Friday, July 26, 2013

Pocky & Rocky 2 (SNES) Review

Received: December 25th, 2012 / Written: July 21st-26th, 2013
Year: 1994 | Developed and Published by: Natsume | Licensed by: Taito

Every gamer has got a reason to celebrate nowadays.  For me, I recently got to play Rocket Knight Adventures for the Genesis (via RetroGen adaptor) for the first time, yay!  =D  As for others, there is an even bigger reason to celebrate.
In light of recent news, one of the most highly sought after RPGs ever made for the SNES, EarthBound, has finally seen the light of the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console, not just for NTSC gamers but for the first time PAL gamers too.  After all these years this title has finally been re-released for the current gaming crowd.  Fans and gamers rejoice!  Yaaaaaay, of all the times for me to not own a Nintendo Wii U.  =(  At this point the only way for me to experience it without spending too much would be by importing the Japanese cart Mother 2 which I could play on the Retro Duo; but why does something tell me that wouldn't be right for that turn-based RPG in particular?  And for over four years now I've stopped downloading games on the Virtual Console.  What a predicament this is.  ...  I suppose I could ask for EarthBound as a Christmas gift like I did last year with Pocky & Rocky 2.

This game is awesome by all accounts, and
one of my top favorites on the SNES!  =D
The original Pocky & Rocky, which itself was a sequel to Taito's arcade game KiKi KaiKai (Knight Boy), was an obscure shoot'em up on foot in a Japanese setting that has since gotten a bit of a cult following since its release, and honestly I think it's a bit of an underrated game.  Pocky & Rocky's strengths were its charm, its intuitive gameplay, its surprisingly arcade-like quality, its difficulty which gradually increased the farther you progressed, two very likable and endearing main characters, a good amount of atmosphere, its nonstop quirkiness, a great sense of fun, and a really good soundtrack.  =)  Some gamers compare it to Konami's vastly overrated (in my opinion) The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, which is understandable considering some of both titles' similar themes, cultural settings, and levels of quirkiness.  Unlike said competition, it didn't really get well-known by a lot of gamers at the time; but despite that, Natsume figured that perhaps a sequel wouldn't be a bad idea, which we all got in 1994 (and for some reason it was released in Europe by Ocean).  Oh, but they didn't just make a sequel, they made some substantial changes in the process; so without further ado, let's talk about Pocky & Rocky 2, the least known of the two titles.  =)

A long time ago in feudal Japan, there was a highly anticipated event revolving around a harvest festival.  Visiting from the moon, a respected member of royalty comes to enjoy the festivities, and that royalty member is Princess Luna.
Image from the Equstria Daily website
Not that Princess Luna, darn it!  This game came out sixteen years before My Little Pony became good and cool!  *laughs*  Speaking of cult followings...  XD

Anyway, the princess gets captured by two hench-... species, one of which you'll never see anywhere else in the game.  One of them is an imp which you'll get to combat later on called "Impy".  =/  *cue awkward laugh track*  After this series of events unfolds Her Highness' rescue falls in the hands of one of the heroes in the last game, the Shinto priestess Pocky, who's once again accompanied by her cuddly chubby raccoon friend Rocky.
Will our two eponymous heroes be successful in their newest journey?  Will they collaborate greatly enough to ensure that the mission is a rousing success?  Who is the "master" that Impy has referenced?  Why has the princess been kidnapped?  Will we find ourselves groaning once we find out?  Will the storyline be a little sillier and nonsensical than the previous edition was?  Will some plot points pop up that will go absolutely nowhere?  Stay tuned for these things and more!  *smiles with mouth open and swiftly brings two thumbs up*  ...  Yeah, I'll elaborate on most of these later on in the review.  =<

