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Richard Cobbett

Taking on 'a master race from outer space' in 1988's Rocket Ranger

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, there's no case too big, no case too small. When you need help, just call... Chip, Chip, Chip and Dale, Resc— Oh. Wait. Sorry. Totally different guy.

It's the future, and we still don't have our flying cars. Boo. We don't even have our own rocket packs, though thinking about it, that's probably for the best. Nobody wants to be one butt-scratch away from losing a hand, and that's if they're lucky. That's not a hole you want cauterised if the straps slip a little, to put it mildly. But I think we can all agree that, maybe with the exception of hoverboards and grappling hooks, there's no cooler completely ridiculous way to get around. And in an alternate World War II, no other weapon is capable of saving the world from the Nazis' plan... whatever it is they're up to this time.

Yes, Zeppelin, your bum does look big in this. Because you're a Zeppelin.

Seriously, it's hard to imagine any war in the future coming close to the sheer range of toys and tricks credited to everyone's favourite villains, from alien technology to time travel mystical devices to ancient weapons from the vaults of Atlantis to just plain Hitler in a robot suit. There's really nothing, no matter how crazy, you can't get away with if you don't imagine its inventor describing it and then adding "For the glory of the Reich!" An army of hunter-killer bees. Calling up Satan for some demonic troops. Parachuting the Kool Aid Man into enemy territory to smash open bases with a cheery "Sieg Heil!" Anything!

Rocket Ranger starts out a little bit more mundane than most, with the advanced technology (kind of) on the Allies' side—a single solitary jetpack in the possession of The Hero Formerly Known as Just Regular Ranger, while the Nazis are restricted to conventional zeppelins. Though the key word is "starts". This is another game from Cinemaware, makers of It Came from the Desert and Defender Of The Crown, another attempt to use for-the-time impressive graphics (on the Amiga mostly, the PC version looks much worse) and minigames to create interactive movies long before the words "interactive movie" meant crappy greenscreened FMV and very little interaction. 

It's not what it looks like—a rip-off of the campy but fun movie The Rocketeer — having come out a few years earlier. Inspired by the comics that the movie was based on though, that seems pretty likely to the point of "oh come on, this is pretty bloody blatant", especially when Rocket Ranger would get its own set that wasted little time going from good old-fashioned Nazi-punching and derring-do to, uh...

If that dress was any more low-cut, she'd be bleeding at the knees.

While it's hard to call much of Rocket Ranger "good" (its arcade sequences are all incredibly simple and not much fun) it was stormingly ahead of its time at release in 1988. People were still releasing text adventures... wait, hang on, not a good example. You could go out and buy a game where main characters were no more complex than basic blocks and... oh, yeah, right.Well, by the standards of the time, it was still really ambitious and impressive. 

This couldn't be said for everything that Cinemaware produced. The Three Stooges was particularly terrible, This one though is remembered very fondly, and mostly for the right reasons—nailing its inspiration's style, and revelling in the goofiness of it all.

Here, for instance, is our hero spectacularly failing to take off properly.


You know you've screwed up when the punishment isn't an instant death from smashing into something, but the game wearily throwing up a screen that says in about as many words "Yeah, you spend two months learning how to do this, you jackass. For now, let's just get to the next scene before you hurt yourself." That's particularly hilarious because this first mission is supposed to be a daring rescue of two captured civilians from a zeppelin in the Atlantic. The Nazis politely wait for literally two months until you get there, proving that being a monster doesn't mean you've got to be a jerk. Though they will, later.

As indeed will Rocket Ranger itself, a game that takes about half an hour to beat, and compensates with a double-whammy of not allowing you to save and making failure incredibly easy. You can survive just about anything and the game will continue, but do so more than a couple of times early on and you're completely hosed. That's because the adventure has a heavy strategy element. As you play, the Nazis are slowly conquering the bits of the world that don't matter—specifically, everything except America—and that rather puts the "you" in "failure".

Fort Dix, home to the hardest soldiers this side of the Innuendo Canyon.

Your rocket pack also turns out to be about the worst conceivable weapon for saving the day, thanks to running on a fuel called lunarium that the Nazis have vast stockpiles of and the US has about enough to get to the shops and back with. Lunarium also plays a part in Rocket Ranger's copy-protection system, which is just awful. 

To fly to another country, you don't simply pick it from the map. That would be too easy! Instead, you have to move lunarium from your personal stash into the rocket engine, based on numbers from a code wheel (or these days, lists on the internet, made more complicated by the fact that different versions of the game had different lunarium amounts for the trips), and if you get it wrong, you splash down and waste it all. That makes some sense if you undershoot to the destination, but it also applies to going over. Rocket Ranger is far too committed to the virtues of early DRM to simply circle for a bit and burn off the excess like some kind of communist.

Also, he can't swim. A man who routinely crosses the Atlantic with a rocket pack can't swim.

OK, no. Sorry. Thanks for your efforts, but we're finding a new Rocket Ranger. Right goddamn now.

Quickly, the game reveals itself. You have to not only directly take the fight to the Nazis in the form of a good old American one-two to the face, but also keep stocked up with the lunarium that you need to do it, and slow down the Nazi advance long enough there's still a world to save. This being based on '50s SF serials and comics, nobody is ever particularly fazed by anything that happens, up to and including being told that the only way to end things for real is to to build a rocket to the top secret Nazi moon base that they of course have, which is of course staffed entirely by busty, brainwashed Amazon types who mine lunarium with their bare hands. Actually, no, strike that "of course". That's actually pretty damn silly.

