Added to the lair: 10/18/20
Boy meets rocket
Rocket Jockey is one of a handful of games that I've had on my to-do list from the very beginning of the site. A lack of technical knowledge put it a little beyond my reach at the time but here we are now. Unfortunately, experience has taught me that revisiting a beloved part of one's childhood can end in disappointment when you take the nostalgia goggles off for a moment; and I think, for me, Rocket Jockey may be the latest victim of that. It's can be a blast, but 20 years is a long time.
I distinctly remember renting Rocket Jockey from a grocery store in the late 90s. What a different time! I remember looking at the cover, turning over the box, and seeing guys riding rockets dragging people around on cables. Well this might just be the best thing ever! I took it home, booted it up, was greeted with some awesome surf rock and was totally on board.
On a purely conceptual level, I love Rocket Jockey. You compete in various contests that all involve flying around and grappling stuff. Great! Clearly someone sat down and said "I have an idea for a game..." and that's what they described. It's a very pure game in the sense that they essentially have a single gimmick which informs and drives everything surrounding it. Whether or not you'll actually enjoy that gimmick, I don't know, but that's what the game is, with a couple tweaks depending on the game mode.
The controls are pretty straightforward but take a little time to get completely comfortable with. I've customized the default bindings to be something a little more normal (see the Special Notes section or readme for more info), and I've added controller support which, for me, feels even better so that's what I'd recommend if you have a 360 or XB1 controller at your disposal. You have to control your acceleration, left and right grapples, and your pitch (up, down, left, and right). The grapples end up being just as integral, if not more so, to course navigation as your pitch because none of the rockets turn all that quickly (it actually varies by rocket, but none of them turn on a dime) so your only way to make a quick turn is by grappling onto pylons throughout each map. There is actually quite a bit of nuance and technique that goes into using the grapples properly; moreso than I would say I've mastered. You have to consider how close to the pylon you're going to be when using it (which essentially determines the speed at which you'll be turning around), the ideal moment to release your grapple, etc. and it takes some serious practice to get a hang of it.
The aforementioned surf rock music is truly fantastic. That can't be overstated. That should come as no shock considering it was composed by the legendary Dick Dale. It gives the game such a unique feeling and I would go as far as to say it's completely integral to the experience. There are films like Under the Skin and There Will Be Blood whose soundtracks so thoroughly elevate the experience that they simply would not be the same film without them, and that's the territory where Rocket Jockey's soundtrack squarely finds itself. Awesome stuff.
So all of this sounds great right? It has a great concept, great music, easy-to-learn difficult-to-master mechanics... what's not to love? Well... the game is frankly quite frustrating at times. The game is broken into three modes - Rocket Ball, Rocket War, and Rocket Racing - and the quality/fun factor among these can vary quite a bit.
Some of the racing maps, in particular, are designed in very annoying ways and in order to make a qualifying time (successfully completing the level) you very often can't make many, if any mistakes because as soon as you do, you'll careen off course and it'll take you so long to get back on track (because the rockets can't turn sharply) that you can't make the time - so you end up restarting courses over and over and over. The AI is also completely braindead in races. It clearly has zero idea how to navigate any of these courses or properly use the game mechanics and you will always be in first place, no matter how badly you screw up. It's simply a matter of whether or not you meet the criteria by which you qualify to move on to the next level - not whether or not an opponent beats you. Pretty much all of these issues stem from the constant reliance on grappling. The problem is that it doesn't always behave consistently - sometimes the physics just respond in bizarre ways or do things that you really have no way of anticipating or that don't seem like they're really your fault. When you combine that with time limits that require a great deal of precision to meet and AI that's isn't properly equipped it just... kindof becomes a mess at times.
Rocket War fares a bit better, as it's much more free form. Sometimes things work in unexpected ways (for good and bad) and it's good fun for a bit, though it always felt the most half-baked of the three modes. It can be a nice diversion though.
Rocket Ball is by far the best, in my opinion. You can think of this as sortof a prototype version of Rocket Leage. Each level has several goal nets that you need to get some form of ball or puck into in order to score points, which sounds simple enough but the way the maps are laid out, the type of ball/puck used, and some other elements like traps and powerups can change the levels dramatically. Rocket Ball is a whole lot of fun, overall, and it really feels great to score a tricky shot or stealing the ball away from an opponent at the last moment. Even here though, there are some very annoying levels - any time you have to use a bomb as a ball is pretty much universally awful and there are some levels that have an excessive amount of automated grapplers/harpoons that will either steal the ball from you or impale you and knock you off your rocket - sometimes multiple times in a row without you even being able to move. I'm sorry, that stuff isn't fun, it's just frustrating as hell.
I realize that a lot of these issues kindof go away when you turn it into a multiplayer sandbox (which was probably a bigger emphasis), but I don't have that to fall back on at this point - all I can judge it by now is what I have in front of me.
With all of that said, Rocket Jockey is still a fun time, I think it's simply that what I had in my head was all the good stuff and the intervening years had blocked out all the annoying and frustrating bits. It happens! I'm glad to finally have this one done and out there for people to experience for themselves. It's a game that has a bit of a cult following but doesn't seem to get talked about very much, which is really unfortunate despite my mixed opinion on it. I think it's a neat game that's (still) rather unique, which is no small thing. It has a lot of a character, between the music, humor, and ridiculousness of it all that gives it its own distinct voice. I would definitely recommend it - just prepare yourself to yell at the screen on occasion.