As Kiss frontman and professional tongue-haver Gene Simmons once sang, "God gave rock and roll to everyone". I always thought that meant "as a type of music for people to enjoy" but today's game has made me reconsider that position, as it provides evidence that God may have given rock and roll to us so that we may use it to fight evil across time and space. It's Konami's 1986 arcade title Rock'n Rage!
I suddenly have a craving to visit a 50s-style diner.
A band rocks out. The purple-haired guitarist on the left peers into the crowd with unveiled hostility, but the rest of the band seem to be enjoying themselves. How could this familiar scene possibly lead to a wild videogame adventure?
A massive hand appearing out of nowhere and abducting the female singer will do it. The singer's name is Sheena - I know this because an adorably lo-fi voice sample warbles "oh, Sheena!" when she's dragged away. This makes Rock'n Rage the second Konami arcade game I've written about that starts with the kidnapping of a woman called Sheena, the first being Violent Storm.
No reason for Sheena's abduction is given, so we're left with two possibilities: either her kidnapper loves her singing so much that he has to have her for himself, or this band was so bloody awful that he bent the fabric of reality just to get them to shut up. Whatever the reason, Sheena is the star of the show and the guitarist and male singer aren't about to go back to the dreary nine-to-five jobs they had before the band took off, so they jump into portal to rescue their meal ticket.
The mysterious portal dumps you in ancient Egypt, as mysterious portals are wont to do. Player one controls John, the guitarist of the band, a man with a moustache taken straight from the face of a side character from an Asterix comic. If John is meant to be a parody of an actual guitarist I couldn't tell you who it's supposed to be. With that barnet and facial hair, you'd think I'd recognise them, so maybe John has sprung fully-formed from the minds of the Konami staff.
Oh, right, the gameplay. Rock'n Rage is a top-down run-n-gun game, although run-and-riff might be more accurate - the joystick move John in eight directions, and pressing attack makes you clobber enemies with your guitar. Enemies take one hit to kill, but so does John, so careful application of guitar bashings and making the effort to fight as few enemies as possible at once are the way to go. Mummies are the primary antagonists at the beginning of Rock'n Rage, which is to be expected given the Ancient Egyptian setting.
Something I wasn't expecting were these angry men. I don't mean that there weren't any angry men in ancient Egypt, just that I don't think hand grenades were around in the time of the Pharaohs. I suppose if John managed to travel here from the mid-eighties then there's no reason that a squadron of men with hand grenades couldn't have made the trip too, and the swamp-creatures that pop up from the Nile and vomit piranhas at our hero might have tipped me off that Rock'n Rage wasn't striving for historical accuracy. Still, it's difficult to fight enemies who have projectile attacks when all I can do is swing my axe at them. My guitar, I mean. I would prefer a real axe.
The solution to my projectile crisis was to be found in Rock'n Rage's power-up system. Bottles litter the stages, and smashing them open nets you a power-up determined by which musical note is displayed. They all give you a projectile attack in addition to your guitar swings - there's a rapid-fire shot, a shot that starts small but increase in size the further it travels and a three-way spread that you can see pictured above. They're all useful, but the rapid-fire shot is the weakest of the three, so try to avoid picking it up if you already have one of the others. This musical assault answers the question of why Sheena was kidnapped, too: if John's guitar playing is bad enough to kill people, I'm going to assume that Sheena was taken by some diabolical force so that her voice can be used as a weapon.
After a while spent wandering about - Rock'n Rage is less linear than you might expect, with several paths through each area - John enters a pyramid, because this stage is set in ancient Egypt and if you don't include the pyramids in your ancient Egypt stages the shadowy cabal that controls all videogame production will come to your house in the dead of night and severely rebuke you. I look forward to Tutankhamun or Cleopatra making an appearance in the near future.
There's Cleo now. Well, that was quick. Touching Cleopatra takes away your projectile attack (bad) but gives you a temporary force-field that you can activate whenever you like (good). I would recommend saving the force-field for the boss battle, which will begin shortly.
