Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Pocky & Rocky 2 Review

Developer: Natsume
Platform: SFC (1993), SNES (1994)

I thought Pocky & Rocky was an amazing game, so my expectations for the sequel were pretty high. I wanted something bigger, with better graphics, and refined gameplay. Pocky & Rocky 2 is definitely bigger, and has made a lot of tweaks, but it’s not necessarily better in every way. It has more levels, new friends, and better graphics, but I think it comes up short in a few key areas.

A lot has changed since Pocky & Rocky, but the core gameplay and theme are still the same. Pocky & Rocky 2 is a top-down run’n gun shooter, just like the previous game. It still has a cute Yokai theme, but has completely dropped the Halloween style monsters from the second half of P&R1 in favor of more Yokai and other characters from Japanese mythology. It's still really cute and a lot of fun to play, so if that's what you liked about the previous game, this one's got you covered.
Pocky's arsenal of moves has undergone some changes, though. First of all, the slide is gone. I don't feel like you really need it with the way the game is designed, but I do miss sliding all over the place. This game requires you to use your wand swatting move to defend yourself a lot more instead. This swat move also seems to do a lot more damage than it did in the previous game. Swatting still prevents you from moving, so there's a lot more stopping and going to the gameplay, which slows down the overall pace of the game.
The other big change to your moves comes with the new AI partners. Pocky can now bring a friend along on her adventure. You can't play as Rocky, like you could in P&R1, but you can use magic to do a sort of DBZ fusion and take direct control of Rocky, or any other friend you bring along. While controlling your friends, you can use their special abilities, which vary by character. Rocky can find treasure, there's a flying Tengu, and a lock picking Ninja girl, among others. Friends can attack on their own, but they don't benefit from the items Pocky picks up at all. They also take damage, and if they die, they go away for a few seconds.
Friends are also your bombs now. Instead of throwing bombs, you now throw your friends at enemies. Each friend has a different type of explosion, but they all basically do the same thing; they do damage to whatever steps into the area of effect for a few seconds, and then they go away for a bit. I actually like this system much better than bombs in P&R1. Since friends can take damage, it feels like there's more strategy to it. And since you can't run out of them, I used them a lot more often.
The partner system is cool when you're playing alone, but it seems like it's also the reason why they basically ruined co-op. P&R2's co-op works more like an assist mode in a Nintendo game than the co-op in P&R1. You're really just controlling the friend character for the computer. You don't get your own lives, you can't pick up items, and you can't use bombs. If you press the magic or bomb buttons while playing as a friend, Pocky will do the move instead. All you can really do is shoot and pick up coins. You don't even have to aim. It's like little brother mode. I guess it's better than nothing, but most people probably won't even bother with this.
I think a lot of the big changes to the systems in Pocky & Rocky 2 stem from the introduction of coins and shops. In P&R2, enemies drop coins when you kill them and you can use these coins to buy items in shops, which you can find within the levels. You can buy shot upgrades, 1ups, armor, keys, and bags full of surprise goodies. You don't lose coins when you die or continue, so you can save them until the final level if you want. This sort of thing had definitely appeared in arcade games before, but I feel like it makes P&R2 a more console style game because of the effect it has on other things in the game.
