We haven’t had that many punk games over the years. There are certainly tongue-in-cheek games like Sunset Overdrive, but a hard-hitting punk aesthetic has been exceedingly rare — which is why Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken is such a welcome surprise. Post-rock from New World Revolution wafts through the air, spoken dialogue kept to an absolute minimum. Almost every cutscene is either a music video or pantomimed with bird noises, harnessing an absurdist Cold War between various avian nations as a backdrop to a dark comedy of nuclear proportions.
Rocketbirds has a lot going on, so it’s a relief to say it’s effortless to play. An earnest love letter to Contra and Rush’n Attack with its 2D shooting and stealth, the emphasis is all on reflexes and careful level navigation. You don’t have to worry about aim; the titular protagonist Hardboiled is one tough egg to crack, with a tireless trigger finger. So long as you have bullets, your enemies will dance in the air as you pepper them with gunfire. The trick is ambushing them, be that from hiding spots, with mind control grenades that let you remotely pilot them, or with a well-timed drop from a vent.
There’s no such thing as a silent takedown in Rocketbirds, and it’s oddly liberating being encouraged to go hog wild. Those pestering penguins won’t grant you any quarter, and as you learn Hardboiled’s history, you’ll grow to grant them the same courtesy with gusto. Nothing is too crazy for Rocketbirds, whether it’s flying with a jetpack to assault zeppelins, an Austrian penguin cracking one liners while wearing sunglasses indoors, dodge-rolling like Sonic the Hedgehog, or experiencing a nightmarish flashback to how Hardboiled earned his name. An entire level is set in the museum of penguin history, and let me tell you — those gift shop employees are intense.
All of this flows effortlessly, with each level winding together like in Half-Life. Rocketbirds organically escalates the threats you face, finding even more brazenly bonkers situations while still firmly holding on to a coherent tone and world that some AAA games could stand to learn from. Your first steps might be in rain-swept jungles, but soon you’re visiting gulags holding budgies and cardinal ghettos with strained color palettes permeated with a sense of dread. It’s not a world purely of browns and grays, but rather a once thriving environment held back by the oppressive penguin regime.
This is an incredible sense of identity and naturalistic storytelling for a game about a chicken with a bandana shotgun-ing waterfowl with dieselpunk gadgetry. You’re never struggling to execute your plans thanks to Rocketbirds’ effortless controls. Every song is perfectly tuned to the emotional beat of the moment you’re caught in, with fantastically responsive animations and gratifying sound design. Every inch of its art direction pops like a propaganda poster. With a heavy suspension of disbelief and a clear vision of what it wants to be, Rocketbirds is simply fantastic.
Normally at this point I’d have some critique to levy, some major flaw, but really the game’s only notable downside is that the lines that are actually voice-acted are clearly the developers or the developers’ friends trying their hardest to sound like ’80s action movie cliches. Otherwise, it’s rock solid and I dare not spoil any more of its surprises. There’s even more madness in store if you can grab a friend for both local and online co-op variants of the game’s campaign.
Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken is unapologetically alternative, confidently wearing its punk sensibilities on its sleeve, and is an absolute must-play. Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to do that now, as the originally PlayStation 3 exclusive title is now available on PC, Mac, Linux, and apparently even PS Vita. And thankfully, they’re still hard at work making crazy games, currently developing a *checks notes* first-person turn-based strategy shooter. Well then, hats off to you, Ratloop! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna have “Once I Was Found” looping for the rest of the day as I prepare Second Look’s Star Wars Month.