Perusing through the October Fields
The gameplay has been left mostly intact since the last game.  The main characters can still fire an endless supply of projectiles as they move in any of the eight directions, and any time they have to deflect projectiles they can still do so by repeatedly tapping the B button (Pocky uses her staff to do so).  Gone from the last iteration are the ability to slide and the ability to cast magic to defeat a large slew of enemies in the same screen.  However, there are new capabilities you can use that compensate for those.  You can still collect enough power-ups to augment the potency of your projectiles, and now press the A button to temporarily become your companion (press A again for reversion), and you can throw said companion (R shoulder button) towards an enemy or boss in order to amass a big amount of damage towards them (in which the companion uses their super attacks which last for a certain amount of seconds).  The first stage is actually optional since it's a training stage, but you have the option to skip it if you feel confident enough.  Okay, cool!  =D  Already this is sounding like a good Pocky & Rocky sequel, so let's see what else is in sto-
O_O  Wait, who are these two, and why are they fighting Rocky over Pocky?  Wait, you choose your companion?  I was under the impression that this was a Pocky & Rocky title, but now we have to put up with this "friend envy"?
Wait, there's more???  *sigh*  =(

Steaming hot location filled with fire enemies
Okay, so Pocky is exclusively delegated to being the main playable character, while the companions join you in-game whether they be CPU-controlled or controlled with the second controller.  What was great about the first game's title was that it said just enough; you either got to take control of Pocky or Rocky, or if you had two players you would be Pocky and Rocky.  In here, however, the title feels a little like false advertising, in that the first player is always Pocky but the second character in theory does not necessarily always have to be Rocky.  That's disappointing actually, but I'm not going to let that one tiny detail affect my overall thoughts towards Pocky & Rocky 2.

All right, before most stages you get to choose who your companion will be, whether it be veteran Rocky, a shuriken-throwing Little Ninja, and strong and bulky Bomber Bob.  In the game are four other hidden playable characters: a Tengu called Tengy, a scarecrow simply called Scarecrow, a mole called Digger, and an automaton called Ottobot.  Depending on which companion you throw at a boss and/or which one you transform into their attack results will be quite different, so at least there's a good sense of variety (for example, Rocky's special attack will render him as a giant Tanuki statue while Scarecrow's will be a pillar of sickles).  However, you only have to pick one of three before the stage starts, however should you find a small character-switching icon, you can change the partner into the face it turns up; get the same while as that character and you will receive extra points.

Yes, I'd like an answer as to why Natsume
decided to take the Ganbare Goemon
approach with this sequel, please?  =|
This time you've only got one set of projectiles to throw as opposed to two in the last one, but the more power-ups you gain the bigger and more powerful they become, which is pretty cool.  Also cool is how Pocky can get more powerful as she equips two sets of armor, and there are some moments when you might pick up a couple of rabbit ears (which serves as an extra shield).  Granted your powers decrease as you get damaged, right down to her clothing (if you have the rabbit ears they'll be worn off last); should Pocky sustain damage in her undergarments she'll lose a life.  Your companions can come up at any time, however if they've been stunned or disappeared they'll be returning in several seconds, so it might take some time until they come back to your aid.  Like the last game there are baskets with random power-ups or items for you to use, and as an added bonus there are chests which can only be unlocked with a key.  It's not like you'll need them much, as they're very optional, but you never know what contents may lie inside.  Oh, but you know what makes this game even more noticeably different than the first one?  Shops!

Yeah, there's something I've neglected to mention about Pocky & Rocky 2 up 'til now: it's less of an arcade title and more of a console one.  Gone is the amazingly arcade-like quality that dominated the first game and now it's been replaced by something a little less arcade-like.  It's still a partially linear game, except now in a few stages there are forks in the road (still leading to the same destination) as well as doors (locked and unlocked) to enter from and stores to buy items that will serve you well.  The items will have to be bought with gold, and seeing as it's mostly linear, you do not sell anything; then again, it's not like you're going to keep those forever anyway, but still it's not a bad idea if you can afford them.  In a sense, it's not a terrible idea to deviate this one action-adventure game from the last, except there is one thing that only bothers me a tad smidge about it all: it's structured somewhat similarly to The Legend of the Mystical Ninja!

