25 years of the N64: Rocket: Robot on Wheels

A pre-Sly Cooper Sucker Punch developed a 3D platformer on the Nintendo 64, and it's one of the best games on the system.

On September 29, 2021, the Nintendo 64 will turn 25 years old in North America. Throughout the month of September, I’ll be covering the console, its games, its innovations, and its legacy. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.

Sucker Punch is a well-known video game developer now, but back in the late-90s, they were newly formed, and without a game to their name. The studio that would go on to create the Sly Cooper and Infamous franchises was quietly working on the game that would become their first one, and while they knew it was going to be a Nintendo 64 game, other than that, everything was up in the air. Sucker Punch attempted to sell Rocket: Robot on Wheels to active N64 publishers like Acclaim, as well as Activision and THQ, and even broached the topic with Nintendo, but none of those talks turned into anything concrete. One wonders if Nintendo, already flush with multiple platforming series of their own, wanted to put their focus elsewhere, but I can’t drum up any similar excuse for why Activision or THQ wouldn’t have wanted to give this game a shot, unless they feared that the 3D platformer market in general was too saturated for them to want to be responsible for yet another one.

Extremely late into Rocket’s development, Ubisoft — still styled as Ubi Soft at the time, as you can see in the game’s startup screens — signed on to publish. Rocket: Robot on Wheels would release in October of 1999, and it would not do particularly well, commercially speaking: VGChartz has the game selling 100,000 copies in North America, and just 120,000 worldwide, with Europe the only other territory to even see a release.

Depending on the budget, a third-party game selling 150,000 copies on the N64 might have been enough to launch a sequel or be considered successful, but so much goes into that equation — how much development itself cost, how many copies of the game went unsold (such as in the case of Glover, which was a success at 150,000 sales but failed to sell the other 150,000 cartridges they had purchased from Nintendo) — that it’s not exactly an ironclad law. And limiting the regions like Rocket did certainly doesn’t help: Goemon’s Great Adventure, for instance, sold just 60,000 copies in North America according to VGChartz, but thanks to releases in Japan, Europe, and beyond, sold over 310,000 copies in total.

While Rocket didn’t fly off of shelves and never got a sequel — something that now sounds impossible considering how Sucker Punch has operated since — it was beloved by critics, and with good reason. It’s a great game. It’s one of the better 3D platformers of its entire generation, actually, one that managed to avoid most of the missteps that were seemingly inherent to the time period and the early days of the 3D platformer in general. No camera from this time is perfect, for instance, but Rocket’s works much better than basically anything I can think of from the time period that I’ve played, and avoids the problems that even Super Mario 64 ran into sometimes when it comes to falling into an endless abyss. Rocket’s levels were designed to just… not have the endless abyss. Can you imagine?

You can’t fall down a bottomless pit and have to restart a level you’ve already made serious progress in again and again if there is no bottomless pit to begin with, and while 2D platformers were so evolved and fine-tuned at this point in video game history that you could excuse said pits in those, 3D platformers were blazing new territory, and that territory happened to have lots of deceiving geometry that would lead you to your doom if you assumed too much about your own safety. It was a good call by Rocket to just… not do that kind of thing, and make sure that, yes, you could fall a long way in this game, but you’d land on a floor, and be able to get right back to what you were doing without needing to go through a death animation and the hope you had hit a checkpoint of some kind recently.

In general, it feels great to play, even all this time later in 2021 when we’re used to far more refined controls and level design in 3D spaces. That’s quite the feat, and also makes it easy to see how Sucker Punch went from obscurity to Sly Cooper in a hurry.

Rocket: Robot on Wheels has you playing as… well, a robot on wheels, named Rocket. The title doesn’t necessary tell you what you’re in for in this game, but it does tell you who you’re going to be. Rocket works at a theme park, Whoopie World, and on the eve of its opening, one of the animal attractions, a raccoon named Jojo, kidnaps the star, a walrus named Whoopie, with plans to kill Whoopie and have the park renamed Jojo World. This all occurs after the park’s founder and owner has left for the night, so Rocket takes it upon himself to save Whoopie and get the park working once again, too.

The theme park idea actually makes Rocket a more intriguing game, visually, than some of its contemporaries. Some 3D graphics of the era have not aged particularly well, but the fakeness of Rocket’s environment is part of the design of the theme park itself: these trees aren’t real trees, they’re fake trees, this is actually a wall with foliage painted on it, and not actual foliage, and so on. It helped give the game’s graphics and look a bit more longevity, since if you look at something that is obviously not a representation of a real tree, it’s easier to process in your head that it’s ugly on purpose instead of ugly due to limitations of the hardware. Does that make sense? It makes sense to me, at least.

Rocket travels to various areas of the theme park, which are, you guessed it, themed in some way, or at least centered around different attractions. Whoopie World itself is the hub for reaching these other areas of the theme park, and it has the same kinds of mini-missions and collectibles as the rest of the game, too, giving you more to do than just go from Point A to Point B there. Each area you go to not only has its own enemy types and environments to deal with — you climb the inside of a giant mechanical dinosaur in the first area after finding all of the parts to make it work scattered around a beach, and in the second area you’re in ancient ruins found in a forest with a river running through it — but also its own vehicles. You unlock vehicles by collecting tokens within a stage: each stage has 200 unique tokens scattered through it, in increments of one, five, and 10, and there are other singles lying around as well that you might find once again upon reentering a stage.

