Jet Set Rodeo – Rocket Jockey retro

There are games whose title says everything you need to know. Rocket Jockey is one such game.

There are games whose concept is so brilliant that merely hearing it makes you want to play them immediately. Rocket Jockey is one such game.

There are games that should simply be, conjured into existence with the birth of the world, like some ancient parthenon that immediately had all the major god-needing bases covered. Rocket Jockey is etc, etc.


Aint give a damn.

You ride a constantly moving rocket, which you steer around an arena using grappling hooks a lá Burton’s Batman. These hooks are also not unlike the one in Just Cause 2, and can be used to yank other jockeys off their rockets, drag them behind you, fling them around, attach them to pillars, rockets, bombs, or each other, with more tricky and elaborate, themed attacks awarding extra points, a bit like Bulletstorm.

Admit it, you already want to play it right now.


“Just a few formalities I guess.”

Released in 1996 by Rocket Science Games, Rocket Jockey never reached its potential. Much as I prefer single player games, a fool could see that this one would be at its best with other humanoids, and that wasn’t an option on release.

It came out at that awkward period for PC games, before Windows was fully matured or even assumed to be present on any given PC, that is responsible for the bleeding bald patches of many 90s game enthusiasts. Assuming you can even find a copy with everyone involved long since vanished, the biggest obstacle to enjoying it today is getting the damn thing to play at all, which I achieved on Windows XP in the mid-2000s by giving up and buying another PC. As for Windows 7, it took a virtualbox system running Windows 98, along with virtual copies of everything from the game CD to the audio drivers, which all sadly rules out the inspired soundtrack headlined by surf guitar legend Dick Dale. Still, most of it’s on youtube at least.

It’s worth it though. God, is it worth it. Rocket Jockey is by no means perfect, and you’ll certainly walk away from it saddened by the potential of its concept, but it delivers a damn fine experience nonetheless.


Yoink!

It throws itself into the idea, offering three distinct game modes, an impressive approximation of an early physics engine, a fast pace that rewards skill, and a great sense of character. Its soundtrack really is hugely important, conveying the sheer raw fun of it all, helping it to somehow carry off the trick of being simultaneously cruel and good-natured. It’s brutal and competitive, but it’s all so gleefully silly and slapstick that it doesn’t hurt. Everyone’s equal, chaos is the order of the day, and soon even the pitch/arena itself starts to fight you, which can be frustrating as it is funny. It’s so easy to mangle yourself through bad steering or the traps that litter many levels that even someone on the brink of death can pull it back with enough skill and a little luck.

Everyone’s vulnerable on the ground, where your options are limited to scrabbling for the nearest rocket (it doesn’t have to be your own, indeed some can only be ridden once you’ve stolen them from a hapless competitor) or diving to the ground in the hope of dodging attackers. But tables can turn quickly – it’s easy to plough into obstacles while trying to hit someone, and not unheard of to be knocked off your rocket by the flailing body of someone you’ve just snatched off the floor or barged into an explosion. And if you can pull it off, an extremely well-timed dive into an enemy can really ruin their day.


Pow! Sometimes an enemy hits you so well you can’t begrudge them.

And that’s just the main event, Rocket War, where victory goes to the last rider with any health or capable of moving (stringing a rider up to two posts is an instant knockout and vital tactic on tougher arenas). There’s also Rocket Race, where poles or gates must be slalomed or slotted between in sequence and while timed, but which sadly the AI can’t navigate for toffee, rendering it the weaker third.

Finally, there’s Rocketball, where jockeys are tethered and a referee limits, though doesn’t rule out, the utility of attacking opponents, and instead you race to hook and hurl large footballs or hockey pucks (sometimes it’s bombs) into goals. It’s a great mode crying out for a modern homage, though it does get damn difficult on later levels as it’s always everyone vs the player. There’s an element of strategy too, as it pays to practice your aim and take those long range potshots, but anyone can nab your points by simply bumping it before it goes in. You can also grab two balls at a time (steady on), but their momentum will affect you, and you’re left unable to hook onto anything to steer or escape attackers.


The more reckless, the more funny when you crash.

Now, for the downsides. The AI gets stuck sometimes, and gets hopelessly confused in races. Some maps aren’t very good (and one in particular is made too difficult by the engine), and the controls take some getting used to. The graphics were a bit dated at the time, and it’s difficult to see things at a distance (or tripwires until it’s too late) but these screenshots aren’t entirely representative – they work in motion better than you’d think thanks to the intuitive physics, and the simple charm of the 1930s boy racer aesthetic.

Riders celebrate and showboat with little stunts when they score a good hit. Arms flail comically when sailing through the air. Yanking a jockey round for long enough will sometimes tug their underwear off. The rocketball referees can be brutalised, but I found out the painful and then goddamn hilarious way that if you anger them and then fall off your sled near where they’re standing, they’ll abandon the game to kick the living crap out of you. When you spend a game either powering ahead with no way to stop, or helplessly limping in a panic to the nearest sled, the game can get away with low-fi graphics.


