With the untimely death this week of beloved Nintendo president Satoru Iwata – a lifelong gamer and game developer who never forgot his roots – a lot of video game fans have been waxing philosophical about what it is that makes games fun.
A deep, rich fantasy world full of memorable characters (The Witcher 3) can be fun. A finely tuned shooter with an addictive loot system (Destiny) can be fun. But as Iwata-san knew, the best games tap into a simple, primal joy that needs no explanation or dissection. From the moment you press start, you’re hooked.
Rocket League is not a Nintendo game. In fact, it’s a PlayStation 4 console exclusive, also available for Windows PCs via the Steam download service. Yet it feels like an old-school Nintendo experience, in the most flattering possible sense.
Rocket League is the sequel to the 2008 PlayStation 3 game Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, a little-known gem that remains a staple of beer-fuelled video game nights with my buddies. Aside from having an amazing name and possibly the best video game theme song of the last decade, it was the sheer simplicity of the game that drew us in: you drive a car around a soccer pitch and try to knock an oversized ball into your opponents’ net. That’s literally all there is to it.
The fellas at Top Gear have demonstrated how much fun this can be in real life, with soccer matches that pit different models of real-world cars against one another. But Rocket League’s rides are no mortal, earthbound vehicles. They’re fast, agile machines, capable of making incredible rocket-boosted leaps and flips and pirouettes, all in the name of outmanoeuvring (or smashing into) opponents and blasting the ball into the net.
Although it’s based on soccer, the game often feels more like hockey, as you’re digging in the opposing team’s corners to clear the ball in front of the net, collapsing back to your end of the pitch when an opponent gets a breakaway, and, to paraphrase Wayne Gretzky, turbo-boosting to where the ball is going to be, rather than where it is.
Unlike a lot of sports games (and despite its insane premise, this is very much a sports game), Rocket League doesn’t offer a lot of features beyond its core components. Matches can have from one to four players per side, with 3-on-3 being the sweet spot that rewards both teamwork and skilled individual play. You can also play exhibition games or multi-match seasons against computer-controlled teams, and racking up individual points in games – through goals, assists, saves, shots on net, centring passes and the like – unlocks different car models, paint schemes, antennas and oversize hats (yes, hats) for your vehicle.
That’s about all there is to it, but since the game is currently free for PlayStation Plus subscribers and otherwise costs just $ 20 on the PlayStation Store or Steam, the shortage of bells and whistles doesn’t feel like a big deal.
And what it lacks in features, Rocket League makes up for with sheer chaotic fun, particularly when two teams of human opponents are pitted against one another. It’s been a long time since I’ve yelled so much at my TV, whether it’s the elation that comes with a rocket-boosted barrel roll that bangs the ball into the net, or an epic backflip save in front of your goal, or a hard-fought win in overtime. Not surprisingly, YouTube is already full of Rocket League highlight reels with insane goals, shots and saves. (Seek out videos by a player called Kronovi to see the kind of aerial acrobatics a monstrously skilled Rocket Leaguer can pull off.)
I do wish Rocket League had its predecessor’s wider variety of arenas, although developer Psyonix will likely release more stadiums as downloadable content in the coming months. And the game still has a few rough edges in its presentation, polish and particularly its AI, which seems to go from hopelessly incompetent to freakishly good, without much of a spectrum in between.
Still, Rocket League is one of those games that almost anyone can pick up and enjoy, yet still find themselves getting better at after dozens of hours of play. It’s a throwback to the good old days of gaming, when fun mattered more than anything.