Believe it or not, video games have evolved over the years. Crazy, I know. The FPS genre went from ‘Doom clones’ to Overwatch, the puzzle genre took Tetris and thought, “You know what this thing needs? Puyo Puyo”, and the RTS went from Command and Conquer to a pile of garbage. The 2D platformer is no exception, but the genre has been filled to the brim with games that harken back to a simpler time. ‘Simpler’ times is right, games were simply more straightforward back in the day. Rad Rodgers is the latest in this trend, promising to bring you right back to 1991 when the Apogee platformer was king. But this is the day of Shovel Knight and Cave Story! Nostalgiabait platformers are made to a much higher standard now! Can Rad Rodgers keep up with the pace?
For the uninitiated (which is anybody under 27), Apogee were a developer in the late 80s and early 90s that would become 3D Realms. Yes, that 3D Realms. Before they made Duke Nukem until their brains rotted and they decided delaying Duke Nukem Forever for a goddamn decade was a good idea, Apogee made their mark with 2D platformers. Commander Keen and the original Duke Nukem are just two of their classic titles. They’re also some of the most dated games you’ll ever play. This was a time before map screens and basic rules for level design. A simpler time, a happier time.
This is my rifle, this is my gun…
Rad Rodgers is a game that’s well-tuned to its roots. It’s even published by 3D Realms themselves, who are apparently not bankrupt. The story is as basic as a Saturday morning cartoon: you play as a young lad named Rad (his dad must be called Gnarly) who gets sucked into the vidya gaem world and meets his foul-mouthed console. Turns out he’s called Dusty and is voiced by Jon St. John – the Duke himself. A nice touch, if I do say so myself. This simplicity carries over into the gameplay as well. Much like the 2D platformers of old, you’ll be runnin’ and jumpin’ and shootin’ until your thumbs bleed. The humour is just as crass and unapologetic, which I dug (at first).
Now, I’m all for simple games. I enjoyed Rad Rodgers immensely in the time I played it. Controlling Rad himself feels smooth and responsive. Abilities don’t range much further than gun pickups, but this keeps the game simple and forces the player to rely on their own skill to complete challenges. Momentum is rarely interrupted, keeping you in the flow of the game. Shooting takes some getting used to as the gamepad controls aren’t rebindable, but they’re perfectly manageable. In fact, the controls in general are well-polished and don’t present any real dramas. The visuals are easily the most impressive thing about the game, considering the small development team. Colours bounce off each other perfectly. Models are well-sculpted and are animated extremely well. Animations all around are bouncy and enjoyable to look at. The music is a fantastic neo-90s electronica that fits the gameplay snugly. It’s just such comfy fun.
The game also includes a pretty good ‘screenshot mode’
Sometimes Dusty is controlled to restore objects in the game world
But I can’t go giving it a high score just because it’s fun. I mean, what kind of self-righteous wanker would I be if I had humanity? Fortunately for my image as a video game critic and/or unlikable snob, I managed to dig up some doozy complaints. While the music is great, the sound mixing is hit-and-miss. You’ll hear the same lines from Dusty several times each level, and some sounds simply don’t sound right. The game’s persistent flow is assisted by checkpoint placement that’s too forgiving to give it any difficulty. Levels are not-so-intricate mazes with little to no indication of where you are or what you haven’t discovered yet. I found myself backtracking more times than I’d like, often with no reward; ‘Metroidvania’ games have maps for this exact purpose. The later levels were half-hour slogs, a marathon of blistered fingerprints. There’s little to no incentive for replayability, unless you’re into collecting secrets…really, all things considered, that’s probably what you’re playing Rad Rodgers for anywho. But my point stands: emulating the past is well and good, but don’t forget the things we keep there for a reason.
Hey, I get it. Rad’s a 90s kid, he’s used to a challenge! He must go to his local library for information! He must make calls from home! He’s in the End of History, and there’s nowhere humanity can go from here…but up! And up we went. Up in the basics of level design and user interface. Up in having a goddamn fuckin’ map screen. Up in the air, where the eagles fly, there exist excellent 2D platformers that pay tribute to older games while still retaining their own identity. Rad Rodgers came so close to soaring alongside them, but its wings melted a bit, so it has to glide for a bit and look down at the scattered bodies of Kickstarter nostalgiabait…and their own wings. Their very crappy wings.