What the hell, Natsume?  That game wasn't even good to begin with (as far as I'm concerned), and now you're borrowing Konami's formula for this one title?  >_<  It's one thing if there are enemies that are out to get you from any side, that's a given, but making rooms where you walk up to random individual(s) that talk to you (or give you items), giving your characters a choice as to where to go should there be a fork, and a shop where vital items are being sold?  Yeah, those instances do not feel familiar at all!  Oh, well, at least none of your characters walk at a snail's pace if all their power-ups have been diminished (hint,... hint,... Konami!) and thank God the core gameplay mechanics were held intact from the original Pocky & Rocky while incorporating some new set of actions.  In most of these stages you'll be fighting against a midboss, and once you reach the end you'll be fighting against the real boss; defeating it will grant you passage to the next stage.

"Ride 'em, 'crow!!!"
Visually it's about on par with the last game, only with lots of new areas for you to traverse, and honestly it looks very good.  The visual style is still colorful while brimming with charm, personality, a feeling of being in a differently cultured world, and sporting a good sense of variety in terms of detail.  =)  There is this one stage which takes place in a nightly setting in a big series of grassy fields, and even though it is mostly blue, silver, and white it looks breathtaking; I especially like how the grass covers and billows itself as the characters and enemies walk through them.  Another stage takes place in a white, snowy mountain, while another one might take place inside a volcano with the magma and molten ground below you, and they both look nice.  All the other areas look great too, and it's nice that the first area from the first game makes a comeback here for the optional training stage (albeit as a vertically looping area; we also get a cameo from the first game's boss).  =)

The character animations for both Pocky and Rocky were mostly lifted from the first game while simultaneously touching them up a bit as well as incorporating some new animation for other sequences.  The other companions look and animate well, and every companion has their own visuals for when their special attack come up; for Scarecrow's case the screen will become bluer/darker as the pillar of sickles is taking place, and for Rocky the screen temporarily turns red while the Tanuki statue stands on top of where you put it.  Each character has got new stunned and lost life animations, and they're pretty humorous to watch.  I also enjoy how there will be a fluorescent rainbow effect filling up the screen and then rapidly turns to white during Pocky's transformation sequences, as it's a bit nice.  The enemies are varied in terms of their kind, and most of them are a nod to creatures from Japanese cultures and folklore, only chibi-sized and quite quirky to boot.  Not so small are the (mid)bosses, which are big very (cartoonishly) detailed while maintaining an intimidating look and feel to them.  Some examples are an anthropomorphic wolf spirit that eventually turns into a regular wolf with several tails in the back, a cyclopic creature that will try to pummel you with a whip made out of beads, and a primary colored creature with a Super Saiyan hairstyle on a cloud that will try to attack you with bolts among a couple other things.

What's noticeably different this time around are the overall profile and beginning/ending cutscene art style.  You may recall that in the first game that the overall art looked something like this:
Each artist has their own trademark manga/anime style, and seeing as the first title was really anime-like in terms of profiles and cutscenes, it was pretty good to look at.  So it's a little jarring that through two games we transitioned from this...
to this.  And it's not by the same artist either, as it shows with these two diverse art styles; in fact, the very designer is not involved in anyway whatsoever, opting instead for something in the vein of something similar to Rumiko Takahashi's style of work (Ranma 1/2, InuYasha).  Pocky's hair is much longer and brighter than before, her eyes are different, and she looks as if she's got tiny fangs in her mouth (I know they're supposed to be teeth, but they look so similar).  I'm not saying it's a bad thing or anything, but I find it very fascinating how Pocky and Rocky's in-game character designs and animations are pretty equal while the profile shots are way different in both titles.  As for Rocky, he still looks good (especially in the title), but they have drawn a mouth on him in the profile and cutscenes.  Also, I think Rocky might be a wee addicted to rice cakes this time around, as evidenced in his eyes.  =|
Rocky: "Mmm, that's delicious Pocky.  May I have the rest?"
Pocky: "Sorry, my Nopino friend, but I've prepared these for the others.  You'll have to share when the harvest festival is in session."
Rocky: "...  May I have one more then?"
Pocky: "No, Rocky, what you had is just enough."
Rocky: "But I want more!!"
Pocky: "You just ate one!"
Rocky: "They're just so good; I need more.  Moooooooore!"
Pocky: "Rocky, you're not getting another one right now and that's that."
Rocky: "But-"
Pocky: "NO!!!!"
Rocky: ={

