Back in 2010, this game called Rocketbirds Revolution showed up as an Independent Game Festival finalist for Audio and Visual Art, an award it richly deserved. Rocketbirds had a distinctive art style and sound. They did something which is largely unheard of in the game industry – they got an actual band to do their music, and the band's style complements the game's style perfectly. Even past the sound and cutscenes, the developers clearly put an incredible amount of effort into the art, as the entire game is filled with gorgeous backdrops and animations.
More recently, the same developer released Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken. R:HC is a remastered version of the original R:R game, with an additional half-dozen levels grafted on the end and a pile of cutscenes. See this intro for an example. It's pretty dang badass. The game is filled with similar cutscenes, and every one of them is enjoyable and stylistic.
The whole contraption didn't quite gel for me.
Rocketbirds has trouble figuring out what it's about. On one front, it's a sidescrolling action game, with plenty of guns and enemies to mow down (see: Shoot Many Robots). On another front, it's a puzzle game – the Hardboiled Chicken spends a surprising amount of time pushing crates around (see: Abe's Oddysee). On a third front, it's an atmospheric game, with a distinctive art style and soundtrack (see: Limbo).
Now, all of these things are totally awesome. Seriously, I'd joyfully play any of the games I just described. The problem is that Rocketbirds didn't have the funding or time to do all of it well.
The action game, for example – the Hardboiled Chicken gains multiple guns as he travels through the game. But almost each one of these guns is just a number increase over the previous weapon. New gun? More damage! Since your enemies are upgrading at the same time, this comes across as just a number treadmill. Bigger gun -> tougher enemy -> back where you started. Worse, the majority of the Hardboiled Chicken combat isn't really about firepower, it's about stuns. Shoot anyone, they're stunned for several seconds. If you're facing a single opponent, here's your strategy: you shoot them, they're paralyzed, they die. If you're facing multiple opponents in one direction, here's your strategy: you shoot them, and hope you manage to hit the guy in back before he fires his weapon. If you're facing opponents on both sides of you, here's your strategy: shoot one, then the other, and keep swapping back and forth to keep them off-balance, and eventually they die.
None of the weapons change this fundamental mechanic. Sure, you get a shotgun which does a ton of damage at close range and almost no damage at long-range, but this just isn't relevant to the combat – it simply means you kill the enemies faster, if they're at close range, and slower if they're at long-range. Or change to a longer-range gun.
The puzzle game includes three major gimmicks: crates can be pushed, doors can be unlocked with keys, and you can take over the minds of your enemies. That latter one has a lot of potential for cool puzzles (again, see Abe's Oddysee), but that potential isn't really exploited. Abe's Oddysee made it a fantastic game mechanic through providing new abilities to each creature type, but in Rocketbirds, the monsters have a strict subset of the protagonist's abilities. Mind control is nothing more than a way to pass through inconvenient walls.
And then there's the plotline. In Rocketbirds Revolution, the plot was thin at best – the Hardboiled Chicken is trapped behind enemy lines and must fight his way out, destroying the bulk of the enemy forces at the same time. In Hardboiled Chicken, this plot was augmented by a pile of stylistic music videos.
The problem is that this doesn't really improve the plotline. I don't want to watch these music videos, I want to play them. They actually look like a lot of fun! Sure, it's not the most innovative plotline, but whatever – it's an action game, I'm fine with that! Instead, though, we're relegated to watching cutscenes that look more interesting than the actual game's plot.
Once you get out of Rocketbirds Revolution, and into Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken, everything kicks up a notch. The combat gets a bit more deadly, the puzzles get a little deeper, the plot moves away from cutscenes and into the game itself. But even during this segment, it never quite clicks. The combat is deadly, sure, but it's still not interesting – the game mechanics are unchanged. The puzzles are still mostly restricted to "walk everywhere, then mind-control the guy standing in a place you can't reach". The plot eventually moves to a full assault on the penguin castle followed by chasing the evil leader Putski, who escapes in a rocket, into space.
Which, I'll admit, is pretty neat. It's a step down from the coming-of-age story shown in cutscenes, but it's certainly better than the non-plot provided in the first half of the game.
Then you hit the final boss battle and the combat takes a major step up.
The final boss is actually a really complicated boss fight. It involves the boss, a near-endless swarm of simpler enemies, and – unlike every other battle in the game – takes place across multiple screens. The boss an invulnerable energy shield that he only brings up occasionally, powerups can be requested with some delay, and the terrain is varied enough to make it a significant, though not critical, part of the fight.
It turns out that, given the appropriate battlefield and enemies, Hardboiled Chicken's combat is really good. The final boss suffers from a few problems – you haven't actually been taught many of the tactics you need to use, for example – but overall, that boss is the highlight of the entire game. It's a fast-paced battle requiring you to really know the character and really know the mechanics and it flows better than the entire rest of the game.
Which makes me wonder what the game could have been like if they'd started with those game mechanics, then gone from there.
In the end, that's the most disappointing part. It's clear the designers are able to make really good games – they just, in this case, didn't. I'm not sure it was worth the effort to go back and remaster the original Rocketbirds Revolution. Fact is, Revolution just isn't as good as Hardboiled Chicken – so why spend all those resources on replaying Revolution? Why not make an entire new game, with entire new mechanics, set in the same universe?
In the end, Rocketbirds Hardboiled Chicken feels like a teaser. It's saying, "hey, look, we could have a good game here! We don't, but we could." Which is crazy disappointing . . . but also leaves me optimistic for that developer's future games.
Rocketbirds II, guys. Let's see it.