Rocking Pilot

Slight detour for me, it’s been a while since I played a good arcade game, even longer since I reviewed one and I’ve never reviewed one in written form so this will be an interesting experience, for both me and the readers. With that, on to Mad Head Games’ Rocking Pilot.

These days I don’t play a lot of arcade goodness, mostly because I don’t have, in my opinion, the best setup for it but also because there’s so much else I need to get done. But every so often I make an effort and play me some beat ’em ups or shooters to pass the time and I instantly remember both why I love arcade games and why I hate them.

Rocking Pilot
(Mad Head Games, 2017)

You are a pilot. A helicopter pilot, to be exact. And the world is in a hell of a mess. War is the new entertainment of the masses and the networks do their best to fan the flame of conflict. But one man is willing to stand up for all the people in the world, and the cats and dogs, with nothing but a helicopter and a sense of justice… and guns. And bombs. Lots and lots of explosions.

Rocking pilot can either be classified as a twin-stick shooter or and arena shooter depending on your preferred terminology. I think twin-stick shooter is the more common term but I think arena shooter fits Rocking Pilot better, especially since it can be played with mouse and keyboard as well.

The basic gameplay is simple enough. You are in a helicopter and you have to shoot the enemy, preferably kill them, before they do the same to you. And considering you’re in a far more frail vehicle, they seem to have the upper hand. Especially since there’s a lot more of them than there are of you. As in, there’s more than one. A lot more. Like, tons and tons of them.

For the sake of this review, I’ll mostly be talking about how to play the game using a controller since that’s what I was using. With a controller you aim with the right stick and move with the left. Pull the right trigger to shoot and the left trigger to use “Overdrive” which I’ll talk about later. From there the goal is quite straightforward: shoot enough dudes, collect enough points and gather up as many power-ups as you can to win the day.

Obviously it’s a matter of being good enough and the game is kind enough to give you a pretty good learning curve from the start. For one, it doesn’t introduce all power-ups at once but instead meters them out as you play the game. If you try to complete as much as possible you also upgrade your helicopter in various ways, making it easier to survive than it was in the beginning.

Which I suspect is the point because while there is a story mode, the real meat of the game, like most arcade games, lies in the score attack mode. The story mode is a number of challenges, sort of, with a bit of dialog in between each chapter, or level, where they explain the core of what is going on. And while the dialog and the setting does offer up some chuckles, it’s a very brief experience that can be completed in… I’d say less than an hour if you’re good at shooters or two, at most three hours if you’re a beginner.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story mode for what it is and it might be enough for some people to justify the money spent though I would’ve enjoyed a somewhat more fleshed out story, perhaps a cutscene or two just to spruce it up a bit. I’m not talking full on, hyper-HD 3D cutscenes but there’s a few moments in this game that I feel weren’t as impactful as they should’ve been. And it definitely would’ve helped up the excitement for the boss encounters a bit more. But to talk more specifically would be to spoil it and I don’t want to do that.

If you want to get the most out of the game, however, you’re gonna need to chase highscores, or enter the “Score Mode” as they call it in Rocking Pilot. Here your only goal is to get a higher score than before. While I enjoy some good old highscore chasing from time to time, I don’t typically get into it as much as I did here. And that’s because they’ve made it a bit easier to climb the rankings.

In arcade games the typical rule is if you die, you start over from zero. This can be quite obnoxious, especially if you’re really close to getting a new highscore and you die, but it also favors a certain type of person more than others which in itself pushes a lot of people away. Here they did away with that way of thinking and instead introduced a sort of… ladder. Instead of falling all the way down to the bottom, you instead simply start over from the rung you were on and you keep trying to reach the next step until you do, never falling further down.

This pleases me for two reasons. Number one is that it makes it easier to get higher scores but it also breeds competition. That may seem contradictory in some ways and I know some oldschool arcade goers would balk at this concept but it always, always means that there are people nipping at your heels. You can’t just sit back and wait for the next prodigy along that might take a swipe at the leader, even the most average of gamers have a decent shot at taking you out.

If this game does become popular, I suspect the scores are gonna keep climbing for the foreseeable future unlike how it used to be when the highscores were pretty static. There will always be a divide between the people who care and have the time to invest and those just out for a bit of fun, of course but I, who fall somewhere in the middle of the two, had a hard time putting the controller down as I kept wanting to inch my way forward.

That said, I do have one main complaint about the score mode which is that even though you have a clear goal and you move in ladder, every time you hit a milestone, the game casually pauses to show you your current ranking and what the next step is but it also took me out of the game. While it is a boon as this also wipes out all the enemies, allowing you a moment to breathe, it also stunts the momentum which is really annoying when you’re in the middle of it.

