By Veve Jaffa
This latest guest post comes to us from Veve Jaffa, a “bioluminescent creator of filmic and digital worlds, queering canon one beloved cis-heteronormative narrative at a time.” You can support their work via Patreon, follow them on Twitter @joiedeveve and check out their games on itch.io. In this piece, Jaffa introduces us to the surprisingly affecting thematic overtones of classic platformer Rocky Rodent.
Gifs by Cassie Mewn. Support her on Patreon, too!
Nearly 20 years ago today I grasped a grey SNES cartridge outfitted with a drooling, determined rodent in my hands and excitedly slid it into place, the satisfying click punctuating my enthusiasm and launching the title screen. A purple, shrieking rat bolted in hyper-speed across my T.V. The colourful intensity and cartoonish absurdity were enough to hook the five-year-old sitting before them, but what I couldn’t have predicted or prepared for, was the next two decades spent trying to finish what I started and finally feed a hungry rodent named Rocky.
Rocky Rodent—or as it’s known in Japan, its country of origin, Nitro Punks: Mightheads—is a side-scrolling platformer released for the SNES by Irem (R-Type, Steambot Chronicles) in 1993. Irem’s role as publisher as well as overlapping art credits with key members of Shenmue’s development team (Dreamcast, 1999) are notable points in a long list of factors contributing to my surprise over the game’s appalling lack of recognition. Perhaps the unforgiving difficulty turned players away before they could get irrevocably hooked like yours truly, or an oversaturated market of commercially successful mascot games like Super Mario World (SNES, 1990), Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1991), and Kirby’s Adventure (NES, 1993), obscured an otherwise outstanding game. Maybe, like me, some players sensed an underlying dread, uneasily contrasted by Rocky’s cartoonish, technicolour facade.
Whatever the reason, it frustrated me to no end that in addition to my dire need to lament about the game, I had virtually no one to lament to. After all, Rocky doesn’t just make you pull your hair out in frustration, it encourages you to weaponize it. As the game’s protagonist, Rocky has the simple and singular goal to feed himself, and you’re afforded just the narrative-propelling conflict to fulfill that goal. The owner of Rocky’s favourite eatery, the Rose Restaurant, has missed a payment to local mob boss Don Garcia, resulting in the mafia kidnapping his daughter until the debt is settled. In exchange for her safe return he offers Rocky a free, all-you-can-eat meal. In no position to turn down such a mouth-watering offer, Rocky accepts the challenge with nothing to protect himself but glamorously-animated defensive hairdos and the driving desperation of hunger.
Revisiting Rocky as an adult burdened me with the kind of senseless childhood guilt Tamagotchi ownership inspired, offering ‘90s kids a misguided, if well-meaning lesson on the realities of responsibility and death. The consequences were clear enough: if you didn’t feed your NanoPet they’d die. So how would I find Rocky after being left for so long without so much as a morsel? For the first time in my life I felt abandonment guilt for a digital entity unmatched even by those designed with the heavy-handed goal in mind. The more I pondered my discomfort over the unfinished game, the more I realized my desperation to win was about more than a bruised ego; Rocky counted on me to feed him, and setting such a base need as the game’s goal made achieving it far more dire than the pursuits of the average platformer’s protagonist.
Released during the height of mascot game popularity, Rocky stands out as a notable departure from both the genre’s classical mechanics and standardized narrative conventions. A genre-defining game like Super Mario World reinforced precedents set by its predecessor, Super Mario Bros (NES, 1985), where platforms solidly support Mario as you navigate your way through obstacles, enemies, and generously-placed flashing cubes filled with lives and power-ups. Regardless of variations on those discrete elements and the challenges they pose, the mechanical conventions remain fundamental to the game, and the genre at large. Rocky’s world lacks any such clarity in regards to the boundaries between foothold and foe, reducing a player’s foreknowledge of the game or finesse in the art of cowlick-spiked combat to little more than a slight edge.
The first of many of Rocky’s departures from platformer conventions begins with a notable lack of lives. You’re given a scant two lives at the start of the game, and the only opportunities to collect more are either the result of luck or well-practiced acrobatics. Celebratory gift boxes adorned with festive purple bows are scattered throughout levels, but they do not always bear gifts. In the best of cases, Rocky enjoys a mini feast as spring-loaded desserts tumble forth into his salivating mouth. At worst, the game challenges the player’s unquestioned acceptance of every power-up they’re offered by hindering progress with unhelpful hairstyles. Beyond using his hair as a defensive measure, Rocky often rocks a particular ‘do for a particular deed. Whether it’s boomeranging his razor sharp Mohawk into dead ends to climb to higher platforms, or grappling over fiery hot chili with impressively agile green pigtails, Rocky has to be properly equipped for the task at hand, or you are forced to backtrack to seek restyling.