It's Tutankhamun! No wonder he's the most famous of all the pharaohs, he's a stone monolith with snakes sticking out of his forehead and the ability to shoot laser beams out of his eyes. That's the kind of thing that is forever remembered by the annals of history. You might be thinking "that can't be Tutankhamun, King Tut was a young man of normal size with a pronounced overbite" but Rock'n Rage informs the player of this boss' identity by sticking the word TUTANKHAMEN right across the screen at the start of the fight and I'm sure you'll agree that Konami know more about the history of the Eighteenth Dynasty of ancient Egypt than you or I.
As for the fight itself, it's fairly simple, especially if you saved your force-field - keep moving to avoid Tut's eye-beams and bash the snakes when they droop towards the bottom of the screen. The snakes are there to be menacing rather than to do any actual fighting, so don't be afraid to get right up to them and clobber away.
With King Tut slapped firmly back into his sarcophagus, the evil hand reappears and drags Sheena away to stage two - Britain, in the Middle Ages Apparently the Middle Ages were a time of extreme seismic activity in England, and the landscape is made of narrow pathways surrounded by yawning chasms, which makes it a lot more difficult to get to the spiders that throw webs at you from just out of range.
I decided to bring player two along for a while. He's functionally identical to John, but he attacks with a microphone stand. His blonde mop reminds me of Status Quo singer Rick Parfitt. The player two character's name is Rick. I think he might be based on Rick Parfitt from Status Quo, which is a sentence I never though I'd have to use here at VGJunk. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Status Quo, the most quintessentially "Dad Rock" of all bands, are huge in Japan, but to find myself in a situation where I'm wondering if I really am controlling a squashed-down version of Rick Parfitt in an arcade game from 1986 is blowing my mind to the extent that I might have to take a little break from writing this article.
The forests of Middle Ages Britain - forests packed with evil, human-faced trees that blow deadly leaves at you - are patrolled by skull-faced knights on mighty steeds, and I can have no complaints about that. The enemy designs in Rock'n Rage are fun in general, although these knights are less fun when they keep flying in from all sides of the screen at a speed that makes them extremely difficult to avoid.
Still, they're preferable to these severed fists that appear several times throughout the game. They fly in from the left and kill you. That's it. There's no warning as to when they'll appear, no pattern to their arrival on screen that I can see, and they're too fast to dodge because John isn't exactly fleet of foot. They're unavoidable, unkillable agents of instant death, and frankly they are complete bullshit. When I first encountered them in the Egypt stage I though it was because I was spending too long exploring and Rock'n Rage wanted me to get a shift on, but I was moving through this area at a reasonable pace and I was still visited by the Furious Knuckles of Vengeance, so I guess someone on the development staff just thought it'd be a laugh if the player lost a life through no fault of their own every now and then. Here's a bit of customer feedback, Konami: it is not a laugh, it is a right pain in the arse.
Mostly, though, Rock'n Rage has been good, simple fun. Giant fists aside, the biggest issue I have with the game is that you can't attack diagonally with your guitar. You can shoot your musical projectiles diagonally, and they work quite nicely in unison with the guitar when you're using projectiles to clear out the bigger enemies at a safe distance while relying on your guitar's larger hitbox to handle the smaller, more mobile foes that can be tricky to hit... but when you lose a life you also lose your power-ups, and fighting on with the guitar alone can sometime be more frustrating than it should be. It's not so bad once you get used to it, and underneath these small irritations is a decently-crafted little game with an engaging sense of, if not humour exactly, then certainly weirdness.
Weirdness like finding King Arthur hidden away in a corner of the Gauntlet-style maze that makes up the latter half of stage two. Like Cleopatra, Arthur gives you a force-field when you find him. Excalibur may look more like a cudgel than a legendary sword and he may be surrounded by bees, but the compassion and wisdom that King Arthur is famous for still shines strongly.
The boss is a sorceress, and she falls into the pattern that is quickly becoming familiar with all the bosses in Rock'n Rage - lots of projectiles that require deft footwork to avoid. In the sorceress' case those projectiles are orbs of eldritch fire, which is like normal fire but is a bit more challenging to spell. John has his force field activated, and it's not a subtle effect, engulfed as he is by a huge blocky circle. Subtlety is not required for victory, however, and with the sorceress' attacks nullified John can smash away at her until she's beaten.
