Note that the game requires use of a copy-protection code wheel which has been brilliantly recreated at https://www.oldgames.sk/codewheel/rocket-ranger (UK release) and https://www.oldgames.sk/codewheel/rocket-ranger-us (US release) if you want to play along. Note that they are different.
Cinemaware have a particular style, their games often graphically excellent and featuring an array of minigames. Rocket Ranger is no exception to that. Visually splendid, with a true 16-bit feel that few games of the era have, and with ambitious ideas executed in perhaps limited ways due to the capabilities of the machines, it still paints a way forward for games.
ST Format Review
Before I start my review, here’e ST Format’s take on the game.
Loading the game I get the wonderful Atari ST desktop in all it’s lime-green splendour and double-click the program icon, noting the helpfully-placed list of codes which will really do nothing useful for me as the numbers scroll by (I presume the intent was that you’d print them on your dot matrix printer but that isn’t so useful now – this is presumably to get around the copy protection wheel, but more on that shortly).
This being a pirate release, we have the traditional classy intro screen.
This one failed me however, with a demand later on for a disk that didn’t exist, so I swapped to a different release, this time with no desktop but with this wonderful intro.
From the outset it’s clear that Cinemaware want to live up to their name – the opening having that lovely art-deco look evocative of the era around which the game revolves. An opening animation followed by exposition text presented in black and white gives way to a riot of colour and a rather dashing chip tune gets you in the mood. The opening animation is far beyond the standard of the time (although admittedly using some cheap tricks like palette-cycling), being closer to the kind of thing we’d later see from the likes of Delphine, Microprose, etc.
The game drops me in at a menu where I head to the war room. Nazi efficiency is currently 80% and I need to drop that down so I can stop their evil plans. And yes these are actual Nazis, not the modern kind. Someone decided that moving a mouse pointer was better done with a joystick than a mouse (on a machine which will almost certainly have a mouse in one port and a joystick in the other as the mouse and joystick ports are in an awful spot on the STFM [under the machine] which was thankfully fixed on the STE).
Checking some reports I find out I have to destroy a moonbase (how the fuck are nazis on the moon?). First up, let’s move my agents. They’re all over the fucking place, and it seems to me the nazis will mostly be interested in Europe so let’s do something about that. I move my agents from around the world to cover the main European countries. Before I can complete the moving though my man in Persia detects a secret base, with rockets. Well obviously I swap him to resistance and prepare to get over there and kick some ass.
Trying the British and American code wheels – one simply dumps me in the ocean while the other requires more fuel than I have, so back to the war room and some more infiltration and…
Spain has a rocket base, and both versions of the wheel give numbers I can actually do. Let’s see which one’s right!
So that one’s wrong.. let’s try the other one. Thank fuck for emulator snapshots. Finally, success!
So now it won’t detect disk 2 no matter what I do. At this point, having fucked around with code wheels for ages and all sorts of other non-running hassles, my patience is running low. Time to attempt the 3rd fucking copy of this fucking game.
So, trying to recreate the steps of my previous run through.. Turns out this time Spain is holding a prisoner, and I should probably do something about that. Predictably the first code-wheel value I choose is wrong, but the 2nd, the British one, is right. Brilliant, and now the game is bitching at me that the zeppelin is moving too quickly. Still, time for a fight.
First I find myself in a Space-Harrier-esque (albeit without the speed) section, taking out some planes at an impressive 2 frames per second.
I succeed, greeted by some text informing me that I’ve rescued the scientist. Unfortunately I fucked up and didn’t have enough lunarium to get home, so had to call an SOS and the nazis had a party while I was out of action for 3 months.
So now we have a zeppelin factory in England (because Britain isn’t a thing), the nazis have taken Russia, my spy in France has been shot, and my spy in Italy too. This isn’t going well. Time for a hail mary, let’s go intercept the zeppelins in Yugoslavia.
Ok now I’m on a roll, time to go to Russia and see what’s up. Another punch up, like the last. The beat-em-up section is very very basic and it soon becomes apparent that the only way to actually hit the guard is with the low shot, so it becomes a game of waiting for his guard to move elsewhere and hit him. His attacks are not terribly effective. It looks ok, albeit with crap animation, but honesty there’s no gameplay there. Off to Italy then as it appears there’s no way to intercept the zeppelin. Nothing there, despite nazis killing my spy.
In the end I just find myself not caring enough to continue and call it a day. Fundamentally this is a collection of pretty but poorly-executed minigames that don’t add up to a whole lot of fun.