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.