At the start it’s fine because each score mode starts with six levels where you earn crowns, one form of items that unlock upgrades and new levels. But after that it should stop pausing and simply have a little note or popup that goes “You have reached a new safe score” or something rather than break the pace. Or at least have the option for such a method so everyone can pick their own way.

I also think it would’ve been a good idea to have a mode that is more pure arcade, meaning you start from zero and then you fight until you die, registering your highscore then starting over from zero, like in the old days. Could be a fun and good way of measuring your skill/luck between players.

And I think the levels could’ve been a bit more varied, both appearance wise but also in terms of… unique challenges. The enemy variation is very nice as is, there’s a good amount of different enemies that challenge you to play in different ways but I would’ve liked a few level-unique hazards that weren’t necessarily enemies or enemy-spawned. Because in the end, what it boils down to is that you’re flying around in the same square area with a different background and set of enemies. Stage hazards or just obstacles would’ve gone a long way to differentiate the maps from each other and changed how you played the game.

And having different power-ups on the levels could also have gone a long way. Not necessarily for the score mode but for the story mode they easily could’ve gotten away with limiting power-ups. Like not allowing you to use the bomb or minigun power-ups because your helicopter is malfunctioning, forcing you to use different power-ups to make sure you use all equally or at least learn them.

I did like how there were different levels to the power-ups and how you unlocked additional ones at that. Not just new power-ups but new levels for each as well. And sure, some additional variation in the power-up levels would’ve been nice but now I’m just being super picky. Thoughts for a potential sequel, maybe?

One minor nitpick about the power-ups, though, is that when you pick up the bomb it should explode immediately. Instead there’s a little delay, maybe half a second, before it explodes and that’s been enough to trip me up on a number of occasions, especially late in Score Mode.

Now, it sounds like I’m being super critical about the whole thing and that I didn’t like it but I’m here to tell you that I did. A lot, in fact. I clock in at about 6 hours and that’s been enough to put me in the top three of a few score modes already. Sadly the score modes aren’t what they should be just yet. At first I thought there was something weird with my internet connection but then I realized that there simply weren’t enough people playing the game seriously yet. Instead I had a list of what I assume were default names there to allow anyone to complete the six first levels and earn the upgrades which was a bit disappointing but picking it up again this weekend showed a few new, clearly “real” names that had taken on the game and fought their way up the list (and past me).

This, of course prompted me to enter the fray again and climb a few additional levels. A gamer gotta game, yo!

Another unique aspect of the game that I greatly enjoyed was “Overdrive”. Basically, since you’re in a helicopter, you have the added benefit of having swirling blades of death on top of you. Even under normal circumstances, you can casually stroll up to the enemy and cut them down with your blades. Press the left trigger and you go into Overdrive, however, which makes you invincible and your rotors do a lot more damage. Obviously it only lasts a while or the game would be too easy but mastering using it is key to getting good scores.

And I really like this feature. It takes the place of the typical shooter-bomb, acting like a quick get out of danger card. And it’s fun and adds another layer of tactics since it’s a mode you can keep up for a while unlike the average bomb. Learning to use it effectively and not spending everything at once lest you be left in the lurch is an art-form.

Audio wise it’s pretty good, with the average sound effects ranging between average to good while the soundtrack is rocking out good. In fact, according to Mad Head Games it’s a “Heavy Metal Twin Stick Shoot ‘Em Up” and heavy metal is pretty damn accurate. My only complaint is that I would’ve loved a few more tunes in there but hell if I didn’t headbang to the tunes from time to time.

The visuals are also quite nice with a very easy to understand user interface and good distinction between the player, backgrounds, enemies and bullets. Lots of color as well, which I’m always a big fan of. Unfortunately my laptop screen is broken at the moment and I’m not in the process of getting a new computer just yet which is why I’m not focusing so much on the visuals. I don’t feel I can give it a fair shake with my screen being the way it is. But to check out the graphics in action for yourself, check out this trailer:

Overall I found the game a blast to play, in more ways than one, and I highly recommend it for oldschoolers and newbies alike. If you’ve been curious about arcade games for a while then this is a perfect place to start and get hooked. Personally I hope they come out with a sequel that’s bigger and better with more features, an even more rocking soundtrack and bigger explosions!

The game was developed (I think) by Gungrounds and published by my heroes over at Mad Head Games and it was they who provided me with a free copy for reviewing purposes. Like I said, I’ve played roughly six hours and completed pretty much all of the game to my knowledge. All that remains is getting that alluring first place in score mode.

If you want to buy the game then head over to the steam page here (where you can find all the information and help you need to download and install Steam if you don’t already have it) or find a link on Mad Head Games’ own site.

I hope to see you on the leaderboards.

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