Nostalgia is a heck of a thing. Like many of you, I like to indulge in revisiting my childhood on occasion. To tell the truth, though, when it comes to games, I feel like I never fully left my childhood favorites behind. Not only am I big on retro collections and classic re-releases, I actually have an NES and SNES connected to my main TV, plugged in and ready to go at all times. I keep my old brick Game Boy in an empty drawer in the kitchen in case I want to play some Tetris while I wait for the water to boil. There’s one important part of my gaming past that I fell out of touch with over the years, however, and that’s computer gaming. My first gaming hardware that I actually owned and had in my house, apart from a Coleco Mini Arcade version of Galaxian, was a Commodore 64. It was only a couple of years later at most that I got an NES, but those Commodore years remain as formative to my gaming memories as hanging off of arcade machines at the restaurant where my mother worked.
Commodore games, unlike NES games, or most console games in fact, haven’t seen very many re-releases or compilations. It’s understandable, since most of the games worth playing, if not all, were third party games, and most of those third parties have either disappeared or completely forgotten their Commodore catalog. There’s also fairly low demand for them, since many of them were ported to or were ports from other machines. One of the big companies that made games for various computers in that era was Cinemaware, most famous for Defender of the Crown ($2.99). They made a ton of high-concept stuff, and even something as ripe for generic design as The Three Stooges ended up with a fairly complex end result. Basically, they liked to experiment with mashing up genres and splicing bits and pieces to try to realize some crazy ambitions. Now, we’re seeing a release of the Amiga versions of several of their most well-known games on iOS, including The King of Chicago ($1.99) and Rocket Ranger ($1.99).
Now, here’s the thing about Cinemaware’s games. They sound exciting, huge, and complex when you read or hear about them, since they often incorporate so many gameplay types. Especially in that era, way before the Internet was a thing, when you really did just have to read the back of the box or a short blurb in a magazine and make a choice about which game was going to have to last you the next few months or so, it was easy to lose yourself in a great game description, and in a lot of ways, Cinemaware was brilliant at eliciting that feeling. With Rocket Ranger, I remember reading about it, and seeing the stellar set-up. You play a scientist in 1940 who suddenly receives a message from 100 years in the future urging you to stop the Nazis from taking over the world. In their future timeline, the Nazis had used amazing technology to easily overwhelm all opposition and sweep the whole world into their grasp. Along with this dire warning, the people of the future sent five pieces of future technology to help you out: a rocketpack, a wrist-mounted computer, a secret decoder wheel, a manual, and a laser gun. How cool is that?
After downloading this version of the game from the App Store, I dove into the manual immediately, which like every manual from that time was massive and packed full of cool imagery. As I was swiping through it, my youthful excitement was coming back in full force. They don’t make them like this anymore, I was thinking. I turned out to be right, but not in the way I expected. Basically, you’ve got one year of in-game time to thwart the Nazis by taking out their moon base. To get to the moon, you need to gather the parts to assemble a rocket and a bunch of lunarium to fuel the trip. The parts and hidden repositories of lunarium are hidden in Nazi bases around the world, but you don’t really have time to visit them all. So how do you find which ones have something useful and which ones are duds? You send spies, of course, but you have to be careful where you send them and what orders you give them, lest they be discovered and killed. Oh, and there’s an important scientist to rescue along the way, along with his beautiful daughter.
Along the way, there’s plenty of flying, punching, and shooting action, and you will eventually uncover the mystery behind why the war initially went in such a different direction from how it was supposed to. Man, that sounds like such a great game! When I was a kid, I was awed by how much there was to do, and by how cinematically it was presented. Unfortunately, revisiting it today, after 25 years have passed, it’s kind of a disaster. Virtually every type of gameplay included is very shallow and more than a bit confusing. The game still looks and sounds great, with an art deco style most likely yanked from The Rocketeer along with the basic concept, but even with control schemes that are somewhat well-suited to touch controls, it’s very hard to play.
You’ll start off the game at your base, Fort Dix, and from here you can choose to assign your spies, transfer lunarium from your storage to either your jetpack or your rocket, or to take-off. If you choose to take-off, where you’ll go depends on how much fuel you’ve loaded into your pack. In the original version of the game, this was the game’s copy protection. You had to use a paper decoder wheel to get the correct amount of fuel you needed. If you entered an incorrect value, you would crash or overshoot your target. Naturally, this version of the game digitizes that wheel into a handy sub-menu you can bring up at the touch of a button. Taking off presents you with the first of the mini-games of Rocket Ranger.
You have to tap the screen in time with your footsteps until you hear a beeping, then push forward to take off. The timing on this has always been a little fussy, and was something of a famous issue for many with the game. It’s no better here. If you fail your take-off three times, the game will deduct a couple of months from your time and send you on your way. Depending on where you’ve decided to go, you’ll then end up playing one of a couple of possible mini-games. Sometimes, you’ll partake in a shooting segment vaguely reminiscent of Space Harrier, other times, it’s a fisticuffs fight with a Nazi guard, and sometimes you’ll even engage in a bit of a proto-cover shooting game. If you didn’t do your detective work properly, though, there could be nothing at all at your destination, causing you to lose a couple of months of time. Successfully completing these mini-games will bring you one step closer to your goal.
There’s also a fun bit when you rescue the scientist and his daughter where you can choose your dialogue options. This mini-game only comes up a couple of times, but it is pretty amusing. It even features fairly clear digitized voices, something that had some serious wow-factor at the time. Once you’ve gathered all the necessary items, you’ll blast off to the Nazi moon base for a final shoot-out with a group of buxom Nazi Amazons, with the true face behind the menace fully unveiled soon after. Man, even reading this as I write it, this game sounds awesome.
I’m not going to disparage the port much at all. This is Rocket Ranger just as it was, and although they’ve basically just mapped the joystick controls to the touch screen and called it a day, it works just fine as far as recreating the experience of the game. The problem is that this game hasn’t aged well, at all. The concept is still cool, and the graphics and sound are still quite impressive, with Cinemaware’s flair for cinematic cut-scenes and framing helping the game look considerably newer than it is. The gameplay itself is unfortunately just a series of brief, shallow, unforgiving mini-games with clumsy controls. There’s also precious little margin for error thanks to that one year deadline, so you’d better figure out what you’re doing quickly and make no mistakes if you want to get to the ending. Once you’ve come to grips with everything, the game can be finished in under an hour.
That’s just the way it goes when you decide to wade waist-deep into the hot tub of nostalgia. Sometimes, things are as good as they ever were, like Mega Man 2, Space Harrier, or Tie Fighter. Unfortunately, sometimes, you get a game like Rocket Ranger. I can’t imagine anyone without nostalgia for the game enjoying it at all, and those with fond memories might just want to keep them that way.