The Nintendo 64, while simultaneously renowned and infamous for doing many things, is arguably best remembered for defining the 3D platforming genre. When Super Mario 64 released in 1996, it didn't just blow everyone’s socks off; it revolutionised home console gaming and set the gold standard for platformers for years to come — or at least it would have done if Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie hadn't arrived two years later. The system may have struggled to compete against Sony’s PlayStation, but it’s fair to say that it was completely unrivalled when it came to its quality 3D-platformer offerings.
With that said, this lasting legacy of excellence in the field of 3D platforming is somewhat plagued by the misconception that the above examples — and Rare’s 2000 follow-up, Banjo-Tooie — are the only N64 games in this genre that are really worth playing. It’s a lazy narrative that fits all too easily into any telling of the N64's history; there were only a few good games, primarily first- and second- party releases, hence why it was vastly outsold by its competitor. But there were far more factors at play than just the number of titles available, and out of the 387 that did get released, there was actually a good number of great games — our ongoing #Nintendo64x64 project is proof of that.
Coming back to 3D platformers, many third-party games were overshadowed by the first- and second-party line-up. While quality was usually the main factor for this, some just didn't get the attention they deserved, although none more so than Rocket: Robot on Wheels. Released in 1999 and developed by Sucker Punch Productions — you may be more familiar with their more recent titles in the Infamous and Sly Cooper series — this was, in fact, the first game ever released by the studio. For an inaugural release, it was incredibly impressive, and while it’s sadly not remembered by the masses as such, it most certainly outclassed Nintendo and Rare’s own efforts in many ways.
We recently caught up with Don Munsil, who was largely responsible for the game’s impressive design, to discuss how this underrated classic came to be.
Rocket: Robot on Wheels is a 3D platforming game that had one key difference back in the day: it featured a realistic physics engine which played a key role in the core gameplay. “The pitch was ‘Mario 64 meets The Incredible Machine’, which was a great concept”, Don tell us. In case you’re wondering, The Incredible Machine is a series of a video games produced by the now-defunct studio, Jeff Tunnell Productions, in which the player is tasked with building absurdly complex contraptions in order to perform incredibly simple tasks.
The physics engine on Rocket is astonishingly good and something that Nintendo didn't really think was possible.
It’s an idea that’s firmly embedded into Rocket: Robot on Wheels’ very essence. Much like other 3D platforming games at the time, the player is tasked with obtaining desirable items known as “challenge tickets” which are the Rocket equivalent to Super Mario’s power stars. Acquiring these typically involves completing a physics-based puzzle or platforming segment. The game’s hero, a robot that — as the game's title suggests — moves around on a large wheel (meaning it should technically be "Robot on Wheel"), has numerous abilities and vehicles you can call upon to achieve said tasks, such as a tractor beam which served as the main tool through which to manipulate objects in the game’s world.
It was Sucker Punch Productions’ founders, Chris Zimmerman, Brian Fleming and Bruce Oberg, who came up with the basic concept for the game and its character. “Chris Zimmerman had a vision of being able to do a full-scale physics engine on an N64, and he had (and has) the technical chops to be able to do it”, Don explains. “Let me tell you: I'm a very good engineer. I've been programming professionally for my entire working life and I like to think I know some things. Chris Zimmerman is way out of my league. He's Carmack-good. Or maybe Carmack is Zimmerman-good. The physics engine on Rocket is astonishingly good and something that Nintendo didn't really think was possible”.
Don isn't exaggerating when he speaks highly of both his former colleague and the quality of the game’s physics engine. The things which the game allows you to do, while relatively primitive by today’s standards, were remarkable for its time: platforming segments in which you used friction and gravity to manipulate and traverse the environment and being able to throw objects which would roll, bounce and behave in a lifelike manner added a surprising amount of realism to what was otherwise a far-fetched premise. Don tells us that the emphasis on physics was borne out of a desire to be seen as doing something unique; an objective that is sadly no longer a priority for many game developers today.
As has been well documented in the past, the N64 is a system that was notoriously difficult to develop for, although it didn't faze Don and his team. “The N64, like a lot of game systems, had a very sketchy development kit that was really hard to deal with”, he says. “We were lucky in that we had a team of experienced ex-Microsoft engineers who were entirely comfortable getting in and going around the dev kit where it was necessary.“ The real development challenge arose from the getting a real-time physics engine to run on the system’s underpowered processor, so much so that Don admits that there were days where the team thought the game wasn't going to work. The final product is a testament to the skill and dedication the team put in: it runs superbly and with very little in the way of slowdown.
While Rocket: Robot on Wheels’ technical prowess is largely attributed to Zimmerman’s input, it was Don’s game design work that gave it an overwhelming amount of heart and soul. “I did most of the writing, came up with the bulk of the different lands and challenge ticket ideas, and built a bunch of the challenges in physics form (which the art department then took and made look astonishingly great)”, he tells us, while going on to acknowledge Art Director Dev Madan as the one who gave the game’s protagonist its personality and look. “The stuff that feels very puzzle-y was pretty much all me”, Don states. With that in mind, it’s pretty clear that Rocket wouldn't be the game that it is had Don not worked on it.
