PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
RELEASE DATE: 04/19/87 – (JP), 07/87 – (US), 08/87 – (EU)
“Well, that was over fast.” This was my reaction to Rocky’s unbelievable pounding from Clubber Lang, the boxer played by Mr. T in “Rocky III.” In Sega’s Rocky, the Clubber Lang match comes directly after the Apollo Creed match, which is the first fight in the game. I barely took a scratch fighting Creed, thanks to Stallone’s twinkle toes and irresponsible right hook. I figured Clubber would be harder, if only because he’s Mr. T and he’s the second match in the game. What I didn’t expect was not to get more than a single hit in before I got knocked out. Clubber ground my bones to make his bread; at least that’s what he whispered to me before delivering the final knockout. The significant upswing in difficulty coupled with the game’s short length (only three matches!) make Rocky more disappointing than “Rocky V” and “Get Carter” combined.
Apollo Creed. Clubber Lang. Ivan Drago. These are the demons you must slay in order to conquer Rocky and (presumably) win back Adrian’s respect. Your quest begins in training where Mickey makes you hit a sandbag as fast as you can by mashing the ‘1’ and ‘2’ buttons. Button mashing is tense fun and all, but it does nothing to prepare you for the fights to come. Rocky’s controls are sensitive, multi-layered, and complex – much like the big guy himself. Button ‘2’ does most of the punching. Simply pressing ‘2’ multiple times will jab your opponent in the face, unless you’re holding a different direction on the D-pad, in which case, your jabs will aim lower or higher. You can also uppercut your opponent by pressing ‘2’ three times, hitting ‘Up’ on the D-pad, then button ‘2’ again.
Button ‘1’ is all about the defense, baby. Hitting ‘1’ makes Rocky duck, while holding ‘Up’ and ‘1’ raises your fists above your face. These moves and others like them aren’t that difficult to memorize nor are they hard to implement during the match. No, it’s your opponent’s speed that you have to consider. Apollo Creed can’t overcome Rocky’s swift jabs, while Clubber Lang makes Rocky’s punches look like slow-motion pudding pops. I never surpassed Clubber, so I’m not sure how fast and brutal Drago is. Given how quickly the difficulty spiked between rounds 1 and 2, I’m willing to guess “very.”
The difficulty spike is, for me, what makes Rocky disappointing. One could ease into the mechanics and controls a bit more if you were given a few rounds sparring against no-name hobo boxers. I’ve been told by many Sega loyals several times that Sega makes games with an arcade developer’s mindset – fast rounds, extreme difficulty, pump in those quarters, boys – and that’s why their earlier console titles are so short and hard. I could see this during the SG-1000 days and maybe even the ’85-early ’86 Mark III-era, but by 1987, Sega’s already released Wonder Boy and Alex Kidd in Miracle World, among others. They know how to develop console games, and they know how to develop arcade games separately, respectively. There’s no longer any reason for short three level/stage/round games, like Rocky, particularly when Nintendo’s homage to boxing, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! emerged the same year with fourteen matches (twenty-two if you count the final world circuit).
To coin an obvious phrase, Rocky coulda been a contender. Check out the detail in both the boxers and the audience. These are the best graphics I’ve yet to see from the Master System (two megs, y’all). Rocky and co.’s movements are fluid, smooth, and without flicker or slowdown. If the in-game action wasn’t so disappointing, methinks that Master System owners would have had reason to gloat with Rocky. Instead, Sega fans, like Rocky himself, would continue to be the underdogs, championing a system and a company that only intermittently cared for them.