one player and one credit, while "Hard" offers one player and no credits. The Japanese version is much more forgiving in this regard, as "Normal" mode offers three players and five credits, while "Hard" mode offers two players and three credits, making it equivalent to the American "Easy" mode. Like many Konami games, you need to play on Hard mode to get the best ending.
For some reason, the Japanese and American/European versions of Rocket Knight Adventures have completely different intros and stage introductions. The Japanese version begins with a group of pigs terrorizing opossum kids in a field as the shadow of the evil emperor hovers above. The stage intro screen shows a small cute rodent orchestra playing the music. The American/European version instead begins with a view of Sparkster, standing on a mountain, facing the screen. He unsheathes his sword and the camera pans around, showing the evil castle, while the emperor's shadow appears. The stage intro shows a picture of Sparkster against a starry background, which changes at the beginning of each new level.
The SNES Sparkster title plays almost exactly the same as its Genesis predecessor, but refines it to create an even better game. This time the little rodent is fighting against evil wolves, but otherwise the concept is much the same. Sparkster has a new move in which he flings himself forward in short bursts by pressing the L or R button. Rocket Knight Adventures was a little restrictive in its level designs - Sparkster has more open levels, with a larger vertical space, that allow you play around with jetpack much more than its predecessor. The levels themselves are a lot more creative as well - one stage is themed after musical instruments with gigantic pianos and trumpets that spew you into different parts of the level. At the same time, they're longer and bit less involving - while there are still some mini-bosses here and there, the situation rush aspect is mostly gone. The levels are also filled with jewels which, in traditional platformer fashion, will award you an extra life when you grab 100 of them. The side-scrolling shmup sequences have been replaced with a single overhead shooter stage, which works a bit better than the original Rocket Knight Adventures.
Sparkster definitely benefits from the graphical prowess of the SNES - Sparkster's sprite looks much cooler than before, and background graphics are full of brilliantly vibrant colors, even if they don't rely on any gimmicky effects. The music is fantastic too, as Sparkster gets a brand new "theme" music, variations of which are played at various spots throughout the game. There's some annoying slowdown, but Sparkster still zooms with near unfathomable speed, negating any of those silly Sega "blast processing" ads.
Though the game is only seven levels long, the easier difficulty settings cuts out some of the stages, and the password feature makes the adventure a bit more manageable than the Genesis original. It's quite an adorable password system too - it's a series of branches suspended over some boxes, which Sparkster needs to hit to cycle through various symbols. Playing on the Very Hard difficulty setting is also the only way to get the true final boss. Like Rocket Knight Adventures that preceded it, the SNES Sparkster is a completely fantastic game, and undoubtedly an overlooked classic. It should also be noted that the game was designed and programmed by Hideo Ueda, who was also the main programmer of Axelay.
For some reason, the Genesis version of Sparkster is a completely different animal than either of its brethren. First off, the controls - instead of holding down the attack button to charge your jetpack, it fills automatically, and is activated with the "A" button. The meter also refills pretty quickly, allowing you to boost multiple times before you hit the ground. If you want a few extra seconds, the rocket will also charge a second time, allowing Sparkster to spin when he flies. This is vital for certain bosses, where you need to use spin attack to unscrew them bit by bit. Overall, It there's a greater aerial control over Sparkster, since you're not chaotically flailing around so often. Unfortunately, the rest of the controls have been run through the mud.
Sparkster no longer shoots flames from his sword, and his regular sword swing attack is pitifully sluggish. The rocket boost isn't as fast nor as powerful, and even his regular walking speed has been slowed down. Much like the SNES game, the level designs in the Genesis version have been expanded to allow better use the jetpack, although they're not nearly as involving as either game. There are still jewels scattered through the stage - when you grab ten, a little roulette will play in the corner and give you a power-up based on what it rolls. However, there's an extra incentive of exploring each of the levels, as most of them have a hidden sword. Finding all of them before the end of the game will make the ending segments much easier, as you morph into the powerful Golden Sparkster. Mimicking the chaos emeralds from Sonic the Hedgehog, you need to find all of these to get the good ending.
Once again, Sparkster has been completely redrawn and looks a bit cutesier than he does in the other versions. There aren't as many impressive effects as Rocket Knight Adventures, but the graphics are much cleaner overall. The bad guys this time are lizards and dinosaurs, which aren't quite as interesting as the pigs or wolves. The shooter stages are gone, replaced with sections where you control Sparkster's giant robot and run through the lizard city, although the level is far too long and grows a bit dull. There's also a brief prologue section right before the game begins, where you need to duel against Axel in the the robots, similar to the face off near the end of the first game. The music can't quite stand up to the SNES version, although they do share some songs with each other, primarily Sparkster's main theme.
The sluggish controls definitely hamper the game, and it doesn't just doesn't have the same sense of speed of the other two games. Still, it's not a bad title, just one that's strangely different from its peers.