Rocky’s environments also prove formidable barriers to victory. The distinction between Rocky’s environment and enemies is virtually indistinguishable as inanimate objects posed as harmless set pieces callously come to life, lunging viciously as he passes. Running through a city street crowded with enemies is hard enough for a hungry rodent without worrying about the unexpected presence of disgruntled sentient fire hydrants and ill-intentioned storefront letters dropping on his head as he passes below. In level two, “Sunset Freeway”, Rocky is racing against time and traffic to catch up to the mafia’s getaway car—no easy feat for Rocky’s stooped frame and the task of perilous platforming between passing vehicles. As the sun slowly sets over the massive freeway bridge, its many motorists encroach upon Rocky with the sole objective of running him off the road. From passersby tossing flaming Molotov cocktails out of their windows, to absurdly oversized boxing gloves spring-loaded into passing car’s trunks, playing Rocky feels like enduring the curse of a social outcast who is increasingly reviled by the world around them for simply existing.
A common narrative in classic platformers paints impressions of inherently peaceful lands corrupted by evil invading forces, whether it’s Bowser and his evil Koopalings infiltrating Dinosaur Land in Super Mario World, Eggman’s nefarious desires to seize control of the planet in Sonic the Hedgehog, or King Dedede’s literal attempt to shatter the dreams of the inhabitants of Kirby’s home, Dream Land. The common thread is a portrayal of a world that was initially ideal for the protagonist and their loved ones. The invasion prompts the protagonist to action, and drives the game’s narrative until the inevitable showdown with the invading force. But Rocky’s world was never peaceful for Rocky. In the game’s opening scene, Rocky is being chased from yet another dining establishment for his unsightly presence and appetite, introducing him as the intruder before the offer that makes him the incidental hero. Presenting Rocky as the unwelcome guest puts players in an unfamiliar position. Devoid of the usual adulation and glory game mascots and their heroics afford, you’ve really got to feel for Rocky and his modest quest to eat in a world filled with overwhelming animosity.
In the face of such absurd levels of adversity it’s difficult to ignore the significance of Rocky’s assigned species. While mascots have hailed from less than prestigious walks of life as far as social standards go, most mascots’ poorly-written stereotypes are put to use as a strength rather than a burden. But Rocky’s demonstrated strengths are few and far between, unless you count the incredible amounts of tenacity and endurance required to face each challenge, and even then, nothing about his rodentness is ever portrayed in a positive light. During the subterranean components of the game I hoped Rocky would fare better below ground where rats are presumed to belong, but a new cruelty was unleashed in the form of fast-flowing, burning hot chili. Now not only was Rocky desperate to eat, but food itself had become one of his enemies! At the height of hopelessness in my most recent attempt to feed Rocky, I couldn’t help but think of Colonel Hans Landa’s monologue addressing the hostile existence rats endure in the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds:
Landa: Consider, for a moment, the world a rat lives in. It’s a hostile world, indeed. If a rat were to scamper through your front door right now, would you greet it with hostility?
Perrier LaPadite: I suppose I would.
Landa: Has a rat ever done anything to you to create this animosity you feel towards them?
LaPadite: Rats spread diseases. They bite people.
Landa: Rats were the cause of the bubonic plague, but that’s some time ago. I propose to you, any disease a rat could spread, a squirrel could equally carry. Would you agree?
Landa: Yet I assume you don’t share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you?
Landa: But they’re both rodents, are they not? And except for the tail, they even rather look alike, don’t they?
LaPadite: It’s an interesting thought, Herr Colonel.
Landa: Ha! However interesting as the thought may be, it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel. If a rat were to walk in here right now, as I’m talking, would you greet it with a saucer of your delicious milk?
LaPadite: Probably not.
Landa: I didn’t think so. You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them; all you know is you find them repulsive.
Just as Landa exposes the inexplicable enmity Lapadite reserves for particular rodents, Rocky makes clear that while the reasons are uncertain, Rocky’s existence is held in contempt. Like with all deep-seated prejudices, uncovering the root of biased beliefs is more difficult to parse than the external manifestations of it, relegating players to the helpless position of a witness. The only option is to move forward and continue chasing the promise of a free meal. Unlike Super Mario World’s imperative to rescue Princess Peach, retrieving the restaurant owner’s daughter is not the road to glory for Rocky, but a means to a necessary end. Presented as the repellent outsider, reaching his goal promises larger payoff than a full stomach. Seizing the reward of dining in a fine restaurant as a guest rather than an intruder is more than a bid for glory, it’s a mission of integrity, an attempt to belong to a world that he is routinely excluded from. Eating at the Rose Restaurant as an invited patron brings Rocky closer to the status of other mascots: not quite the protector of worlds, but at least an accepted member of one.
As this month marks the 20th anniversary of when I began my endless campaign to feed Rocky, the stakes seem higher than ever. This summer I managed to get Rocky a little closer to his free meal, but both of us have yet to taste sweet victory. When my imagination succumbs to the Nano Pet-inspired reality where videogame characters lie restless in wait, hungry and eager for their caretaker to return, I can’t help but feel pained that the Rocky ensnared in my childhood SNES cartridge is living an unfulfilled existence, forever lacking closure, stomach perpetually empty. At least now that I’ve publicly shared his plight (and mine) I can feel slightly at ease with the possibility that I’ve enlisted a new generation of players with the hope that one of us will one day succeed in feeding the world’s hungriest rat.