And you? Well, despite what it might look like, and especially in the PC version where the intro is easily accidentally skipped, you're not actually Captain America—though as you'll see in a second, you do share the infamous Liefeld Chest. You're simply a scientist working at Fort Dix who finds himself mysteriously given the rocket pack and a few other toys that are clearly from the future, along with a warning that the Germans aren't supposed to be doing as well as they are. The lunarium isn't simply fuel you see, but a substance that renders men both stupid and sterile. 

And if Half-Life has told us anything, it's that the right scientist in the wrong place can achieve incredible things, even if he's a bit of a screw-up, but especially if his years of research and sleepless nights have somehow left him ready to crack skulls for a cause.

"OK, you know ze rules. Whoever sticks their chest out the furthest may LEAVE ALIVE!"

That's the love interest incidentally: Jane, daughter of loyal scientist Otto Barnstorff, who you start the game having to rescue, and then realise that you may as well not have bothered since both of them wear prominent "KIDNAP ME" signs on their backs. To get them back, which prevents the Nazis using Barnstorff's skills to boost their efficiency, you have to assault a zeppelin in a three-stage shooter section where you fail if you get hit, or accidentally hit the balloon part with your super "radium pistol", the weapon of choice for all heroes who want their ultimate reward to be cancer. Will the game start you right in front of the balloon so that accidentally hitting the fire button will blow it up? It will indeed! And then it will laugh.

In the original version there was another bit to the rescue too—persuading the doctor and Jane to come with you. This was another impressive thing for its day, because it used digitised speech long, long before anyone expected to hear anything more dramatic than "I AM SINISTAR! I LIVE!" from one of these videogame doodads. Though what the characters said proved less progressive. The discussion began with telling her to "Loosen up, Dollface," and really didn't get much better from there.

Incidentally, the villain's name? Colonel Leermeister. Honestly, of all the ridiculous—

Right, right, forget I said anything...

The strategy side of the game is dirt simple though, mostly because of the short playtime. The goal is to find five pieces of the ship you need to get up to the Nazi base on the moon (or as the Nazis would put it "ON ZE MOOOOOON!"), along with the 500 pieces of lunarium needed to get there in the first place. That means assigning agents to hunt for their various installations, which they have several of, including both a jungle base and a desert one, and starting resistance movements to slow their progress. 

The simple fact that there is a jungle and a desert base means it's not too difficult to just assign agents to the appropriate places, with discoveries leading to one of a couple of minigames—dodging shots, or punching the single solitary guards in each place who are charged with protecting Hitler's interests and all apparently members of the von Glassjaw family. Threatening, they are not. They're bubble-wrap with swastikas.

Ach, nein! Not ze face! Or ze body! Or ze legs! But you can be giving me ze spankings, if sie likes!

And at this point, it's finally time to blow Dix. Uh. I mean, "head into space".

Having gotten this far, the ending is, uh, somewhat abrupt. If any game was going to try for a place on a list of truly ridiculous videogame finales, you'd think Rocket Ranger would be it. It was early enough that it could have claimed dibs on the Hitler mech suit, or maybe the entire moon would be a Nazi, turning around to reveal a swastika carved into it or something. 

But no. If you ignore the whole "entirely staffed by scantily clad women" thing, which is easily done when they're in 99.9% of all silly games ever made, it's really quite boringly predictable. Rocket Ranger saves the girl he cares about, destroys the facility, and then a TO BE CONTINUED... pops up to obscure the fact the only way this is a win is if the Nazis look at the majority share they now hold of the world and decide "OK, you win, have it back." Which seems unlikely.

"The last Nazi Amazon tumbles into a ravine, and you leap into the air to celebrate. You've won. The Nazis have made their last lunarium bomb," yawns a dull final screen. "You start pulling off the slave women's zombie helmets and looking for Jane and Dr. Barnstorff. As you cast one of the helmets aside—


Yes! That's more like it! It turns out the Nazis weren't working alone, but had help from, and I quote, THE INTERPLANETARY UNION OF FASCISTS. That is a thing that exists in this game, and the way to defeat it is to shoot a bug-eyed monster right in its big bug-eyes. Much more like it!

(Rocket Ranger also came out on the NES, and not too surprisingly that version is all about an alien invasion from the start. There were things Nintendo didn't allow, and Nazis... yeah, no.)

Anyway, that's an OK ending, I guess. But how else might it have ended?

What if Rocket Ranger had failed his quest?

Well, at least the Nazis are going to be comfortable in The White House.

I don't know though, neither of those endings seem really fitting. What would have happened if, instead, the mysterious benefactor who provided the Americans with the rocket pack and starting stash of lunarium had chosen more wisely, and brought it to a country that could really have done some good with it?


See, Pepper? Good will always triumph over evi— Well, at any rate, over you .

As ever, despite the greatness of the PC, this was not a fantastic time for it in terms of graphics and sound, and Cinemaware spared little to no expense making the most of what it could do compared to the jazzier Amiga version. As such, this run-through uses that version, and I am sorry. But at least we can take solace in the fact that the PC is still around and kicking arse, and the Amiga... well, I'm sure it's still useful if you have a table you need to prop up. As for other heretical devices, it's also possible to get Rocket Ranger for the iPhone/iPad, along with the oddly chosen King of Chicago for some reason instead of one of Cinemaware's more famous games. Go figure. Or, alternatively, not.

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