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.