Back in the late '90s / early '00s, when 3D platformer / collectathons were all the rage, the N64 pumped out a number of top-notch titles. Rare classics such as Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Conker's Bad Fur Day, and Donkey Kong 64 seemed to dominate, but they weren't the only ones that graced retail shelves. Rocket: Robot on Wheels was released in late 1999, right in the golden era, so to speak. But despite solid reviews, the game largely went unnoticed and with the release of Donkey Kong 64 roughly a month later, it was destined for obscurity.
There are a number of reasons why 3D platformer fans might be interested in checking the game out though, and I'll try to cover them here in this review. But another interesting bit of info is that this was actually the first game by Sucker Punch Productions. After Rocket, they would go on to create the Sly Cooper series, which was then followed up by the Infamous series.
When you first start a new game, you're presented with a short cutscene that lays out the story. It's a rather simplistic story, but it's enough to give you a reason to run around collecting tickets, tokens, and booster packs. Speaking of which, I suppose now is a good time to talk about what you're collecting. Rocket has a very similar structure to Banjo-Kazooie in that you collect tickets (instead of jiggies) to unlock new worlds. Then you have tokens, which are mostly equivalent to music notes in Banjo-Kazooie, and then finally the booster packs are more or less honeycomb pieces. The collection side of things definitely feels familiar, but the overall size of Rocket is around half of Banjo-Kazooie, so it never feels overwhelming.
Anyways, while you're collecting all of this stuff, you're platforming. A lot. I know, you're probably thinking "isn't that the point of a platformer?" But what I mean here is there's very little combat in Rocket and 98% of the challenge comes from platforming. There aren't really any bosses (mini or otherwise) in the game, but I can assure you it makes up for it with some tricky platforming sections and some interesting puzzles.
One thing that makes the platforming unique is that Rocket doesn't move around like a traditional platforming character. You see, the subtitle "Robot on Wheels" isn't just flavor text. Although it's technically incorrect since Rocket is only on one wheel, not multiple, the fact still remains that he rolls around instead of walking / running. This makes turning and navigating narrow platforms different enough from a traditional 3D platformer that it takes some getting used to. Or at least it did for me.
So the movement controls are pretty good once you get used to them, but some of the other controls were a bit...unusual. Rocket doesn't have a traditional attack, like a punch (as in Banjo-Kazooie) or by being able to jump on enemies (as in almost every other platformer). Instead, you have a tractor beam kinda thing that let's you pick up enemies (and other objects) and then you can slam them to the ground. This is a unique, but ultimately cumbersome mechanic that I messed up a number of times, even several hours into the game. As I mentioned before, there isn't a lot of combat in the game, so you won't need to use this in a hostile manner very often, but it's still clunky when you do.
But you'll be using the tractor beam for a whole lot of other things, mainly to solve puzzles and play minigames (if you want to call them that). For example, in the first level, you can play some minigames like tic-tac-toe by picking up objects and throwing them onto the board. There are also times in the game where you need to pick up an object and carry it to somewhere else in the level. Overall, these controls work well and without the added pressure of being attacked, I didn't really have any issues with it.
Technical Wonder (Mostly)
Another unique aspect to the game is that it has a pretty neat physics engine in it. Back in 1999, it was rare to see a game where you could toss an object and it would drop / roll / whatever in a realistic way based on its environment. This is immediately obvious in the minigames on the first level I mentioned above as you can throw objects and see them react in a more lifelike manner compared to other games from the era. It's not as noticeable today since this sort of thing is a given nowadays, but it's very impressive if you compare it to other games from the late '90s.
Beyond the physics, Rocket also has some other really interesting...things. I don't want to spoil much, but in the first level, you can basically build a roller coaster. The crazy part is, you don't even have to! Of course, if you do, you have the opportunity to get some collectibles, but much like Banjo-Kazooie, you don't have to get every single thing to complete the game. Another example is in the second level, which allows you to paint the walls throughout the level, some of which is for fun and other times for solving puzzles.
But, alas, Rocket does have one chink in its technical armor. N64 games are notorious for using copious amounts of fog to improve performance and although Rocket doesn't do this, it does have some really poor draw distance. You have to get pretty close to an area to have its contents, such as collectibles, show up. This makes some of the larger, more open levels a bit more tedious than they should be since you can't just jump into first-person view and look around everywhere. I mean, you can, but since the objects won't render until you're nearby, it's not very effective.
While we're on the subject of looking around, I feel obligated to mention the camera since this is a 3D platformer. I didn't find it overly obnoxious and it was manageable for the most part. I don't think it was as nice as Banjo-Kazooie's, but it held up pretty well and wasn't a source of frustration.
Overall, Rocket: Robot on Wheels is a great game for fans of the genre. It's not as good as some of the heavy hitters, but it's right there in the second tier. It took me right at 10.5 hours to do a 100% completion run and although I was pretty familiar with the first couple of levels, the content is a little light compared to games like Banjo-Kazooie. The game has some unique and interesting gameplay elements and aside from a very difficult final level, the challenge level is just about perfect throughout. I didn't even mention the assortment of vehicles you get throughout the game, which is a testament to the variety of gameplay the game provides. There isn't much of a story and there's very little combat, but you can get a rock-solid 10+ hours of hardcore platforming action on a beautiful red cartridge. That sounds pretty good to me.