Games That Made Me: Rocket Jockey
Late 90’s nostalgia with rocket-powered bikes
As I discussed in a piece from early this year, one of the biggest influences on me as a gamer was a demo CD from Australian retailer Harvey Norman, circa 1997. It was packed full of games and other software, and in the days before high-speed internet and digital distribution, these retailers could reliably depend on brick and mortar software sales.
Rocket Jockey, developed by Rocket Science Games and published by SegaSoft, is the very definition of a cult classic ahead of its time. Released in November 1996 for Windows 95, it is difficult to describe in typical genre terms. Part sports game, part vehicular combat game, and part racing game, its closest modern equivalents would be a combination of Rocket League and Wreckfest, though this comparison is hardly sufficient.
In Rocket Jockey, the player takes on the role of a “jockey" of a high-powered, flying rocket bike. There are three modes of play. Rocket Race asks the player to navigate a winding slalom-style course through a series of gates. Rocket Ball is basically soccer on rocket bikes. The last mode, Rocket War, is the game’s highlight mode. In Rocket War, the aim is simply to incapacitate the other jockeys in any way possible.`
The big twist, however, is the way the rocket bikes handle. They’re very fast, and once they start they don’t stop. If you use your brakes too often, it increases the bike’s temperature, inevitably leading to a fatal explosion (unless you jump off first).
They’re also pretty bad at going any direction other than “straight ahead". Because of this, each bike comes equipped with grappling cables that can be fired from either side of the bike (think of the Snowspeeders in The Empire Strikes Back). By attaching these cables to objects around the arena, like the pylons that make up the gates in Rocket Race, you can rapidly swing your bike around in any direction. These cables can also be used as weapons, ripping other jockeys off their bikes, creating clotheslines between obstacles, or picking up and throwing objects like the explosive landmines in Rocket War.
If that all sounds complicated — it really isn’t. Left and right, pitch up and down, accelerate, brake (if you’ve got a death wish), and left and right cables. However, for some reason, 12-year-old me struggled with the complexity of the controls. Instead, I’d share the keyboard with a friend — one of us flying while the other fires the cables.
This sort of emergent co-op resulted in quite memorable play sessions, yelling at each other about what cable to fire and which direction to fly. I’m not sure if other players did the same, but I can’t imagine there were many.
History and Development
In fact, there weren’t many other players at all. Three months after release, Rocket Jockey had only moved around 3000 units worldwide. As stated by former Rocket Science Games level designer David Chang, total sales barely exceeded 5000 copies. By April 1997, investors had abandoned Rocket Science Games and were forced to close due to bankruptcy. Ownership of the assets and IP returned to the Rocket Science Games investors, and Rocket Jockey disappeared down a legal black hole for the better part of two decades. Speaking to Ars Technica in 2011, lead designer Sean Callahan stated:
"The problem is the rights are in limbo with Rocket Science Games. Nobody can obtain the rights because no legal entity exists to license them."
Like a Van Gogh painting, the quirky masterpiece that is Rocket Jockey was only recognised after the demise of its creator. The game has since developed a cult following. That term is frequently overused, but in the case of Rocket Jockey, it is highly appropriate. Most gamers you speak to today have almost certainly never heard of the game (“You mean Rocket League?”), but if you take the time to do some research, you’ll find those that did play it are fiercely obsessed with it.
A small Facebook group named “Rocket Jockey — the game, the myth, the legend" has been one of the fan hubs for several years and has been the focal point of several efforts to remake the game. And obviously, Ben Kuchera at Ars Technica is a fan, penning the article “Masterpiece: Rocket Jockey for the PC — you heard me". As far as I’m concerned, I take every opportunity I can to sing the praises of Rocket Jockey. I am writing this very article not only to tell a story of a game that had a profound impact on me but out of a sense of duty to promote a game that I feel has been unfairly and unceremoniously forgotten by the games industry.
So how did Rocket Jockey fail, if it’s so brilliant? Reviewers at the time praised it for its addictive and satisfying gameplay, bugs were pretty much nonexistent, and the soundtrack is surf guitar par excellence by the late great Dick Dale. The biggest criticism of the game was that the promised LAN multiplayer was not included at launch, though this was later added in a patch. Callahan recalls testing multiplayer functionality while Rocket Science Game spiralled towards collapse.
What seems clear, from everything I’ve read (and linked) so far, is that Rocket Jockey was a classic case of failed marketing and poor upper management. From the anecdotes of Callahan and others, it seems like SegaSoft was pushing for a Christmas release, and the final weeks of Rocket Jockey’s development sounded like crunch-time hell. On top of that, the game was poorly marketed — cover art and logos for the game were created without consulting the developers, and as Chang recounts a conversation with J. Patton, the game’s producer:
“J once took me aside to show me an email from a friend of his who worked for an industry magazine. His friend was asking J for materials he could use to prepare a preview of RJ. “Where’s your game?” was the gist of the message. I have to admit that (being a callow youth) I wasn’t sure what was wrong. Of course, it’s clear to me now: it’s not the magazine’s job to beg you for material so they can write about your product. It’s your marketing department’s job to do the begging.”
