Friday, July 3, 2009

Rocket Riot, or Retro Chic

rocket riot title Earlier this week, Team Suck started in on Army of Two.  They’re squeezing all the fun they can out of a bromantic romp through a not-so-fictional Middle East.  During one play session, I listened in via an Xbox Live party, delighting in their hilarious tales from the front lines – the “LONG LIVE SADDAM” moment had us in stitches.  But a few minutes in I kind of stopped paying attention.  I was busy. 

I was playing Rocket Riot.

I couldn’t accurately express to Andrew and Rob over headset what was so appealing about Codeglue’s new Live Arcade title.  “It’s all destructible blocks!” I cried to Rob, trying to tap into his fondness for Red Faction: Guerrilla.  “Every time you finished a level, a robot goes ‘rocket-riot-rocket-riot’” I said to Andrew, thinking the quirkiness would appeal to the Katamari-loving part of his brain.  They weren’t buying it.

What did elicit a “That sounds interesting” from Rob was my attempt to explain Rocket Riot’s control scheme.  It borrows from the twin stick shooter model, popularized by titles such as Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD.  You navigate your slightly customizable avatar through two-dimensional playing fields, usually attempting to ward off a horde of enemies.  What makes the controls unique (and worthy of a paragraph of discussion) is how the right stick functions.  Instead of simply aiming with the stick and either shooting constantly or pressing a trigger, you fire a rocket by flicking in the direction you want it to fly (a system reminiscent of the skill stick in recent iterations of EA’s NHL series).  It’s a surprisingly tactile, if not tendonitis-inducing, method of firing projectiles.  It’s remarkably satisfying, too, when a flung rocket soars across the board and smacks an enemy in the face.

Check out those pixel explosions! Rocket Riot’s got more going for it than its subtle innovation in the twin stick genre.  It’s visual style is nothing if not quirky and delightful.  Each level looks like it was designed on an 8- or 16-bit system – until a rocket explodes, that is.  When a rocket collides with the environment, the level breaks away like a wrecked LEGO castle, showering the area with “pixels.”  Moving left or right on any game board causes it to tilt, showing off the 2.5D rendering of each pixelated level.  And as you progress through the game, any defeated enemy (save bosses) becomes a playable character, with models ranging from a space lion names Growls to a Sailor named…Sailor, all of whom also explode into blocks when struck by a rocket.  Despite all this visual chaos, the game runs silky smooth, a benefit of going retro on this generation’s hardware.

Just as Rocket Riot’s controls, graphics, and music (some downright hummable tunes and a rap to rival the infamous “DK Rap”) feel decidedly retro, so does its plot.  The developer Codeglue has admitted that they initially designed the game without a plot, instead choosing to simply churn out 80 challenge-based levels in a variety of themes.  At the behest of publisher THQ, they attached a goofy story about a pirate named Blockbeard who steals everyone’s legs (thus explaining the butt-mounted jet pack you use to fly around) and takes off on the open sea, out into space, etc.   In all honesty, this is no worse than being told that “President Ronnie has been That's right.  There's a space squid that shoots giant rockets.kidnapped by the ninjas.  Are you a bad enough dude to rescue Ronnie?”  I actually appreciate that Rocket Riot wears its skin graft of a plot on its sleeves.  If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a moment where a pirate shrinks you with a shrink ray then gets mad and threatens to blog about you when you fly into his computer.  More games should allow this to happen.

What’s been the biggest surprise to me is the multiplayer.  The Deathmatch is pretty standard, and Rugby Riot is a skin for a game of Capture the Flag.  But I’m impressed by the inspired Destroy the Object and Golden Guy modes.  Destroy the Object is a challenge that regular occurs in the single player campaign, tasking the player with busting up certain items without dying.  In multiplayer, two teams of rocketeers attempt to destroy a certain number of their opponents’ blocks.  It’s similar to the marriage of design and gameplay that I raved about in RF: Guerrilla’s multiplayer.  If your game revolves around blowing shit up, you’d do well to make a multiplayer mode about blowing shit up.  And Golden Guy is a translation of perennial playground favorite Kill the Carrier.  Players attempt to rack up time by possessing a Golden Suit power-up, which makes it impossible to defend yourself.  Andrew and I have logged a few evenings of Golden Guy and it’s been a blast every time.  It’s chaotic.  It’s frustrating.  There’s nothing like running away from four people determined to blow you up to get your heart pumping.

What makes Rocket Riot so successful is the retro feel that pervades every aspect of the game, from its arcade controls to its challenge-based levels.  This is reinforced in visuals that actually serve the gameplay – try digging through a pirate boat to escape your pursuers and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s a game we could easily have seen released in the heyday of the American arcade.  But thankfully it’s out now, taking advantage of unnecessarily powerful hardware and an online service capable of handling leaderboards and multiplayer.  If you’re still skeptical, try the demo.  Just be prepared to fork over the money when it asks you at rocketpoint.