Sucker Punch Productions has made a name for itself through the Sony PlayStation exclusive franchises Sly Cooper and inFamous, but the studio first began on the Nintendo 64 with a game called Rocket: Robot on Wheels.
Rocket was released on October 31, 1999, and was published by Ubisoft. The game was unique for its reliance on physics-based platforming and puzzle-solving, and it starred the titular Rocket, a robot who stood on not two but one wheel.
The unicycling red android is equipped with a handful of tools: a rocket-boosted jump, a grappling beam, and eventually a freeze ray that allows for platforming across bodies of water. The purpose of the game is to navigate through different stages, collecting tickets and machine parts that will open the next stage.
The game is set inside of Whoopie World, a soon-to-open theme park that is designed and run by Dr. Gavin. The night before the opening of the park, Jojo the Raccoon details his plans to ruin the opening day and turn Whoopie World, based on the mascot Whoopie the Walrus, into Jojo World. He knocks out Rocket once Dr. Gavin leaves for a party and descends into the park with Whoopie. Rocket must collect the tickets and tokens that Jojo has scattered throughout the park and rescue Whoopie in the process.
While Rocket: Robot on Wheels may not have been as massive as its N64 contemporaries Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie, both in size and popularity, the game stands out in a sea of mascot platformers during the 3D era. Rocket rolls his way through seven stages, including Whoopie World which acts as a hub world ala the castle in Super Mario 64. Each of these seven worlds varies in design and theme, and does so quite explicitly.
Take the first accessible stage: Clowny Island. Playing off of the famous Coney Island in New York, Clowny Island incorporates clowns and amusement park staples into a beach and boardwalk setting. Rocket must find four screws that will enable the player to build a roller coaster. The screws can be acquired through thoughtful platforming and in one case by racing in a hot dog shaped go-kart. Once the coaster is unlocked, the player can design the track in a way to allow Rocket to reach the needed tickets to unlock the next stage.
A later stage, Arabian Flights, takes place high above the clouds of an Arabian-themed city where Rocket uses a flying carpet to travel from objective to objective. By the time the player reaches this stage, they have likely unlocked the Freeze Ray, which becomes necessary to collect all of the tickets in the stage.
A standard playthrough of the game’s seven worlds will take an average of 7 to 8 hours, compared to Super Mario 64’s length averaging roughly double the time. However, it isn’t the length of the game or the amount of content within it, even considering the unique nature of each stage, that makes it significant. What makes Rocket: Robot on Wheels stand out is its role as a predecessor to the studio’s Sly Cooper series, and the fact that it does some things a lot better than Sly Cooper did three years later.
A quick comparison at just the character design between the two games will reveal he similarities of Jojo the Raccoon and Whoopie the Walrus with Sly Cooper and Murray respectively. Even Tinker holds signs of influence on Bentley, but perhaps with a bit of stretching on the imagination. When you scratch a bit deeper, some of Sly’s mechanics can be traced to Rocket. Largely, the platforming sections in both games are similar. Sure, both games require the player to jump and balance across platforms, but a truer correlation appears by seeing Rocket’s tractor beam swinging as Sly’s cane swinging. Sly was able to upgrade and earn more abilities by collecting bottles in the game, but those upgrades often felt unnecessary. It was simple enough to survive the duration of the game without ever really utilizing many of those upgrades, while in Rocket: Robot on Wheels, the upgrades and traits of the character were integral to completing the game.
Further, while Sly Cooper was developed for the PlayStation 2, a machine more advanced than the Nintendo 64, the first entry in the series didn’t create a set of unique worlds in the way that Rocket did. Looking back on the first Sly Cooper, each world that Sly travels to seems to blur together, even when the stage is set somewhere radically different than one that preceded it. Rocket however, puts the player in stages from an underground mine to a city in the clouds, and ultimately a miniature world made of snack food. Sly Cooper may look better than Rocket does, but there is a charm in the latter that doesn’t appear on the first PlayStation exclusive. The difference is like looking at practical effects versus computer generated effects. There is a place for both, but sometimes the practical design lends itself to more creativity.
Poor analogies aside, clearly Sly Cooper did something right, because the series saw three sequels- each of which earned positive critical response. Sucker Punch and later Sanzaru would refine and strengthen the world and legacy of the franchise, but it is a shame that Rocket never got another entry in the series. Sly Cooper became beloved for its character interactions and its story, two aspects of Rocket that were certainly lacking. It’s difficult to not imagine what could have become of Rocket had it been explored more and brought onto a platform that would allow the robot to explore even more diverse worlds and stages.
It’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see anything in the future from this franchise, considering Sucker Punch’s continuing interest in the inFamous series and a tendency to explore more realistic worlds now rather than the more cartoon-filled worlds of the developer’s past. At least we still have the original Rocket: Robot on Wheels, a game that certainly should be given the credit it is due, not only for leading Sucker Punch into their next endeavor, but for standing out amidst a gallery of other puzzle platformers in its day.