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 pantheon 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.
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 chase you across the pitch and 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.