Those darned Nopino Goblins
It’s about damned time. Natsume had some great games that were overlooked on the SNES, at least here in the west. It’s amazing to me that they’ve not only taken the time to port games like Wild Guns and Ninja Warriors, but they’ve gone to the effort of giving them upgrades courtesy of Tengo Project. After seeing the success with those titles (at least from a critical perspective, I don’t know how they did sales-wise), I was hopeful that they’d revisit one of my favorites: Pocky & Rocky. I was afraid that the need to license from Taito would be a barrier, however.
Thankfully, we’ve now gotten exactly that, but while Wild Guns Reloaded and Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors were “enhanced remasters,” Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is more of a sequel. Sort of. Mostly.
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined (PS4, Nintendo Switch [Reviewed])
Developer: Tengo Project
Released: June 24, 2022
It starts out in a pretty familiar way. In fact, the opening cutscene is practically a repeat of the opening to Pocky & Rocky. All the “Nopino Goblins” have gone berzerk again (Pocky & Rocky technically being the follow-up to the arcade game Kiki Kaikai), and Rocky the Raccoon (actually a Tanuki) asks shrine priestess Pocky to help figure out why.
It diverges after the second level, where the Black Mantle reveals itself, and then we get into some screwball plot about time travel. It feels like it shouldn’t be complicated, but I got tremendously lost somewhere along the way. It’s told like a child’s storybook, so it is definitely mocking me.
The point is that the first two levels may convince you that you’re playing a remake, as they feature many of the same beats and bosses, but after that, it’s mostly new.
The issue of sequels
I should also specify that Pocky & Rocky Reshrined lifts the mechanics from Pocky & Rocky. That is to say, it doesn’t borrow from Pocky & Rocky 2, and mercifully ignores Pocky & Rocky With Becky. I’m pretty happy about that because I felt like the sequels lost a bit of their pop. Neither felt as enjoyable as co-op games, but that’s partially because Pocky & Rocky With Becky was entirely single-player.
That’s strange, but what’s really bizarre is that Pocky & Rocky Reshrined has its co-op locked behind having to beat the entirely single-player “story” mode. The depth of my bafflement is immeasurable. Pocky & Rocky feels so quintessentially co-op, that if you’ve visited my apartment on more than one occasion, chances are high that I’ve forced you to play it with me. I planned on playing this with my husband, but I guess I’m almost thankful that our schedules didn’t align, because it would have been a bummer to have to wait.
You actually don’t have to wait to finish Story Mode. Instead, you can collect 10,000 coins, but after actually finishing Story Mode, I had collected around 2,000. Woof.
Even when you do beat Story Mode, only four of the characters are unlocked for Free Play, with the fifth being locked behind beating the Story Mode a second time. No, you can’t just play through Free Play and unlock her, you have to play the Story Mode again.
If you’ve never played Pocky & Rocky, it’s a top-down shooter. Not a twin-stick shooter like Smash T.V., but one where you both walk and point your dude with the same directional buttons like Ikari Warriors. The various characters have different attacks, but you’ve essentially got the four face buttons: auto-firing projectiles, a defensive sweep, a diving dodge, and your limited-use special attack. Newly added is the ability to tap the projectile button for a special attack ability and hold the defense button for a shield or similar power.
What makes Pocky & Rocky Reshrined stand out is the fact that it’s a chaotic run-and-gun shooter set against a mostly cute, sometimes serene, other times dark backdrop. Much of it is pulled from Japanese folklore, especially the enemies that are made up of Yokai and other demons.
The sprite-work is fantastic and the additional animations make an already beautiful game pop even more. It sticks to its SNES roots for the most part, though there are flourishes beyond the capability of that console.
If I was to complain about any facet of the art style, it’s that the first three levels are absolutely sumptuous, and then the ones that follow look a lot more basic; like they could have been lifted directly from the SNES version. Scattering leaves and deep forests give way to nothing particularly thrilling. The backgrounds aren’t bad, it just feels like all the glitz in Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is front-loaded.
Sayo-chan and Manuke
Aside from that, Pocky & Rocky Reshrined just isn’t as good as it could have been. There are very old problems here, such as an uneven difficulty that mar the experience, if only slightly. The bosses are a bit underwhelming, upstaged by some of the new enemies in the levels. Similar to the front-loading of impressive backgrounds, Pocky & Rocky Reshrined stops throwing sub-bosses at you pretty early. It’s almost as though they looked at how long it took them to make the first two levels and realized they wouldn’t be able to complete development at that same quality before the deadline, so they dialed things back. Understandable, if that’s the case, but no less disappointing.
There are additional checkpoints that make the game a bit more accessible. In the original title, if you died, you were back to the beginning of the level. Here, however, if you make it to the boss, you’re allowed to try again from there. Pocky & Rocky was a deceptively difficult game, so even though it makes the game easier to topple in a couple of hours, I can’t say I’m too torn up about the added checkpoints.
I do find it odd that Story and Free Play are the only modes available. There’s no boss rush. You can’t even pick a level to play through. The leaderboards are only for playthroughs with specific characters, but not for each stage. It just feels strangely barebones.
A love letter to fans
Leading up to release, I suppose I was naive in hoping that maybe Pocky & Rocky could make a comeback. That perhaps this would turn on a whole new generation of gamers to the series. Now, I have my doubts. Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is good, don’t doubt that. It’s at least as solid as the game it takes after, but it’s not a home run. It’s in line with Natsume’s other revivals; more of a love letter to fans than a siren call to new players.
Even still, I don’t want to get too down on it. Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is exactly as it promises: more Pocky & Rocky. I definitely prefer it to no Pocky & Rocky. There’s obviously a lot of love put into the final product, even though some decisions, such as locking out co-op until the main story is completed, are staggeringly daft. Seriously, I can’t get over it. If two people want to experience the game together, what are they supposed to do? Swap the controller after every level? Have someone else beat Story Mode? It boggles my easily boggled mind.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]