Sucker Punch. You know them? They’re the guys behind the critically acclaimed Sly Cooper series as well as the more recent and equally esteemed Infamous series. They’ve got a stellar track record and have been developing content exclusively for Playstation consoles since 2000. Turn back the clock to the 90s, however, and you’ll discover the game upon which they built their reputation.
In 1999, Sucker Punch released Rocket: Robot on Wheels for Nintendo 64 under the Ubisoft publishing label. The company had opened its doors only two years prior when a group of friends working at Microsoft took the initiative to start their own company. They were already forging a name in the top tier of electronic entertainment developers.
I remember reading about the game in Nintendo Power in the months leading up to launch day. The title used to be Sprocket, before copyright concerns caused a name change just three months before release. I was very excited about the project as it seemed to present a clever overall design that was chockfull of imagination. My anticipation was well-founded, as the final product was unlike anything that preceded it on the N64.
Although PC games had been dabbling with realistic physics engines for years (Half-Life’s superb physics wowed PC gamers in 98′), console games had generally been quite primitive in this regard up until Sucker Punch’s debut. Rocket introduced a physics engine that served as the primary vehicle for gameplay and was utilized to solve puzzles that were based on friction, inertia, mass, gravity, vectors, and other factors in physics. It was really something special for its time and superseded most of the engines that had came before it.
The story features theme park creator Dr. Gavin’s robot assistant Rocket as he embarks on a mission to shut down the evil plans of a run-amok raccoon mascot named Jojo. The evening before Whoopie World’s grand opening, Jojo sets a plot in motion to take over the theme park and recreate it in his own likeness. Animals are in a state of disarray, tickets and tokens have been stolen and scattered throughout the theme park’s numerous sub-worlds, and it’s up to Rocket to step in and stop the nefarious raccoon. The story isn’t deep, but the level of imagination poured into the game’s characters and environments is.
Upon release, Rocket became a sleeper hit that went unnoticed by most gamers. However, those who did delve into its wacky world uncovered one of the the N64’s lost diamonds. More than just a sandbox for physics experimentation, Rocket offered a whole lot more to players. Whether it was the highly imaginative theme park worlds, the in-game roller coaster creator, the seven unique vehicles, or the cheeky sense of humour, a full-course meal had been laid out for platforming fans. I have particularly fond memories of spray painting sheep and throwing cans into the mouths of former American presidents, and might I just add that Rocket wielded a gravity gun years before Gordan Freeman ever set foot in City 17.
Yes, that’s right, a prototype of the gravity gun was kicking around in 1999 in the form of a grapple beam affixed to Rocket’s helmet. With this beam, players could latch hold of objects and move them around the environment, swing from various fixtures, and… hurl animals at bramble bushes. It also turned water into ice, to name just another of its unique qualities. The beam concept was novel and expertly executed, resulting in some of the most unique and enjoyable gameplay to ever grace the Nintendo 64.
If you’ve never played Rocket, I strongly encourage you to log onto ebay, amazon, or wherever and order a used copy to sink your teeth into. The joys of colouring sheep red, blue, and green with paintball cannon-fire, then hopping out of your vehicle and whipping the fluffy rainbow critters at a nearby velcro wall so that you can use them as rock climbing footholds should not be overlooked.