In P&R1, you got a heart container after beating every level, but you lost all your extra hearts if you died and continued. This encouraged players to aim for perfect playthroughs, so they could get to the final level with as many hearts and lives as possible. That's mostly gone in P&R2. Now, you start with 4 lives and 2 hit points. You can get items to get you up to a max of 4 hit points, but you always respawn with 2 hit points, and there's no way to stock up on armor items. This isn't a big deal; though, because you can find these items in baskets around every level or simply buy them in the shops. I don't really feel the need to go for a 1 credit clear in P&R2 because if I'm struggling with a level, I can just farm coins, continue, and repeat until I can buy the maximum amount of lives and upgrades.
The shot upgrade system has also been reworked. There were 2 shot type upgrades to choose from in P&R1, so you had to pay attention to what you were picking up, or you could mess up your upgrade progress. There's only 1 shot item in P&R2, so you can just pick up whatever you find without worrying about anything. There are no fireballs or spread shots in P&R2 either. Pocky's final shot upgrade is just a giant card. I find this shot upgrade system a lot less interesting than the one in the previous game. I felt like the system in P&R1 brought an element of strategy into each playthrough, and that’s missing here.
Pocky & Rocky 1 has a couple of auto scrolling sections, but they really didn't change the gameplay too much. Pocky & Rocky 2 has 2 straight up auto scrolling shoot 'em up levels with their own rules. One of them has you riding on a stone lion through a castle with wooden floors, and the other has you riding on top of a dragon above the clouds. The stone lion stage only allows you to shoot forward and doesn’t let you use the swatting move, so it feels the most limited. The dragon stage lets you shoot in all 8 directions, but you can’t move around very quickly because you’re riding on the head of a dragon. It feels like you’re on some kind of 8 way treadmill. Oh, and you can't take your friends with you on these levels, so you don't get bombs, which is a pretty big mechanic in the game. These levels look cool, but they’re not very fun. Their limited movement and rules makes them feel a little half baked. There's also no shops in these levels, so the dragon one, which comes right before the final level, feels like it's way harder than anything else in the game.
Pocky & Rocky 2’s graphics are even better than P&R1’s, but they’re a little uneven. The environments are more detailed, there’s more stuff on-screen at once, and there’s less slowdown, but the inside of stores and caves look very plain and drab. They all use the most basic sprites with very few colors. They almost look like they're from another game. Most of the cutscenes are also a downgrade from P&R1’s, which used beautiful, unique, anime style sprites. Most cutscenes in P&R2 look like they were made with the same sprites you see during gameplay. Only a few cutscenes use big anime style sprites, like P&R1.
I think the soundtrack is even better than P&R1’s. This game doesn’t have a Halloween monster themed second half of the game, like P&R1, so it’s free to explore the traditional Japanese sounds all the way through. The songlist is just banger after banger. I don’t think there’s a bad song in it. I especially love the faster songs that almost sound like they’re going into hard rock territory, but still use the Japanese instrument sounds.
Pocky & Rocky 2 is a fun game on its own, but it messes with too many things it should have left alone. You know what they say, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I don’t think they needed to mess with the shot types, the auto scrolling stuff feels out of place and is nowhere near as good as the regular levels, and even though I like the partner system, it kind of ruined co-op. I think this is a good game, and it’s worth playing if you liked the previous game, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as P&R1.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Pocky & Rocky Review