Stage three: France! No date is given, so this could be France in the modern day for all I know, but given the appearance of these vaguely Napoleonic soldiers I'd say it's supposed to be set in the Napoleonic era. What can Rock'n Rage teach me about France during the time of the First French Empire? That it was a time of unparalleled fecundity in the barrel business, a paradise on Earth for Gallic coopers who stacked their wares in huge piles on every Parisian boulevard, the great cities of France seemingly build for and from thousands upon thousands of barrels. This being France, the barrels are all presumably full of wine.
Cannons have been brought in to try to thin out the number of barrels before the citizens of France are drowned beneath their vast numbers. There are also bats. Quite a lot of bats, and the bats appear in every stage from here on out. I think I've mentioned this before, but there surely cannot be any animal that have killed more in videogames than bats, and Rock'n Rage is doing nothing to change that statistic.
The ubiquitous barrels don't disappear completely as John enters the palatial mansion that makes up the stage's second half - there are a couple waiting to crush you by rolling down staircases - but they're much fewer in number, the new threat being swarms of vicious, bloodthirsty, sinister violinists. The violinists crawl out of these holes in the ground, and it took me a while to notice this but every stage has these monster generators, which can be destroyed by hitting them with your guitar (or your mic stand, if you're player two). It is probably a good idea to take as many out as you can, but I never really figured out whether it was more conducive to my survival to get rid of all the monster generators or to just move through the stages as quickly as possible.
Sacre bleu, it's Bonaparte himself! The soundtrack plays a quick blast of La Marseillaise when you get near him, which is nice after I was complaining about not hearing it in the last article. Napoleon gives you - you guessed it - a force field, perhaps as a way of making amends for his disastrous invasion of Russia.
This fan-flapping villainess is apparently an enchantress, so named because "fright-wig-wearing vampire woman who attacks with feathers" was a touch too long to fit on the screen. This is more difficult than the previous boss encounters, because your force-field doesn't last forever and the enchantress can retreat to the top of the screen where your guitar swipes can't hit her. In a touch of welcome kindness, the game does leave a few power-ups at the bottom of the screen for you to collect in the likely event that you're killed.
The next stage is ancient Rome, which is slightly anticlimactic considering that we've already been to ancient Egypt. There are more skeleton equestrians, as well as non-horse-based skeletons that throw their bones at John, and because I love skeletons so much this fourth stage just about manages to remain enjoyable.
Skeletons aside, the facet of this stage that really leapt out at me was the music. Here, give it a listen:
It probably sounds familiar, because it's a completely straight recreation of "Twist and Shout," a song made most famous by some bunch of scousers who apparently did quite well for themselves. I don't know if Konami got permission to use this music, but I'm going to take a guess and say that they did not. There's no mention of the copyright holders in the game's credits, that's for sure, and if anyone can prove that Konami licensed "Twist and Shout" then I'll happily apologise, but until then I'll say good job on ripping off this classic tune, Konami. It works surprisingly well here, even if it is the soundtrack to a stage set in ancient Rome.
My suspicion that the music in this game was not officially licensed gains credence as John enters the subterranean caverns beneath Rome, where the music switches to - get this - "Rock Me Amadeus". Yes, really. Thanks to what is quite possibly The Simpsons' finest moment, I spent this whole section singing "Doctor Zaius, Doctor Zaius" under my breath, at least until I got near to Venus, who you can see on the right-hand side of the screenshot above. When she's on screen, the music changes once again, this time to a brief snippet of "Like a Virgin". There's no way Konami got the rights to all these songs, it would have cost an absolute fortune. Well, maybe not "Rock Me Amadeus".
The award for ugliest boss goes to this minotaur, an eyesore more pixellated than a Japanese pervert's porn collection. He's extremely difficult to beat, what with the giant manhole cover he's using as a shield and his double whip that covers what feels like the entire screen, but my victory was assured once I figured out a simple technique. You see, when you lose all your lives in Rock'n Rage, you can't continue... unless player two is on the screen. So, I brought Rick back and had him hang around until I lost all my lives, whereupon his presence allowed me to continue. I will be forever grateful for your noble sacrifice, Rick.