Sparkster disappeared into the background after the 16-bit era, with his presence relegated to a handful of cameos. However, it wasn't until 2010 that he was resurrected for a new adventure. Simply entitled Rocket Knight, the game was produced by Konami of America and developed by Climax Entertainment, a British studio who had also worked on Silent Hill Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
Some time has passed since the last adventure, as Sparkster has settled down and started a family. It's not long until the wolves start invading though, so Sparkster suits up once again to take them on. In the meantime, the opossums end up forging an alliance with the pigs, which doesn't turn out too well. As expected, Axel is once again there to betray his race and cause Sparkster some trouble. Like Rocket Knight Adventures, all of the cutscenes are told through entirely through pantomime.
Rocket Knight was developed as a downloadable title for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows-based PCs. Rather than going the route of Konami's Rebirth titles, which used low-res 2D assets, Rocket Knight uses entirely 3D graphics, although the entire game is still played on a two dimensional plane. While the graphics don't really take advantages of an fancy high-definition effects, it still looks decent and plays smoothly, generally running at a rock steady 60 FPS, a vital requirement to any 2.5D game. The new artwork for Sparkster also looks pretty excellent. The overall visual style is a little bit more cartoony, vaguely reminiscent of Namco's Klonoa series. Like the original game, the adventure starts off amidst a forest background, before moving through medieval castles, and eventually too a futuristic sci-fi setting. There are four stages total, each consisting of two main substages and a boss battle. While not terribly long, it is a bit lengthier than the 16-bit games, and also saves your progress in between stages, although it still nonsensically keeps tracks of lives and continues. The soundtrack includes a remix of the original theme from Rocket Knight Adventures. The rest of the music is pleasant, albeit incredibly bland, and generally just blends into the background.
The action is technically an amalgamation of elements from the Sparkster games. Like the Genesis Sparkster, your sword no longer shoots out flames, although you can still shoot fire as an alternate attack. The core of the game - the rocket boosting - is entirely different. In the original Rocket Knight Adventures and the SNES Sparkster, you needed to charge it for a second, before it would send you rocketing maybe two or three screen lengths. In the new one, you can boost as much as you want - provided you have enough boost, which regenerates pretty quickly - but you only travel less than half the length of the screen. It's more controlled, and something you use continuously to fly from platforms to platforms, skewering through bad guys in the process. But while it's less chaotic, it's also not nearly as much fun. It completely lacks the energy that came with launching Sparkster into the air, and it can't help but feel remarkably restrained in comparison. If anything, it feels the closest to the Genesis Sparkster, although you also cannot multi-boost like you could in that game.
Part of the blame can also be placed on the level designs. The stages here are just like any bajillions of other 2D platformers - they are large, and they are filled with junk to collect. Said junk, outside of life restoratives, is mostly there for the scoring system, which increases a multiplier with the more items you get (or goons you kill) in quick succession. It's a decent addition, but it doesn't make up for the fact that the levels are really long and drawn out. There are platforms to jump on, rails to swing on, walls to bounce off of, and enemies to kill, but there's no real thought put behind them. Throughout the first half of the game, you're never given any interesting challenges either. Things pick up by the third world, where you need to make better use of the rocket dash, but it's too little, too late. The situation rush aspect and the clever design of the original Genesis game is, again, mostly missing. It's also far too easy on the default setting. The "hard" mode provides more enemies, and is much more engrossing, but enabling it requires that you uncover the "secret" method to beating the bosses. In spite of this, the boss battles here too are not as meticulously designed as the 16-bit games either.
There's always some concern in taking a Japanese property and giving it to a Western-based studio. While there have been issues in the past, GRIN's Bionic Commando Rearmed shows that you don't actually need the original staff to capture the magic of an older game - you just need people that understand why the original was so awesome. The strange thing with Rocket Knight is that it seems to have been developed by people who really didn't like the original games, or really didn't get what made them so fun. The result is a game that's technically acceptable, but that's unfortunately bland.
Despite his long absence after the 16-bit era, Sparkster had a number of cameos in other Konami games. He's in one of the carnival rooms in the Super Famicom game Ganbare Goemon 2 (you can also find Simon Belmont of Castlevania hanging around) and he shows up at the Outer Heaven bar in the Sega CD version of Snatcher, along with several other classic Konami characters. Sparkster also pops up in the Japan-only RPG/dating sim Mitsumete Knight, complete with theme music and an extremely goofy voice. You even get to fight him for a bit, in a battle sequence that looks a lot like Suikoden. He makes a mysterious appearance in the super secret ending to Contra: Shattered Soldier, released in 2002, where the Contra heroes fight against a shadowy figure with a rocket pack. He also appears as a contestant in International Track and Field for the Nintendo DS, released in 2008, which also stars a number of other classic Konami characters. While Sparkster didn't show up in the Game Boy Advance game Konami Krazy Racers, Sparkster joins the cast for the sequel titled Krazy Kart Racing for iOS and Android devices.