Developer: Natsume
Platform: SFC (1992), SNES (1993)

Pocky & Rocky is a sequel to the 1986 Japan only arcade game, KiKi KaiKai. It's a top-down run'n gun shooter similar to games like Commando, Ikari Warriors, or even Super Contra's top-down levels. It doesn't star Dutch and Rambo look alikes with machine guns; though, you play as a Shinto shrine maiden and her Tanuki friend. It's a shoot 'em up, but it's not attempting to be cool or badass, or trying to appeal to fans of Predator or Aliens. It's just a cute and lighthearted shooter. This is what they call a cute 'em up. No, I didn't just make that up. It's a thing. Look it up.
I could sit here and tell you it's the gameplay that makes Pocky & Rocky special, but I'd be lying. This game is a lot of fun to play, but there's a bunch of other shooters like it. The thing that sets this game apart is its cute Yokai theme. This isn’t like Parodius, where they’re just throwing everything at the wall. Everything in Pocky & Rocky fits together and makes sense within the story. Pocky is a shrine maiden, so the first level starts off by a Shinto shrine and is full of Torii, stone lanterns, wooden bridges, and tons of Yokai everywhere. Rocky is one of these Yokai, and he knows Pocky from the first game, so it makes sense that he would be there, too.
The cute theme is fully integrated into gameplay, too. You don't shoot bullets in this game, Pocky throws ofuda and Rocky throws leafs, Pocky uses a gohei to deflect projectiles and Rocky swats them away with his tail, the dodge mechanic is an over the top head first slide, and Rocky can even turn into a stone statue, like Mario in Super Mario Bros 3. You find Kami that drop items hidden in each level, dango and tea items refill your health, and the special invincibility item has you riding a stone lion. While this game plays a lot like other shooters, its charm and attention to detail make it stand out, and that's what I love so much about it.
Don't let its cute appearance fool you, though. Pocky & Rocky is a challenging game made with shoot 'em up fans in mind. This game is all about learning patterns by replaying levels over and over until you can execute them perfectly. I played a lot of this game for this review, and I really feel like it was designed for players to aim for 1 credit clears. You get infinite continues, so you can get through the game by retrying levels until you beat them, but you are also penalized for continuing. You see, you get a health boost in the form of a heart after completing every level, but you lose all your extra hearts whenever you die and continue. This isn't much of a problem on the easy difficulty, where you get 4 lives per continue, but it can ruin your game on normal or hard, where you only get 3 or 2 lives. Learning how to clear every level without dying while using as few bombs as possible is key to beating the final 2 levels in 1 credit on normal or hard.
Another big part of my strategy while playing this game was keeping the spread shot active and fully upgraded. There are 2 shot upgrade items; spread shots and fireballs. The spread lets you shoot up to 3 shots at the same time, and the fireballs let you shoot bigger and bigger fireballs that split off in 2 directions on contact. Each shot type can be upgraded 3 times, but you have to keep picking up the same type of item to keep upgrading your shot type. If you pick up an item for the opposite type, you not only switch your shot type, you also downgrade your shots a level if you're above the first upgrade, so you shouldn't just pick up every item you see on screen. Your shots are also downgraded after you get hit a few times, so being cautious and taking your time to kill the enemies that are most likely to hit you seems like the way to play the game to me.
Trying to rush past enemies is going to introduce some serious slowdown anyway. The game runs fine most of the time, though. It also looks really good. It's not just the art style. The graphics are full of completely unnecessary little details. For example, there's a storm in the middle of the first level. It gets dark, rain starts pouring down, the wind makes the trees sway from side to side, and this lasts for maybe 30 seconds. The game is full of this kind of stuff. Your character gets darker when you walk under shade, bosses have a beat up looking sprite when you defeat them, you can see the throats of tiny frogs in the background expand as they breathe. They're just showing off! There's also beautiful cutscenes with unique sprites and a bit of animation before and after every single level. This game truly is a labor of love.
The music is also really good. It's so catchy. Yes, there's a lot of traditional Japanese instrument stuff, which sounds like it's straight out of an anime, but there's also some more classic Hollywood monster movie-like tunes in the second half of the game, which are also very good. I think the soundtrack goes perfectly with the game. The sound effects are spot on too. Almost every enemy has some sort of cry or makes a sound as it moves around or attacks. Monkeys chirp, you can hear the water splash as Yokai come out of wells, and the long neck woman, Rokurokubi, makes a creepy bird-like sound. A lot of attention to detail went into the sound, just like the rest of the game.
I really love this game. The gameplay is fun, it has a ton of replay value, the music is nice, and the graphics are really good for a SNES game. I also love the cute Yokai theme. This game is just bursting with charm. I didn't get to play multiplayer, but there's 2 player co-op, too! I highly recommend going out of your way to play this game, even if you're not really into shoot 'em ups. It's a shame it was never re-released on anything, not even on Virtual Console. There's a remake coming out soon, though. I'm definitely going to play that, too.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars Review

Developer: SquareSoft
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: SNES, Wii VC, Wii U VC, SNES Classic