The final stage takes place in modern day America, a place packed with billboards that come in two flavours - self-referential advertising from Konami and adverts for fizzy pop that try to kill you by rolling giant cans of soda at you if you walk near them. You can hit the soda cans out of the way your guitar, which is nice and satisfying.
Other than that you're beset by hordes of these strange looking men. They remind me a little of Andre the Giant, but if there is a reference to be found here then I don't think that's it. I do know they can throw hand grenades, because if you've already drawn a hand grenade sprite, why not use it again in a more believable context than that found in the first stage?
What with the rolling obstacles, spurting hydrants and general "the USA through the lens of different culture" feel, this section of Rock'n Rage reminds me of nothing so much as Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. I was half expecting the Foot Clan to jump out at me, but no, it's just common-or-garden street punks. I still wanted to shout "let's kick some shell!" but then it occurred to me that particular bodacious and radical phrase makes no sense - only the Turtles have shells, and they're not going to kick each other, are they? Raphael might, I suppose. He's a grumpy sort.
Stage five takes a turn for the dreary in the second half, a rather dull slog through an uninteresting building which is supposed to be a casino. There are no slot machines or roulette wheels here, though, just a sea of cyan floor tiles that get a bit painful on the eyes after a while. The only interesting bit is a room with several doors. Depending on which door you use to enter, you meet a different character. There's an astronaut, and the Statue of Liberty, whose appearance is accompanied by the strident opening chords of "Born in the USA" - an ironic choice considering that the Statue of Liberty was built in France.
I met neither of those characters. Instead I was greeted by Ivan Drago from Rocky IV and yes, the theme from Rocky plays when you enter the room. Unlike all the other famous faces, Drago does not give you a force field when you touch him. Instead, he gives you a punch in the mouth. Thanks, Ivan.
From there it's only a short walk to the final boss. His name is Monster Kids, bafflingly, and as I started this article with a reference to Kiss it's appropriate that this villain is wearing a costume that could have been taken from that very band's wardrobe. Hang on, Kids, Kiss, maybe there's a link there - D is right next to S on a keyboard, after all. The most disturbing thing about Monster Kids is that he and I share a very similar haircut (please note that my hair is not green).
As for the fight itself, I couldn't tell you much about it beyond the constant deaths I suffered thanks to Monster Kids' relentless, screen filling projectile assault. Most of my deaths were down to the fiery chasm he creates down the middle of the screen, a simple yet extremely effective obstacle that always seemed to flare up just as I was walking across it. If I hadn't figured out the trick to continuing mid-game, there's no way I would have beaten Monster Kids, but by offering Rick up as a fleshy death-magnet I eventually managed to hit the boss enough times to make him explode.
Our heroes smash open Sheena's crystal prison and out she pops. It is to be hoped that she doesn't slip on any of the pink lumps of flesh left over from Monster Kids' full-body explosion.
Sheena doesn't seem to be any worse for wear, and the band jump straight back into their performance as the game ends. I like to imagine the audience standing around for the forty minutes or so it took me to play through Rock'n Rage, patiently waiting for half the band to reappear from their time-travelling adventure. I seem to have covered a lot of time-travelling adventures recently and it's always interesting to see what the developers choose as the defining features of an era. Sometimes it's obvious - ancient Egypt is always going to be wall-to-wall mummies and pyramids - but I definitely didn't expect revolutionary France to contain quite so many barrels.
So, what did I think of Rock'n Rage? There's not much rage in it, for starters, which is probably why the Japanese title is Koi no Hot Rock: John, Rick and Sheena. As for the game itself, it's an enjoyable club-em-up as long as you have a high tolerance for the occasional frustrating death, be it from undodgeable flying hands or miscalculations in how wide the sweep of your guitar's attack is. It gets hard towards the end, hard in a very "arcade-game" way, but it's just about manageable with plenty of practise. The real pleasure to be found in Rock'n Rage is in the setting, the weird world of musical pastiches, the meetings with historical luminaries and the fact that you're playing as an eighties rocker instead of a lone solider in a grubby vest. If I can't recommend it for the fairly basic gameplay, I can at least recommend it for the universe it creates - a universe where you fight knights in the sewers of Rome, a bleepy recreation of Falco's pop classic ringing in your ears.