Game geeks like us talk physics in games a lot, and generally we mean introducing realistic gravity, air resistance, or particle movement to a physics-less digital game world. It’s often about how things move and particularly how they fall, being as close to reality as possible. We talk about the trajectories of items in a game behaving as if under the laws of physics, like the arc a football takes in FIFA.
But when we talk about physics, it’s rare that we mean the oscillating sinusoid of a perfect waveform. I certainly never have. Wavey the Rocket is one game that’s going to make you talk about physics in a whole new way. It’s a game where the accurate modulation of waveforms is really rather important.
Wavey the Rocket is a 2D arcade side-scroller, but where I’d like to say platformer, or shoot-em-up, I can’t because it’s really much more unique and it’s going to need a little more explanation. Wavey may be a rocket, but he doesn’t obey commands like up, down, left and right, so your D-pad is pretty much useless. He’s a very different beast.
Instead, he follows an oscillating waveform to move; he’s constantly on the go, on-rails in a way, and it’s up to you to guide him through the game’s fifty courses. On the horizontal, you stretch the frequency of a sine waveform to the right to make larger waves and increase speed. You squeeze it left to slow him down and shorten the pattern for smaller detailed moves. That alone would be tricky enough, but then on the vertical you need to elongate the amplitude of the waveform to reach the higher and lower extremes of the course, and squeeze it down to almost a straight line to stay safe in the middle. Actually scrub that, the middle is often the worst place to be.
As you create the waveform for him to follow, Wavey is using up the wave on the left side of the screen, committing you to your chosen path while you are looking right trying to align the waves for the next obstacle. You can’t react to the next obstacle until Wavey is at the right point in the curve for the last obstacle, so there’s often very little time to plan ahead. You have to ride the wave and react on the fly, and it’s one hell of a unique ride.
Put your thinking hat on a minute and try to think how on earth you might control that with any degree of accuracy. D-pad? That’s what I thought looking at the trailer. But no. There’s two control schemes on offer (and you can’t remap them) but neither are really intuitive when you start. You have to experiment. You will need to learn this game, and it takes some getting used to. The controller set up is the two shoulder buttons shrink and grow the wave up and down and the left analog stick does the stretching left and right. You can also use the right analog stick to replace the shoulder buttons.
However, for me, a 23-year veteran of the Dualshock, using this scheme was akin to rubbing my tummy and patting my head at the same time. You can do it, but it’s not easy. Can you do it in time with a level full of obstacles and enemies? Can you do both at different competing rhythms? Maybe you can, but I can’t. I’m stuffed on this game, I thought. I’m not a controller thrower, but if I were those first few levels would have done it. Thankfully there is another way to craft the perfect wave.
Let’s talk mouse control. Instead of the controller, you can modulate the frequency (left and right) and amplitude (up and down) of the waveform using mouse movements. It still takes some practice – this game will not come to most people immediately – but after a few levels you will start to get the hang of the control system. With time, practice and effort you will begin to master it; the frequency and amplitude changes operated via ups and downs will become instinctual, just in the same way as we have all become so used to modern control schemes for FPS shooters or driving simulators.
To be fair though, learning a new control system you’ve never encountered before is something pretty unique these days. Wavey the Rocket required me to rewire my brain a bit, retrain my reflexes and my hand-eye coordination into a new form that I have never used before. You don’t control Wavey, you control the shape of the path before him.
The sense of accomplishment when I got to around level seven or so and was no longer needing twenty or thirty tries to get all the way through a level was tangible. I was still dying but I was starting to understand it. I was starting to get through levels with only a few retries. Of course then things start to get harder, levels actually move around you, static waveforms are no longer enough, but still, the satisfaction of learning a new skill and then deploying it to full effect was palpable.
Later levels start to introduce ceilings and floors that try to crush you in the centre, sections that rise and fall and enemies trying to get in your way. You can’t shoot them, you have to shape your waveform and hope to slide past their erratic or pre-determined paths. There are chase levels that force you to move as fast as possible, rather than the cautious approach I preferred, one where you must stay ahead of a train, or an acid spout in the sewers. These will hone your reflexes and your new instinctive shaping of waveforms to an exciting edge. There are bosses who fire projectiles at you, and timing a waveform against something moving towards you is a really tricky skill to learn.
All Wavey really cares about, in 90s Coolspot style, is more of his favourite drink ‘So-Dope-Pop’. But everyone’s all out. In fact the Evil2 has taken it off shelves and replaced it with his flat fizzless ‘Daze’ drink instead. And that tastes like shit. It’s a totally 90s story idea and it’s clearly an excuse for a lot of Bill-and-Ted-like surfer lingo, and a very basic reason to keep moving forward into the sixty or so levels, chases, minigames and bosses available in this pretty stacked game.
Despite his polygons Wavey is absolutely one dimensional as a character. He has nothing to say beyond his search for a good drink and eventually I started pitying him. Regardless of what he’s doing about the nefarious Evil2, Wavey has a very clear addiction. I don’t know how he keeps such a slender shiny cylinder; consuming that much sugary fizz water, he should be obese. I’m not nit-picking, I don’t think most platformer mascots have much in the way of backstory or flaws, it’s not necessary to the genre. But still, Crash Bandicoot has more reason for his quest than Wavey does. Wavey is more comparable to the forgotten mascots, like Coolspot, Croc or Gex, than Crash or Sonic. He may only be memorable going forward because of the game he starred in.