Before there was Paper Mario, there was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. It's an RPG featuring Mario. Like, a real RPG with experience points, equipment, towns full of NPCs, and turn-based battles. It wasn't made by Nintendo or Intelligent Systems; though, it’s from the makers of Final Fantasy, SquareSoft. Square and Nintendo had a very different relationship before PlayStation came around. This game first came out on the Super Famicom in March of 1996, a few months before the launch of the N64 and Super Mario 64, so it was one of the first times we saw Mario in 3D. The game didn't use polygons in-game, but it used pre-rendered sprites, just like the Donkey Kong Country games. It also used an isometric camera angle, which helped sell the 3D look.
The thing that sticks out to me playing this game all these years later is just how weird and off-brand it is for a Mario game. This version of the Mushroom Kingdom doesn't look like anything seen in Nintendo's Mario games. There's googly-eyed enemies that look like they were designed by Rare, Power Rangers, and even a reference to Bruce Lee. Not even the environments which you'd find in Mario games, like castles, pirate ships, and sewers, look like they do in Mario games. It's not quite the Super Mario Bros movie levels of doing whatever you want with the IP, but it's clearly Square's version of the Mushroom Kingdom and not Nintendo's. Why does Booster look like a bearded Wario? Where is Luigi during all this? What is Toadstool's ??? And why are the item blocks shaped like treasure chests? The world may never know.
The writing is really good, though. The dialog is funny and cute, the story is always moving things along at a good pace, and Mario, Peach… I mean Toadstool, and Bowser get to show more personality than they ever had outside of the Super Mario Bros Super Show. Mario never talks, but he does pantomime and acts out what he wants to say, which is very cute. Even though the world feels like Square's vision, the characters feel authentic. Mario's new friends, Mallow and Geno, also have pretty good stories, and quickly became fan favorites. You've probably heard them asking for Geno to be in Smash. Those characters are owned by Square, though, so we never see them in any other games. Super Mario RPG’s writing is one of its strong suits and clearly had a big influence on the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games.
Super Mario RPG isn't just a Mario themed Final Fantasy, there's a lot of Mario to the gameplay. It's like a platformer RPG. You hold down Y to run, you can jump, and hit blocks with your head. You know, Mario stuff. You can also see enemies on the field, like in Chrono Trigger, and there is quite a bit of platforming, so even running around an area feels very different from your usual RPG. A lot of thought obviously went into making this game feel like a Mario game. The only thing I feel is missing is jumping on enemies to get some kind of advantage at the beginning of a battle.
Yes, there is actual platforming in the game. There's floating platforms, vine climbing, and even those falling donuts from Mario 3. This game came before Mario 64; though, so there was no blueprint to follow for making a Mario platformer in a 3D space. Sonic 3D Blast wasn't out yet either. The results are pretty rough. It's hard to tell what is actually in front of Mario, you don't have a lot of control over your jumps, and you only have 8 way movement, so even running in the right direction before a jump can be a challenge. The SNES controller didn't have an analog stick. You have to hold down two directions on the d-pad to move in a certain direction. It's a little finicky and imprecise. You can't skip the platforming either, and there's quite a bit of it.
The battle system in SMRPG is a lot of fun. At the time, it was unlike anything I had seen before. You pick commands from menus, just like in other turn-based RPGs, but you also have the option to press a button at the right time to increase the power of your attacks. You can press A during a normal attack, mash Y or do circles on the d-pad during spells, and you can also hit A during enemy attacks to defend yourself. Different weapons have different timing, so it's not like you're doing the same thing throughout the whole game. It's a lot more involved than your usual turn-based battles. I feel like maybe it doesn't get the recognition it deserves. The battle systems in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games were clearly inspired by SMRPG's.
I have mixed feelings about how linear the game is. SMRPG has a very Super Mario World-like map with little trails going to each area and everything. There is no overworld to explore, and the levels and dungeons themselves are a bit more straightforward than the average RPG's. Everything feels very streamlined, like it was designed to keep you moving because Mario games aren't usually about exploration. It's a weird structure for an RPG, but I guess it works for a Mario game. I kind of enjoyed the more straightforward approach to an RPG simply because it’s something different.
Super Mario RPG breaks up the action with a wide variety of minigames. They usually fit in with the story, but most of them feel like they're just there to show off what Square could do with the SNES' graphics. There’s a 3D minecart level, a sides crolling followup to the minecart level, barrel jumping up hill, barrel rolling down a river, quizzes, visual math puzzles, and all sorts of stuff. None of them are actually good and they barely have more depth than a Game & Watch game.
When this game came out, it looked amazing. It used the same style of pre-rendered sprites as Donkey Kong Country. It looked good because CG was new and trendy, but I don't think these graphics stand the test of time. SMRPG's models are nowhere near as good as Donkey Kong Country's, and Square's own RPGs using traditional 2D pixel art, like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, blow SMRPG out of the water. This game looks bland and generic in comparison. The models look like they were mostly made by sticking basic polygon shapes together, most sprites lack any sort of texture, and you can see the edge of the world in a lot of areas, so everything looks like it's floating in the sky. The main characters and Toads look cute, and they have cute animations, but overall, I don't think it looks very good anymore.
The soundtrack has some pretty good Mario-inspired songs, but it’s otherwise pretty terrible. A lot of these songs just sound like someone riffing on some free domain Classical music or something they heard in an old cartoon. It sounds familiar in a bad way. I'm pretty sure one of the songs is a remix of an alarm I had on a Casio digital watch when I was a kid. The battle theme is especially bad. It sounds like circus clown music, and you hear it over and over again. By far the worst part of the game.
Super Mario RPG has great writing, it does a lot of cool things with the movement and battle system, and it’s a pretty fun RPG overall, but it’s no SNES masterpiece or anything. It’s definitely not in the same league as Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. The soundtrack is terrible, the graphics have not aged well, the platforming sucks, and the weird version of the Mushroom Kingdom makes it look like some weird non-canon thing someone outside Nintendo made. It's worth playing, but I'd rather play Paper Mario.