Climax Studios (formerly of Climax Group, until Disney snapped up Climax Racing and rebranded them Black Rock Studios) have been around a while. Their list of titles is both lengthy and quite frankly awesome, with classic Blizzard ports Diablo and Warcraft II sitting alongside the recently reviewed (and excellent) Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. So when their latest Xbox Live Arcade game slipped (electronically) onto our (virtual) desk, it's fair to say there was some licking of lips and some raising of expectations.
Rocket Knight, published by Konami, is a side-scrolling action game, ostensibly following the tribulations of a possum (!) who has a jetpack strapped to his back and a sword in his hand. This game is actually a sequel to a Konami series that first started on the MegaDrive back in 1993, by the game designer behind Contra.
For the bulk of the game, you are tasked with getting to the end of (lengthy) platforming levels, ably assisted by your jetpack's abilities (more on those in a moment) while the level's enemies attempt to stall your progress by the use of various weapons and aggressive behavior.
Your arsenal of moves begins with the staple of the genre, including jumping and generally running about. You can also poke things with your sword, which is a good basic attack you'll find yourself using throughout the game. It would seem strange, however, to lug around a jetpack and not use it, so this dangerous device is leveraged in numerous ways - each of which is revealed to you as you progress.
The most basic jetpack move is the hover. This allows you to eke out a little more distance when jumping or give you time to reassess the situation when you find yourself falling into a rather more dangerous situation than you had initially anticipated. But there's a lot more to it than that! You can also do bursts (sword-first, obviously) in any of 8 directions, which simultaneously take you great distances and damage enemies, making for a great default move for a tricky situation. You will also ricochet off surfaces when bursting like this and many of the game's platforming sections leverage this ability for maximum bonuses so it definitely pays off to master it.
There are numerous other abilities, too, including spinning attacks and a gun that lets you shoot foes from range. All of this is powered by the jetpack's powerbar which rapidly refills when not in use... unless you're on one of the ice levels, which add a light puzzle element to proceedings as your jetpack won't refill unless you're standing in a hot zone.
There are also side-scrolling shooter (shmup) levels, which are very well executed indeed. In fact, these sections are actually better than some pure shmup games which was a delightful surprise. They're also very well integrated with the platforming levels, often involving similar baddies and the occasional platform to get in your way. Your weapon charges up (a-la R-Type) for devastating attacks and enemies attack in patterns that challenge you to eliminate a wave with a single attack, etc.
No action game would be complete without bosses and Rocket Knight is no exception. The bosses here are mostly excellent, extremely varied and if you can defeat them in a clever, hidden way you can unlock ultra hard difficulty versions for later play-throughs.
The difficulty level is pretty decent, with what would be mind-bogglingly hard toned down quite a bit by a large health bar and relatively frequently-placed health pickups. It lets you feel intensely focused without preventing you from proceeding. Nice.
Levels are fun to play, too, with a combination of skilled platforming ability and twitch action aptitude required. The observant gamer's "I wonder what's up there?" alertness is rewarded, with out-of-the-way caches of collectables awaiting their explorative bent. Enemy locations are adroitly positioned to challenge and the precise locations of platforms and hazards are increasingly demanding as the player progresses.
Visually, Rocket Knight is stunning, with beautiful graphics, modern effects (depth of field, etc) and gorgeous animation all applied by the talented hands of master-craftsman. You can have all the skill in the world but if you don't have the artistic flair to apply it you're going to end up with a visual mess; not so in Rocket Knight. Not only is everything technically top-notch, it has also been directed by a skilled artist. The sound is also solid, with loads of variety and characterization that helps bring everything to life.
On the previous generation of consoles, there's nothing that comes on a disc which would touch this. That something so awesome doesn't require a disc and a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to place in the hands of gamers is something to thank the burgeoning downloadable game market for. And that it doesn't require you to re-mortgage (it's a bargain at 1200 points) is something to be celebrated, also.
Buy it today. Right now. Tell your friends about it. Tweet about it. Post it on Facebook. Rocket Knight is one of the best downloadable games available and Climax, and Konami deserve all the acclaim they are bound to get from it.