These vehicles, in general, help you get around faster, or to places you cannot normally go yourself. The vehicle in the first world is a hot dog car that you use to complete a puzzle that will see you driving through rings across the beach, and to win a race against another car elsewhere on the island. The second world’s vehicle is a robotic dolphin, which you use to swim around the river — Rocket normally just sinks to the bottom of it — in order to collect tokens, complete another ring race, better avoid the exploding robo-fish, and swim through the whirlpools that would otherwise suck you down. You’re not always in a vehicle, but there are areas within each stage where one is necessary in order to complete a puzzle or challenge or what have you. In these instances, there is a little spot that lets you summon the vehicle, so long as you’ve already unlocked it within the stage. So you don’t need to go trudging back to where you left your tank that shoots different colored paint balls in order to solve puzzles where you need to paint, for instance. It’s just going to be right there.

This kind of ease of use permeates throughout the game: there are hints for all of the primary collectibles in the game, the tickets, within the pause menu. You don’t need to look at them if you don’t want to, but if you need the assist, you’ll get a little hint as to where you can find any of these missing tickets. Sometimes the hints are a little vague on purpose, and sometimes they’re basically spelling out what to do and where to do it, but what’s mostly important is that they keep you from rolling around in circles for long stretches of time, wondering what to do and where to go next. If you find yourself without an obvious place to be, check the hints, and at least get your sense of direction corrected in the process.

Rocket moves pretty well: the control stick sends Robot where you point it without any trouble, and while the robot lacks arms, he does have a futuristic lasso that lets him grab on to objects, enemies, and animals, either so he can slam them, throw them, or use them to swing on and launch himself from. You’ll find additional upgrades as you discover more tokens throughout the game, that will let you do things like double jump or break objects by slamming them. And you’ll use these abilities and your imagination quite a bit throughout the game: Rocket features environmental puzzles physics puzzles, and logic puzzles, in addition to the more skill-based challenges, and even better, they’re worth doing.

One of the great strengths of this game is that it compels me to want to complete it in full. I do not say that very often about early 3D platformers, which often suffer from a similar disease to some of today’s massive open-world games, in which an enormous checklist of shit to do is created with more emphasis put on the existence of said enormous checklist than whether or not the things on said checklist are even enjoyable. So, yeah, there are tickets to collect in Rocket, as well as tokens of various worth, but the tickets are usually hidden in a way that rewards your curiosity, or only available by solving puzzles of some kind or conquering a challenge. The tokens are sometimes out in the open, but often are more like bread crumbs leading you to your next discovery, with the more valuable ones forcing you to apply your knowledge and/or skill of how the game works in order to acquire them. And that’s it: there aren’t a slew of additional collectibles of questionable worth scattered about in addition to these, which helps with the pacing, with not feeling overwhelmed, and with making Robot feel satisfying and engaging throughout.

Rocket might look kind of kiddie at times, and the focus on combat and enemies is basically nonexistent, but it is a game about a raccoon that literally drew up plans where it stabs a walrus to death in order to takeover a theme park, and the actual gameplay itself is certainly not as obviously-for-kids as, say, Yoshi’s Story. I’m in my 30s and fully enjoyed this 3D platformer from 1999, regardless of whether it trended more kid-friendly in its visuals than adult. And I’m far from alone in this sort of thing, too: just because basically no one bought this game does not mean it failed to achieve critical success.’

GameRankings, unlike Metacritic, did not weight scores, so it’s just a straight average: Rocket’s reviews from the time put it at a score of 82 out of 100. In Nintendo Power’s 20th anniversary issue, they ranked Rocket: Robot on Wheels as the 18th-best game on the Nintendo 64. Retro Sanctuary, in their top 100 for the system, ranked Rocket 29th on the system, right ahead of Mischief Makers and not too far behind the likes of Turok 2, Excitebike 64, and Ogre Battle 64. Personally, I think it’s far more enjoyable than either of the Banjo-Kazooie games, and it lacks some of the genre-specific frustration of even late-life N64 3D platformers like Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Regardless of which ranking is the one that best explains Rocket’s quality, though, the point is that it’s a lot of fun, it’s underrated, and chances are good you haven’t played it. Which is something you should change, like I did in the past year.

Changing it, of course, is not necessary simple. Rocket is… not cheap. You’re talking $100 for a Nintendo 64 game here, which is certainly not the worst you’ll find on the system, but still. $100. There are reproduction cartridges available for more like $30 — you’ll know them not just because they are “new” and yet lack a box but also because they are gray cartridges rather than Rocket’s standard red — but you can also just emulate the thing. It’s not like it’s available anywhere else, and probably won’t be, unless someone asks Sucker Punch or Ubisoft, whoever has the rights, to remaster it. And that probably won’t happen, considering its relatively low sales.

Regardless of how you acquire it, though, it’s worth playing. It’s a 3D platformer that not only outshines much of the competition of its day, but continues to be a lot of fun in the present, thanks to outright removing much of what made early 3D platformers frustrating even at the time of their release, never mind now, decades of refinement later.

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