The level select hub is a large isometric maze of purple and turquoise neon, looking like Tron or Reboot, that lets you move between levels and talk to a couple of dazed robots and vaguely rebellious workers who are happy that you are trying to bring back that sweet pop. The feel of the hub harks back to the 90s as well, looking and playing much like the early attempts at 3D overworld level hubs in Donkey Kong or isometric NES games like Snake, Rattle and Roll, just with an up-to-date sheen.
You select a level and you can see high scores, world and friend rankings, your rating, how many collectibles you’ve found, it’s all there. One quick animation and you’re whisked away to the 2D realm of precise waveforms I’ve already described.
If the sheer satisfaction of simply getting through these courses isn’t enough for you, in old-school platformer style there are a number of things to collect. Little whirls (think the apples in Crash) pepper every level, guiding you into a perfect vector. They are essential for helping you gauge exactly how much to shrink or extend your waveform and without them the game would be nigh on impossible. If you’re feeling snazzy with the controls you can try to go off the beaten track and snag a gem, three per level that require fast reflexes and even faster course correction.
The last mechanic to know is the boost. Three times per level (unless you slide over a powerup to replenish) you can boost ahead by a small amount. You can do it both left and right, allowing you to duck in and out of crevices your waveform wouldn’t normally let you out of again. You have to essentially forget about your waveform, after spending so long learning it, and boost forward or backward. This moves your waveform back or forth with you, undoing any preparation you were attempting. Getting the hang of boost is essential to getting through any level past about number 20, and it can be a tricky beast to master. It’s almost always the only way to get those sweet gems.
I took to going for the whirls on one run and the gems on another, and never mixing the two. Gem routes will make you miss whirls and vice versa. Collect every whirl on a course and you can try that section’s Grandmaster level, a moving hellscape of death fluctuating out of time with any waveform you care to create, coming towards you and constantly shifting. These courses are for the most skilled and hardcore players only and if you manage to complete one, pat yourself on the back, you are a god among us.
Wavey the Rocket is very hard, expect to die hundreds if not thousands of times by the time the final levels beckon. It’s not Cuphead, but it’s up there in terms of difficulty. Thankfully, if your PC is up to the task then the game reloads the last checkpoint almost instantly. It’s often so fast that it’s hard to get the first peak or trough of your waveform into place before you hit something again.
Also in a number of levels the optimum track goes through a checkpoint, but this means that when you die and have to restart at that point it’s hard to craft a waveform to fit the necessary route. I do think it might have helped in the frustration factor to have a little bit of space after each checkpoint, so that when you inevitably have to reload you have that extra second or so to catch the wave.
The game does lean impressively into its waveform mechanic and apart from boost there is quite a lack of powerup items. It seems strange these days to say there is only one powerup, but here we are. Its aping the platformers of the 90s and in that respect many only had one or two powers then as well, but still, in the modern gaming scene it’s quite noticeable.
It’s also not quite as addictive as it wants to be, mainly because it’s too damn hard and there’s not enough variety in the levels. From streets to sewers, from factories to spaceports, every level is lovingly handcrafted (nothing procedural here) which is appreciated and adds a lot to the challenge, but you will see the purple pipe-like obstacles everywhere and unless you find yourself getting exceptionally good at it, you won’t see the later themed areas at all.
Wavey’s soundtrack is fantastic throughout and would not have been out of place on the Jet Set Radio soundtrack, but also often sounds really genuinely 90s, with a lot of hip hop flavour added to the wahs and the squeaky synths. Every track is a pleasure to listen to and I found myself letting them play on a few times between levels. There are crisp sound effects on every course and it’s a satisfying game for the ears.
One strange missed opportunity; with such a killer soundtrack and a waveform mechanic so in tune with rhythm games and sound waves, why are there no musical levels like the ones you can unlock towards the end of Rayman Origins and Legends? You know the fantastic levels I mean, where the beat of the snare hits on every jump you make. In Wavey this could have been truly epic, timing every part of your waveform like a Guitar Hero playing all the beats and even, if they were being ambitious, making it possible to control the music with the waveform itself. Changing frequency or modulation, this is how a synthesizer works. I’m amazed these types of levels don’t exist and I demand them in any sequel or update.
Wavey the Rocket deserves the attention of anyone who’s ever played a platformer, anyone who enjoys the demands and skills of a new system, gluttons for punishing game difficulty, and anyone interested in the sheer uniqueness of it. Its been crafted with love and creative flair and rarely puts a foot wrong. It is however exceptionally hard and demands such intense precision in its later levels that most won’t see them.
The chillest rocket in the galaxy is a fun mascot, even if he’s a little shallow, but he’s not really the star of the show. Instead, it’s that oscillating vector, the new wave sinusoid that you actually control. The wave that is both your new favourite toy and in so many courses your cruel mistress. It’s the creation of a whole new sub-genre, which I am dubbing, the Waveformer. When we talk about game physics in future, I hope Wavey is name-checked along with the likes of Portal.
I’ll leave you with this. Wavey was so unique and so interesting to watch that my wife, who rarely if ever plays videogames, was tempted into having a go just for the sheer novelty of it. It was a new thing, never encountered before. It took a few levels for her to get the hang of it, just as it will for anyone, but on level five she suddenly got it. She understood the waveform, she could shrink and grow it exactly as she needed to catch the wave.
I feel like Neo, she shouted, I can see the code.
Wavey The Rocket is available now on PC (reviewed) and is coming soon to consoles.
Developer: Upper Room Games
Publisher: Upper Room Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.