All joking aside, there's nothing inherently wrong with the new art style, for it's still charming and nice to look at.  =)  It's just that if you were to compare two games in the same series with profile art that differentiates from each other on both counts, you'd find yourself hardpressed to believe that they are in the same series canon.  The only gripe I personally have is that there aren't as many profile/anime/manga cutscenes as I would have liked for this installment; in the first game there were profile and anime cutscenes in the title, serving as an interlude between stages, when you have to choose your character, after receiving a game over, in the options screen, and after you beat the game.  In here, the only times you'll see anime/manga profiles and artwork are in the title, the introductory cutscene, the screen where you choose which companion you want to take with you, in the options screen, after receiving a game over, and during the ending.  Sure, there are moments when new characters that join you and merchants in shops will have profiles, but they're small and relatively shortlived.  The inbetween cutscenes are now replaced by sequences of in-game visuals and design with Pocky doing various things (speaking of something else that reminds of me Konami's title); another reason "Pocky & Rocky 2" may not have been aptly chosen title: Rocky is not seen in any of the inbetween cutscenes!  But, moving past that; visuals are really good, and the cutscenes that were used aren't bad in the least... it just doesn't feel the same as before.

Pocky, under the guise of Rocky, fighting
against a snow witch
The soundtrack is good, but in my opinion not quite as good as the first game's, making this yet another addition to the "first sequel regardless of being an improvement or not overall having an inferior soundtrack to that of its original predecessor" category; though by the end of the day it all revolves around personal preference.  To each their own.  =)  The music is a mixture of electric beats with traditionally oriental-sounding Japanese music, which really befits all these respective stages, incorporating a really good sense of atmosphere.   One of the best songs, and my personal favorite, takes place in the third stage in the October Fields, and what's nice about it is how slow and ambient it is until eventually it builds up to a good-sounding finale, bringing out an adventurous feel.  The themes for the water, snow, and fire stages sound good, and the jingle that plays when you're in the store is cute but repetitive.  The other themes are good too, like some of the regular (mid)boss themes, but the final boss theme?  Ehhh!  <=|  I also like the ending and credits theme, even how the latter is a slight remix of the previous title's credits theme, as it's very nice.  A lot of the sound effects were lifted from the original Pocky & Rocky, and this time there a few new ones, like the transformation spells and soundbytes for when Pocky attacks, gets damaged, and when she utters the word "magic".  =)

Okay, so now it's time to talk about its difficulty.  The first Pocky & Rocky was a game that gradually got harder as you went along, and even in the easiest difficulty it kept you really busy.  This follow-up has got moments of challenge, and it's got three difficulty settings, except it's not quite as challenging as before.  Conversely, Pocky & Rocky 2 is a lot more manageable by comparison, and considering that Natsume developed it, I find it rather shocking that the difficulty was considerably toned down from game number one.  The enemies will still come about as you move along, and moving at a steady pace is still the requirement in order to prolong survival, not to mention you have to carefully maneuver your character a lot.  However, due to the slightly different structure, there are aspects that help contribute to the alleviation of the difficulty.  The extra armor and rabbit ears can help you survive a little longer, and the more power you get the stronger the projectiles will be; getting hit will deprive you one by one of power-ups and/or armor until your attacks are not quite as potent.  Of course, there will be times when you must alternate between shooting projectiles and moments where you most deflect enemy projectiles along the way.  Oh, and you don't have to beat it in one sitting necessarily, since there is a password system; however it's only shown if you get a game over, but luckily it's short and to the point.  =)