I regret nothiiiiiing!

My main complaint, though? IT NEEDS MORE. Friendly AI in Rocketball, custom arenas, more rockets, more riders, more arenas, more weapons, more, more, more! It’s a well realised game and playing it seldom leaves me thinking “that is bad”, rather “this could be even better“.

We see a lot of remakes these days, but many are cynical rehashing of a name rather than an actual remake of a great idea. Rocket Jockey could and should be remade, and frankly you’d have to be trying pretty hard and/or working for Ubisoft’s Great Game Ruining Department to get it wrong.


Bom daw daddly dwao dw… look, spelling guitars is hard okay

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Just the Way I’m Feline – The Cat Lady

You might be skeptical of ‘trigger warnings’. I’m not going to argue with you. Really. Not even passive-aggressively. But even if you’re vehemently opposed to them, I will ask that you make an exception today.

The Cat Lady opens with a woman deliberately ending her own life. It’s a violent and disturbing story about depression, suicide, suffering, and terrible violence.

It’s also a heartfelt and touching story about trust, hope, and friendship. But if you’re in a position where morbid and powerfully emotional stories about death, loss and despair could have an adverse affect on you, it could be a very rough ride.


‘sup.

Back in 1992, there was a game on the Amiga called Dreamweb. A point and click adventure game set in the near future, you played as a man plagued by vivid and disturbing nightmares, which wreck his emotional state and eventually have him convinced that he has to murder seven people to save the world. It was momentarily notorious for showing almost several pixels of sexual activity between two pink creatures, one or more of which may have been a human. It seems quite ridiculous now to think that it caused a minor media stir. After all, today we think little of games depicting graphic murder, and interrupting some frankly workmanlike sex in order to shoot a dude while he clutches a pillow over his tackle seems fairly pedestrian. The game over screen was pretty great, though.

But that’s an aside. My real issue with Dreamweb is that it wasted its potential. An emotionally disturbed man who comes to believe he must murder seven people to save humanity? Who regularly hallucinates, and abuses the trust of people he loves to get closer to his targets? Who despite everything, can never be sure whether he really is the saviour of humankind, or just severely ill?

Well, no. Dreamweb almost immediately made it clear that yes, it’s all real. And you use your girlfriend to get close to one target in the same way you use key on door, and then she might as well never have existed. It was a huge waste of an opportunity.

The Cat Lady came almost 20 years later, and finally took up some of that slack. It’s Dreamweb crossed with Planescape Torment. Dexter via The-Crow-except-not-terrible.

I ought to state my bias here. I’ve written about my life-long depression before. I’ve contemplated suicide, to a degree that’d mark it out as A Concern. Several people I love very dearly have self harmed and attempted suicide. I am not an expert on mental health, nor on suicide, but let’s maintain some semblance of order and suffice to say that any game about either subjects is one that I will observe with a particularly critical eye, but will also be prone to take very personally.

The protagonist of The Cat Lady, Susan Ashworth, wants to die. She kills herself during the game’s introduction. It pulls no punches.

But death, apparently, is no more fair than life, and no sooner has our Susan left the world of the living than she’s punted straight back into it, only now she’s immortal, and charged with killing five people before she’s allowed to die for good.

These five people are described as “Parasites”, but on hearing their introduction, anyone who’s had a close run-in with a psychopath will find their breath shortening, their pulse quickening, their muscles tensing. It is an emotionally charged game. That opening death is no mere gimmick, nor is it the last suicide you’ll see, nor the last time the threat of the Parasites will set your nerves on edge.

Srtucturally, TCL is very simple. It’s a work of interactive fiction presented as a fairly basic adventure game, with the player controlling Susan’s movements and actions through seven chapters, solving simple puzzles and picking sometimes-meaningless dialogue options as she goes about her day.

Thematically, well.

Well.

There are many works of fiction that rely on shock value, on borderline voyeurism, or on the simple sadism of ‘torture porn’. For the record, I dislike all these things. I can’t even watch most, and while we’re discussing yet more of my prejudices, I’ve enjoyed very few adventure games too. I mention all this because on the face of it, The Cat Lady is about serial killers doing awful things and the protagonist killing them. But to lump it in with the Saws and the jump scare ghost trains would do it a grave disservice. Rather, the irredeemible cruelty of these people is used to give them a real, primal sense of tangible threat, and to give a guilt-free sense of triumph when you manage to turn the tables on them. Its gore and grotesquery serve not to titillate but to induce revulsion and anger, and their constant threat and unpredictable appearances (not to mention the nonlinear narrative) convey the subtext of intrusive thoughts. In some respects, the Parasites are a metaphor. It’s never overt or crude enough to turn them into cartoon avatars of mental illness that you can kill to cure yourself, but it’s there, a faint shadow beneath the surface.

