Rocko’s Quest: Failure

Well, I’ve reached the point where the game was crashing to the desktop before, a long cavern with Rocko’s nameless belle in a cage dangling from the ceiling, and it’s still crashing. Looks like this one is staying on the Stack. Am I the only one to experience this problem? Has anyone else ever actually tried to finish this game? I see no evidence of it on the Web. Pretty much all other mentions of the game are just download links of various sorts and reviews that can be summarized as “Mediocre, avoid”.

So, let’s try to analyze that a little more. Why is it mediocre? Compare it to other 3D platformers: in sophistication of gameplay mechanics, this game lies somewhere between the original Crash Bandicoot and the the original Sly Cooper, probably closer to the former than the latter. I pick those two games as examples because they’re also pretty successful as comedies, which is one area where Rocko really falls down. And this isn’t just about the lack of jokes: there really aren’t a lot of explicit jokes in Crash Bandicoot either.

Partly it’s the character. Crash and Sly are both little guys deliberately taking on things that are plainly more powerful than themselves. That’s a premise with pathos: when the little guy wins, it’s a triumph for all mankind, and when he loses — and, let’s face it, you typically die a lot more often than you succeed in a game — it helps you to sympathize with his plight. More to the point, there’s always something a little ridiculous about a lone hero challenging an army, even when it’s played straight. Making the hero a little pathetic just makes the ridiculousness obvious. When I played Crash Bandicoot, I got the impression from Crash’s expressions and body language that he basically knew how outmatched he was, how often he was dying and how annoying it was — but, of course, that this wasn’t going to stop him from persevering. That’s a comic character. Rocko, on the other hand, is a bruiser. There’s no pathos in a bruiser triumphing over another bruiser. He sometimes fights things that are bigger than himself, but that’s just a way to show off how manly he is. When he fails, we’re not sympathetic, we’re just disappointed in him.

Partly it’s the pacing. Actions in Rocko’s Quest are slowish — I’ve already noted that there’s enough of a delay on swinging weapons to necessitate the Underworld Shuffle — and if there’s one thing slapstick can’t survive, it’s being slow. It also strikes me that enemies simply have too many hit points for good slapstick. In the other games I’ve mentioned, anything other than a boss monster that you manage to attack successfully just falls down instantly. That’s the kind of reactivity slapstick wants: one action, one response. In Rocko’s Quest, until the last two levels, even the most powerful weapon available takes three hits to take down the smallest, weakest foe, and more typical monsters have to be hit over and over again. If the humor is in the game’s reaction to your actions, the orcish grunt and flinch, it’s a joke repeated far too frequently to stay funny.

One other thing that contributes to humor in these games: the little stories. I don’t mean explicit narration, I’m talking about gameplay that’s structured to convey a series of ideas. To take an example from Sly Cooper: At one point, early in the game, Sly works his way through a series of booby-trapped hallways. One has laser beams sliding around in various patterns, getting more numerous complex as you go along, and the player struggles with that until figuring out where to jump and avoid them. Another has electrified floor plates that blink on and off in regular patterns, and the player has to learn to jump in anticipation of the changes. Then you get to a place that has both lasers and electric floors, and it looks absolutely impossible, because you remember how hard it was to get through each of those things by itself. In fact, it’s a lot easier than it looks, because it’s just an application of the skills that you acquired by struggling through the earlier sections. It’s like a set-up and punch line: the tension produced by the “You gotta be kidding me” moment is relieved when the player takes the plunge and sees how unexpectedly easy it is. (The unlockable level commentary reveals that what I have described was in fact intended by the designers.)

Rocko’s Quest basically lacks moments like that. For the most part, the only surprises are of the form “Whoops, there’s a pit you didn’t see,” which hardly relieves any tension. There’s only one moment in the game I can think of that really seems joke-like in a narrative way, and that’s a bit near the end involving a broken bridge across a chasm. An imposing castle lies just beyond the bridge, clearly your destination, but the gap is just a little too wide to jump across, and the player is likely to lose quite a few lives trying. To make progress, you have to stop trying to reach the castle and instead go off to the side and look down into the chasm, where you can see the first of a series of rising-and-falling platforms leading down to the chasm floor. So, there you have tension and resolution in the form of a problem and its solution. And it does feel like a joke, but it’s a joke at the player’s expense.

Rocko’s Quest

rocko-villageSo, I’ve pretty much devoted this month to just getting things off the Stack quickly, chosing games that I don’t expect to take long to play. Success rate so far: 50%. I figure I have just about one more chance before the month is over. Rocko’s Quest, a budget 3D platformer/brawler from 2003, is a natural but risky choice. My first run on this game ended with a consistent crash at a point that I have every reason to believe was right before the final boss fight. I’ve undergone enough upgrades since then that I’m hopeful things will work now, but it’ll be a little while before I know. This is not a game that lets you save whenever you want, so my prior progress only counts for so much.

Rocko is a big muscular half-naked sword guy on a mission to rescue his girlfriend from goblinoid kidnappers. The manual cracks wise about how stupid he is, but there’s really no evidence of this in the game, apart from the prejudices the player brings to it. I purchased this game because it was cheap during a time of my life when that was all it took. And indeed it certainly feels cheap. It’s made mostly of huge polygons that scream “3Dfx” to a gamer of my vintage, and has that budget-title mismatch between what it purports to be and what it is. For example, it purports to be humorous. It’s got a jokey manual and a cartoony hero and comedy background music, but it stops short of actually having anything funny happen, unless you count the simple slapstick of hitting people and having them fall over. (This relates to what I was saying earlier about I Was In the War. I’ll probably return to this point in my next post.)

Also, it seems to want to focus on swordplay — certainly it throws enough enemies at you — but the swordplay is far too simple for that. And I don’t mean easy (although it is that too), I mean simple, in the sense of having few components. There aren’t any special moves, just an attack button that takes a swing in the direction you’re moving at the time. The more powerful weapons tend to be heavy things that swing ponderously, even in the hands of a Rocko, so I find it generally worthwhile to repeatedly step forward when swinging and backwards to avoid retaliation (a maneuver I think of as the Underworld Shuffle, for its utility in the Ultima Underworld games). This technique is effective for every fight in the game, including the bosses.

So fighting isn’t difficult. The difficult part is the traps. Mostly these take the form of something slamming back and forth across a hallway, killing you instantly if you go through with the wrong timing. Moving platforms over bottomless pits also play a role. Instant-death traps like these are the main way the game extends its gameplay: you only have so many lives to expend before you have to start the level over, and the levels are fairly long. The final level was particularly deadly, with some traps that could easily consume a dozen lives for each time I got past it. I remember developing various little tricks to help me get past the traps — moving the camera to make it easier to see exactly how close I could get safely, drawing or sheathing my weapon for the change it made to Rocko’s gait. But since I don’t remember all the tricks now, my current plan is to practice up first by going through all the prior levels at least once. I’m currently up to level 4 of 8.