This battle on top of Gordon's head is nice,
but it's nowhere near as great or heart-
pounding as the one on top of Flammie's in
Seiken Densetsu 3  =)
The difference also lies in its design; the first one was completely linear with an arcade-like difficulty, while this one was mostly linear but had moments where you had to make different routes, thereby lessening the arcade feel.  Another thing that separates the two: reliance on special moves.  What did you have to rely on the most in the first game?  Magic.  Okay,... what do you have to rely on here?  Your companion!  It doesn't matter who you choose to accompany you, for with the exception of two stages, you need them!  In the first game unless you had two players your character was on their own, while here the second character will accompany you in your travels.  No matter how many times the other character gets hit and disappears, you'll still be around, but you'll have to wait until they pop right back.  During the (mid)boss fights you'll often find yourself launching your friend onto them in order to dish out the most hits; here's the drawback to the special techniques: they remain on one big part of the screen, and unless said (mid)boss gets there they won't sustain any damage.  They're still manageable and require careful maneuverability and tactics to take them down, but boy do the companions make it easy; that's one of the reasons Pocky & Rocky 2 is more manageable than the first Pocky & Rocky.

Another reason is because it's got a password system, which means it doesn't necessarily have to be beaten in one sitting.  The enemies attack you and throw projectiles at you, but it doesn't really feel as hectic or as fast as the original.  There are some differences between the settings, in particular the boss fights and the fact that you may or may not have to put up with lots of projectiles to deflect.  The final boss is quite easy; at least, easy enough that you'll never get a game over if you follow his strategy long enough and score a big amount of points (there's a detail that helps a lot with the score, but I won't give away what that is).  There's also a timer, but let's be honest, are you going to worry about time when the enemies and bosses give you something else to worry about?  The shops and different paths also make it a little easier, if not for the fact that Natsume took Konami's Ganbare Goemon approach (and that's a bad thing, in my humble opinion).  =(

Plot-wise, yeeeeeah, let’s talk about that. <=|  The plot is simple enough, where you must save someone of great importance. Here is what I take issue with: its translation and the way it was handled. The first Pocky & Rocky may not have been perfectly translated, but it was better handled there than it was here! A lot of the dialogue sounds so simplistic and sometimes so bad, with lines such as “I am Pocky.”-“So you are Pocky, I am sure that we will meet again.”, “You came here to rescue Princess Luna, didn’t you? Well, defeat me first.”, “Before you talk to me, you better think about who yoou are talking to. If you don’t understand, you are not worthy to be alive.”, et al. Every time someone asks who Pocky is, she always answers the same way; be flexible! >.< There are moments when the translation just feels off, and the words pop up slowly (letter by letter). In the first game the cutscenes’ dialogue came at a steady pace, but here it is painfully slow by comparison. In Pocky & Rocky 2’s cutscenes the words come up slowly, and when it comes to the next row of words it takes its time to get there; there is even one solitary moment where for some reason it is a lot slower than everything else. What is the point?! Oh, well, at least when it comes to fighting the bosses you can speed up the text by holding the Y button; and fortunately you can skip the cutscenes by pressing Start.

The plot itself is a really big step down from the first game, in my opinion, and I'm sorry I have to say that but it's true.  Princess Luna gets kidnapped.  Okay, what's next?  You get to Princess Luna, only for her to get kidnapped again.  Fine, whatever.  Impy mentioned that it was under the orders of the "master".  Who is the "master", and why would he ask for the princess to be kidnapped?  You can have it anyway you want for the former, but once you find out near the end of the game the reason for the latter, it's enough to have one groan for it's such a low root for motivation.  I'm not saying that motivations like the one found here have never once popped up before (for posterity I'm not revealing what it is), but it is just weak; in fact it's so weak that it makes the villainess Maleficent Mizrabel from Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse wreaking havoc once more in Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion solely because everyone started forgetting about her for over a couple of decades seem legitimate by comparison (yet it doesn't make sense considering the earlier game's conclusion).  It just feels shallow a reason to do all this.  The first game's translation and dialogue was a joy to read, while in here it's a little less fun.

The stakes also don't feel quite as high as before.  In the original you absolutely had to defeat the main villain otherwise the world would turn to the dark side; now with that said,... what exactly were you fighting for here?  It's to save Princess Luna of course, but otherwise, how exactly does it affect anything?  The world didn't feel like it was in danger, even as you got a little farther; all you to worry about was a superficially upset character.  That doesn't make things suspenseful, it just makes things feel anything but.  There were even few plot points that served no purpose, like Impy implying that after the last battle they would combat each other again only to never happen or be referenced again.  I had a bit of a hard time swallowing this plot, and for a lot of games I'm mostly lenient when it comes to the story for lighthearted games, but it was just hard here.