Late 90s games marketing was primitive by today’s standards — in most cases, the crusty old executives running the show had never played games themselves (not since the 70s or 80s at least). So it was far from uncommon to see well-made games sink purely on account of failed promotion. I’m not insinuating any malice on behalf of the Rocket Jockey marketing team — I’m sure they thought they were doing the right thing. But it seems like this was just another case of the people in charge not understanding what they were selling and to whom they were selling it.
All this makes Rocket Jockey’s failure even more bittersweet. It is a great game. Even though the industry trends at the time were heavily skewed towards first-person shooters and real-time strategy games, I believe that the right approach could have carved out a comfortable corner of the market. There was even a PlayStation port in the works that was canned with the collapse of Rocket Science Games. If the PlayStation port had ever seen the light of day, then I think the console landscape could have turned out to be a very different place, and the dominion of titles like Twisted Metal would have been significantly less assured.
Playing Rocket Jockey Today
Unfortunately, if you want to play Rocket Jockey today, you’re going to have a difficult time. There are very few copies in circulation, and even if you do manage to snag one of these extremely rare copies, then you’ll have a hard time getting the game to run on Windows 10.
This is where the abandonware community has saved the day once again, and a huge reason why I support their efforts. While debatably not strictly legal (abandonware is a bit of a grey area), abandonware sites are currently the only place you can reliably find a copy of the disc image. I won’t directly link to those sites, but one reputable place is MyAbandonware. Like many abandonware sites, they have a policy they strictly adhere to, removing a game as soon as it can be legally obtained. Alternatively, The Internet Archive is a good source for old software, and they do a lot of important work in safeguarding the history of the internet too — please donate to support them!
The battle doesn’t end there, unfortunately, and you’ll have to experiment with various patches to get the game a) installed and b) running acceptably. I’ve had mixed results over the years, but the best advice I can give is to talk to other Rocket Jockey fans on the Facebook group for help — they’re a very welcoming community, and it includes some of the developers who worked on the game.
Remakes and Revivals
Of course, being a 1996 game that never had any 3D acceleration, Rocket Jockey is looking a bit long in the tooth these days. For someone like me, who plays a lot of classic games and has a personal nostalgic attachment to this one, that doesn’t bother me at all — its part of the charm. I do of course recognise that this isn’t for everyone, and the visual element can detract from an enjoyable experience.
Several attempts have been made to remake Rocket Jockey, beginning with mods for Unreal Tournament (1999 and 2003) and Quake III Arena. More concerted efforts soon followed, first by indie developer Solar-Ray in around 2008, and then a couple of years later with Sprocket Junkie! by Six Shooter Games. None of these projects reached fruition, though a few seemed close.
2018 saw indie developer Burn Ward secure the rights to the Rocket Jockey IP. Burn Ward’s take on Rocket Jockey looked sharp and professional from the outset, and the fact that they had secured a cadre of surf guitar musicians like Par Avion, the Blackball Bandits, and the legendary Dick Dale gave the project additional gravitas (Dick Dale sadly passed away the following year). It seemed this was a project that truly understood Rocket Jockey’s legacy. Burn Ward, like previous projects, engaged with the Rocket Jockey community from the start, and hopes were high. Unfortunately, the project didn’t grab the attention of investors, and Burn Ward’s Rocket Jockey went the way of so many other reboot attempts.
It wouldn’t take long before another enterprising developer would have a crack at Rocket Jockey, this time from lone developer Yossi Cohen, a.k.a AwesometonGames. Yossi’s work so far has been nothing short of extraordinary, and you can follow along with the development of Rocket Jockeys on Itch.io. Yossi has been generous enough to release development builds available for free (the current version at the time of writing is Build 115), however, I would strongly urge that you please give what you can to support this project. He has done this almost entirely on his own, and the results are incredible. As far as remakes go, Rocket Jockeys is achieving what many remasters or reboots struggle with — maintaining an air of authenticity while refreshing core mechanics for a new generation of gamers.
When it comes to the future of Rocket Jockey, I’d cautiously say that it looks bright. Yossi Cohen’s current work on the game is progressing remarkably well for a one-person project, and it is only a matter of time before some savvy industry investors take the project on board. A Rocket Jockey reboot has the potential to be the next big thing in eSports, and with the right investors and marketing, it’s a game that could very well be an enormous success.
As for the original Rocket Jockey, the small but loyal community has done an amazing job in keeping the game alive, and I live in constant hope of a distributor like GOG.com picking the game up for re-release. It was a game far ahead of its time, and it deserves a new lease on life more than almost any other game of its generation.