Seeing a Cinemaware game on the shelf could be like staring at the marquee for a theater. Their box art and approach to game design eagerly embraced the same spirit that greeted moviegoers with lavish looks and trappings that evoked everything from medieval epics to the kind of pulp sci-fi that Rocket Ranger did in 1988.
Rocket Ranger debuted on systems that could do its graphics justice such as the Amiga, the Commodore 64, Apple IIgs, Atari ST, and IBM PCs with varying degrees of visual polish.
The plot felt like it time traveled straight from the Golden Age of Science Fiction of the thirties and forties involving a rocket pack, mad science, and Nazis on the Moon. It seems that Hitler and his Reich won the war thanks to the discovery of an element called “lunarium” that enabled their zeppelin death machines to fly higher than any fighter could attack them. With these airships, the Nazis conquered the world and spread their evil to all corners.
But you, as a mild mannered scientist working in Fort Dix in May, 1940, are about to change this accidental history thanks to a gift sent over from a hundred years in the future. Scientists working in 2040, who belong to a secret resistance organization, have also developed a time machine under their Nazi masters’ noses and have sent you the items they hope you will take up and help save the world with.
With the rocket pack, a ray gun, and a video wristwatch, you’re soon off on a chase around the world to stop the goosestepping machinations of National Socialism! Or if you didn’t want to read all of that from the manual, you could just sit back and watch this:
Even with that, the manual laid out the story, and the elements of the game, set within its own fiction using clever names such as the name of the rocket pack as the “Himmelwurfer Rocket Pack Model M2000” along with the “Schmeisser Radium Pistol”. It’s neat stuff written up to immerse players even more into the high flying fist punching and ray gun blasting action.
Rocket Ranger was a hybrid action/strategy game that could be rough from the very start. When you tried to fly for the first time, you had to match button presses with your running footsteps to get launched which was a lot easier said than done until I got the hang for it.
Starting at your base in Fort Dix, you also have to manage your store of lunarium, the mystery element that drives your rocket pack and which the Third Reich is using to build their wunderwaffe. You only start out with so much and will need to find a way to get more.
And as a form of copy protection, a code wheel was provided with the game to calculate the amount of lunarium needed to fly from place to place. Without it, our snappily dressed hero didn’t stand a chance when they ran out of the stuff from wasting it on needless trips.
Players also had to assign agents to search out Nazi bases that might be hidden in other countries around the world, steal lunarium, or tip you off to the Nazis efforts in trying to kidnap Professor Barnstorff who is like the Einstein of lunarium. Action bits included dodging fire from your approach to a zeppelin, punching out a lone Nazi guard during a base raid, or blowing away enemies at the Nazis’ super secret lunarium mine on the Moon which was your ultimate destination. That is, if you found enough rocket parts to build a way to get there.
You didn’t need the code wheel for the NES version in 1990 which I had played. The graphics were also just passable with a number of neat cut scenes seen on systems like the Amiga removed entirely. Also, because it was a Nintendo console, it had also undergone Nintendo’s strict censorship policy.
The box art was replaced with a sanitized version scrubbing the fantastic stuff that computer players had gotten with a leering mad scientist, staring Nazis gazing at the sky, and a revealing leg slit skirt with garter belt for the damsel in distress.
The swastika was replaced with something of a right triangle missing a side and the Nazis were now “aliens” called Leutonians bent on conquering the world in the year 1990 instead. Even the dramatic cinema-like newsreel intro featuring Hitler and his mad plans that had graced the computer versions was verboten, replaced instead with text talking up the censor-approved story. The manual was also just as boring. Why they were still using zeppelins when they apparently can bring their own moon over Earth was pretty weird, but that’s some of the oddball changes developers were forced to make under Nintendo’s early policies.
Like many of Cinemaware’s other ads, they really only had to post the art from their boxes like what this one did because it was that good. A few screenshots from the Amiga’s version show off its best face though none of them actually have bits from the actual gameplay. Still, even on the NES, the gameplay was entertaining though the learning curve could be a little steep early on. It was also a short game which you really had to finish in under an hour or so – there was no save system and the Nazis were constantly on the march forcing you to check their progress.
Yet as one of Cinemaware’s better offerings, Rocket Ranger stands out as a fond retro-inspired tribute to the films of yesteryear and the devil-may-care attitude of its Flash Gordon-like hero to battle the bad guys whether they were Nazis…or Leutonians.