Nothing like a refreshing water-filled locale  =)
I've said all this negative stuff about the game, and frankly these problems are very minor since they are issues I personally have with Pocky & Rocky 2 (and it might not bother others as much as it did me), but I just want to make it perfectly clear that: I like this game!  =)  I really do!  Yeah its translation and plot is not as stellar as the last game's, it was significantly less challenging, and it deviated so much from the arcade-like quality that defined the previous Pocky & Rocky even going so far as to utilize the Ganbare Goemon approach (which was a big mistake, and I honestly wish they didn't do that), I found this sequel to be very fun.  The controls are still great, especially the new ones that were implemented here, and I'm glad that the gameplay was held mostly intact from before.  The visuals and sound are really good, the cutscenes and profile shots look good, and there is still some charm that was present from before.  Yeah the title is a bit misleading, in that it's all Pocky but not necessarily all Rocky too (unless you want it that way), and that the fact that two characters were present at once alleviated a bit of challenge, however it's a very solid sequel.  It's sort of like what World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck is to Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse, in that it is as much of a step forward as it is a step back; the original Pocky & Rocky felt very self-contained, and while I'm not saying this sequel was unnecessary, it's proven to be a competent entry overall.  =)

While the first game did good enough to warrant Pocky & Rocky 2, this follow-up sadly didn't get as much recognition from the get-go.  While, like the previous game, it would attain a cult following in the following years, it's flown past gamers' radars often and didn't sell quite as much.  Maybe that explains the high price range in gaming and online stores nowadays?  Give the first game some credit, it's very affordable by comparison (I bought it at 3D Games for $30-something, and it was still a decent price).  Interestingly enough, Pocky & Rocky 2 got released again for the Super Famicom in 1998 as a Nintendo Power edition, and after having tried to look up that version and what might possibly be different, I surprisingly had a hard time finding anything about it; so I'll just presume it was re-released for the sake of being re-released.  Not even the first game was re-released anywhere, so it's pretty notable.  And that's why I waited until Christmas of '12 to play this game, because I didn't want to shell out a lot of money for it.  In the end, I'm glad I played it, and I recommend for those that liked the original and those that like all things quirky.  =)  Just don't expect it to be as hard and decently plotted as the previous game.

It's time to tackle Pocky & Rocky with Becky for the Game Boy Advance next!  We'll see how it fares in comparison and whether or not it lives up to the two games in the series.  I mean, after all, when has Natsume ever let us gamers down?  *looks abruptly to the side*  What?  They didn't make that one, they only published it for the American region?  And it's clamored to be the black sheep in the series?  =|  ...  Sounds like it's going to be a real fun time...............  I hope.
P.S.: By all accounts I should give this game an 8 since it had a Ganbare Goemon approach and had a weaker plot than the last game, buuuuut it at least was fun and had all the great gameplay, spirit, quirkiness, and charm that dominated the first Pocky & Rocky and more, so the score I gave in the end is completely justified.  =)
P.S. 2: As opposed to Princess Luna (the alicorn, not the game princess), I still find it mindboggling that between the first two seasons Princess Celestia's sister underwent a major redesign in Friendship is Magic; thereby currently looking a lot different than she did when she was introduced in the two-parter premier.
P.S. 3: Rocky only appears in the beginning and ending cutscenes, which I suppose is better than Rocky not making an appearance at all during any cutscenes.
P.S. 4: The EarthBound news Print Screen grabbed from the NintendoLife website.
P.S. 5: To each their own.
P.S. 6: ... I owe readers my thoughts on The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, don't I?  =(
P.S. 7: Part of me feels I didn't get enough screenshots, but I certainly hope that the amount I had here is sufficient enough.
P.S. 8: Oh, and just for fun:
Rocky: "Help, Pocky, help!!!  I can't swim!  Help!!"
Pocky: "Just get up!  It's not that deep!"
Gamer: *shrugs*

Thank you for reading my review, please leave a comment and I hope you have a great day and summer!  Take care!  =)

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