Moreover, Don’s love of theme parks is what essentially gave the game its setting — well that, and it provided a good excuse to have numerous stages without it being an “obvious rip-off of Mario 64”, as the Sucker Punch veteran puts it. There was a clear consensus within the team to ensure their creation be seen as different from Nintendo’s own platforming masterpiece in more areas than just gameplay. “In retrospect, we probably were over-thinking it. Mario demonstrates that you don't really have to explain anything; just make the worlds compelling and people will enjoy them”.
And this is where Rocket: Robot on Wheels truly sets itself apart from similar games on the system. Whereas Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie gave you areas to explore, Rocket went one step further, providing playgrounds you could truly manipulate and interact with. For example the second stage, Paint Misbehavin’, provides you with a vehicle in which you can change the colour of various bits of the landscape and other objects. Don astutely notes that “it was a rarity at the time to have a world you could change and would stay that way”, going on to highlight that even painting the in-game sheep would make them behave differently depending on what colour you used. It’s something that’s perhaps wasted on us spoilt gamers of today, but even just being able to pick up an object and throw it in an accurate and realistic manner felt remarkably fresh at the time.
Mario demonstrates that you don't really have to explain anything; just make the worlds compelling and people will enjoy them.
All sorts of ideas are explored across each of the game’s worlds, and each one has its own distinct look and feel. The influence of the Heath Robinson-like contraptions that appeared in The Incredible Machine is felt throughout; a prime example of this is a challenge in which you have to build an entire, surprisingly complex roller coaster just to obtain a challenge ticket. Don remarks that his favourite stage is Pyramid Scheme, in which you are able to transform the world into an alternate version — similar to the Dark World transformation in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past — which in turn enables you to complete challenges that require an interaction across both versions of it. Another stage, the pun-tastically named “Arabian Flights”, is filled with floating buildings in the sky that are connected via the use of a flying magic carpet, which is not only great fun to pilot but also central to completing some of the challenges.
The tasks on offer typically incorporate the central physics concept, but do so to varying degrees of difficulty. Near the beginning there are fairly straightforward challenges, where you throw balls at objects for example, allow you to get to grips with the mechanics. Later on, however, the difficulty level really ramps up, with the game in one instance a throwing complex platforming gauntlet at you which requires precise timing, speed and execution in order to conquer. Of particular note is the very last stage, which requires you to use virtually everything you've learned throughout to get through what is most certainly one of the toughest and most unforgiving moments you can experience on N64. Our words — and even Don’s for that matter — really aren't enough to convey the sense of wonder Rocket offered back in the day; we’d go as far as to say that even today it’s still thoroughly entertaining, and certainly deserving of a digital re-release (although that seems highly unlikely). Nevertheless, this is an N64 game you need to experience in order to truly understand what makes it so different and, in some ways, better than its counterparts.
When asked if he would do anything differently, Don is quick to list many things. “Like any project, you always see the flaws. There were puzzles that were too hard, or too easy, or too obscure. There were challenges that we thought would be a problem that we obsessed over, when it turned out they were fine; it was some other challenge that people were having a tough time with.” Don references the “Chick Tac-Toe” game which appears in the first stage as an example of a challenge that not everybody got. The premise is fairly simple: compete against a robotic chicken at tic-tac-toe by throwing balls at the grid to mark your move. The key to winning, however, is to also throw the balls at the chicken, which distracts it and basically let’s you cheat a win out of it. “That was perhaps too out-there an idea”, admits Don, although the fact that he still hears complaints about it today means that it was obviously memorable too.
Rocket: Robot on Wheels was Sucker Punch Productions’ first release and this understandably had some bearing on the game’s overall success. “ Because we were all new to that process, Rocket didn't sell as well as it could have, and that is frustrating, because we were proud of the game and people who played it liked it”, Don clarifies. “It just didn't get into enough people's hands, and that was partially our fault, in hindsight”. It was an important lesson for the company, and one which it evidently learnt from given its current success. It was nevertheless warmly received by critics upon release, and was even declared Nintendo Power’s 18th Best Nintendo 64 Game of All Time nearly ten years later in 2008.
Sucker Punch Productions’ first foray into game development sadly isn't remembered for the right reasons; it's a game that deserves to be placed on the much vaunted pedestal of quality alongside the likes of Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. However, with hindsight comes clarity, and one thing that is definitely clear is that Rocket: Robot on Wheels is proof that high-quality third-party titles do exist within the N64’s limited software library. It sadly isn't a title that's looked back on with nostalgic warmth by millions of players, which in itself is a terrible shame; yet on the flip side, Rocket: Robot on Wheels’ creators can look back on their hard work, safe in the knowledge that what they made was not only unique compared to rival titles at the time, but that it was actually superior to them in many ways.
Our thanks go to Don Munsil for taking the time to speak to us.