The psychopaths in question are the Hollywood kind – transparently monstrous serial killers, cannibals, bogeymen with carefully ironed shirts. They’re the tiny minority of psychopaths who also happen to be insane sadistic murderers, not the regular, non-lethal manipulators most of us will fall afoul of at some point. I confess that I was hoping to see more of the latter, but that would make it a very different game. Indeed, the opening of the game had my head spinning with the possible directions the story could take – the setup opens up doors for Susan to become the deathseeker, the heroic serial killer, a vigilante fighting cruelty over crime, the cosmic plaything, the supernatural who might just be imagining the whole thing. That it never fully commits to any of these narratives is a double edged sword, but it does manages to bring together elements of all of them into a mostly coherent whole.

For her part, Susan is much more realistic. She doesn’t have Hollywood Depression (symptoms include being a bit sad, complaining a lot, and being an attractive young woman holding her head in her hands) nor does the game suggest her feelings could be vanquished overnight. She is severely depressed, and genuinely wants to die. The news that she’s now immortal, and later, the fact that she has done brave and impressive things, don’t magically make everything okay. On the face of it this might seem dissonant, but to anyone familiar with depression, it’ll be all too close to home.

Then there are the Parasites-as-concept, and the paranoia their existence brings. If you’ve tangled with a psychopath, you already know that when someone gains your trust and betrays it, you question everything and everyone. Your dearest friends are suddenly cast in the light of suspicion and fear. It drives you to mistrust everyone when you need someone to reach out to the most.

Both these aspects turns the game into two stories – there’s Susan the paranoid, miserable hermit, and Susan the hero, but they’re both the same, but that’s kind of the point. It’s a horribly violent game of death and mutilation, and it’s a sweet and simple game about pain and friendship. Neither would be very interesting on its own. It’s the weird juxtaposition of the two that makes the game interesting, and also hits so painfully home. Depression isn’t consistent. It’s not the same behaviour every day. It’s smiling to hide how terrible you feel, it’s doing great things but hating yourself anyway. It’s feeling emotional equivalence between saving someone’s life and your neighbour being mean to you. It’s Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

And that’s where TCL is truly great. Susan, openly calling herself The Cat Lady within an hour of playtime, in a scene straight out of superhero fiction, represents an immortal avatar of righteous vengeance, and at the same time, a vulnerable, lonely, desperately unhappy sufferer. She can do something wonderful, and then come home and want to die.

If you’ve been there, you’ve been there. But even if you haven’t, I can see it being pretty powerful, because the game isn’t only about her. From your first interactions, it’ll be clear that Susan’s being dragged into the world she tried to leave, and one way or another is going to have to deal with that. Just because you can’t die, doesn’t mean you can live, and by the end of the game you’ll be past merely trying to stop the Parasites, and faced with the question of what comes after they’re gone, when you’re suddenly mortal again. There’s one long scene in particular, a sudden oasis of calm and slightly dull normality in the middle of all that drama and carnage, that’s the most important scene of the game simply because it presents hope, in a form that requires no magic, superpowers, or unavailable resources.

It’s not without its problems. The story falters in the middle. The animations are crude and repetitive, and the game almost lampshades a few times when it’s deliberately moving the camera away from the action because those animations were too complicated or expensive. A few characters sound like they’re delivering their lines by telephone, and while the voice acting works for the most part, there are a couple of performances that fall woefully short, and even the good ones falter, often at the moments that should be the most dramatic.

I don’t blame the actors, who with one big exception do a decent job – it seems like a simple budget constraint more than anything. In fact, that’s characteristic of most of my complaints about the game. Some aspects, like the animations, are clearly constrained by available resources. There are also scenes and characters who are unconvincing or a little too ambiguous, with one of the Parasites in particular meeting a very dissatisfying end, and some characters’ reactions to events left a lot to be desired. It’s sometimes a real test your suspension of disbelief.

Its weird art style sits uncomfortably at first, and its music sometimes feels a tad too dissonant – notably the sudden lyrical pieces, which frankly were a mistake. It also shifts abruptly when scripts are triggered, which is most jarring during dramatic scenes. Nonetheless, it achieves a lot with what little it does have available. Both sound and graphics come into their own in establishing the tone, and Susan’s present state of mind, with her monochrome flat a stark contrast to the vivid colours seen when fighting the Parasites, and most of her time at home accompanied by rain on the windows, interspersed with angsty whinge rock and the unwelcome intrusions of telephones and too-loud knocks on the door.

It goes without saying that The Cat Lady isn’t a game for everyone, and may even be divisive among people who’d be interested in its subject matter. Its impact hinges on few characters and sometimes shakey performances, and its inconsistencies and rough edges might be too much for some to swallow. I could definitely understand if either puts you off, but even if I’d given up after the first hour, I’d still rank it as one of the most memorable and emotionally affecting games I’ve ever played.

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Where’s Kim Jong-Un?

Where's Kim Jong-Un?

There! No wait… that’s a fat chihuahua.

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