Author: John Legendoffzelda
While 1993 was a slow year for the Super Nintendo, Tradewest’s Plok! was especially overlooked. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason why at first glance; the game is a solid, functional platformer, and its look invokes the Kirby series’ balance of whimsy and strange horror (Then again, that quality may not have sold many kids, due to the Kirby series’ anonymity at the time). After Earthbound, Plok! is likely the Super Nintendo’s biggest cult classic title, done in by misfortune that’s hard to explain. Perhaps this game was just a victim of circumstance, a quirky and wholesome platformer that blended in with too many contenders for Mario’s cushy respectability. But Mario reached that position by being outstanding, and as easy as it feels to blame the game’s competition, maybe this platformer also blended in like it did because it’s just average.
Plok himself is a living pile of clothes, who lives on the island Akrillic in the region of Polyesta. In a twisty plot, Plok finds that his grandfather’s flag has been stolen, and travels to a nearby island to search for it. When he retrieves the flag and returns home, he’s greeted by a scourge of fleas, although the beasts in question more resemble a cross between a frog and a stick bug. He has a dream about his grandfather searching for an amulet, and when he wakes up, Plok takes the amulet and uses it to rid Akrillic of these fleas for good. Flagpoles are the consistent goal here; they’re at the end of each level when Plok is initially looking for his flag. In the more open-ended levels where he fights the fleas, he hoists a flag when he clears them out to signal his victory. Plok does two kinds of jumps – a small, controlled hop and a big leap that sends him spinning through the air – and he fights by launching his hands and feet at enemies. There are secondary weapons throughout, in the forms of cartoon presents, and they give Plok neat outfits like boxing gear or a hunter’s uniform with a deerskin cap. But as weapons, they aren’t any more or less effective in defeating enemies than just throwing Plok’s hands and feet.
Hitting those enemies, like much else in the game, is highly difficult. Not only that, his health bar depletes faster with each enemy hit than should be expected. The camera is tightly focused on Plok, which makes it hard for the player to see where they’re going or to anticipate obstacles such as rolling logs. This works in favor of the levels; they’re big in size, and they have so many treacherous inclines and stretches of water to cross that the player must basically memorize everything. It’s a bigger pain in the flea levels, where hard-to-reach platforms and lousy directional prompts worsen the navigation. Relief can be found in hanging fruit, which does things like restore Plok’s health or transport him to a special stage where he can race in a vehicle to skip entire levels. Continues (or as the game calls them, “Plokontinues”) are harder to come by, as they’re only granted by beating four levels at a time without dying, and even then they restart the player at the level where they obtained it. Lives can be earned by collecting the seashells and filling up a meter shaped like Plok’s head, but losing all lives without any continues forces the player to start the whole game over.
While the game is hard, Plok! thinks past that hindrance by being endearingly weird. The enemies include walking potatoes and fish skeletons, and the bosses are even scarier (One boss battle is against two walking pairs of lips with sharp teeth; they look like the antagonists of a demented cartoon toothpaste ad). The soundtrack pulls double duty by reflecting both the scariness and jollity of the game; it’s primarily an assortment of prog-rock-based guitars and springy pop music. The boss themes are mixes of theremins and disembodied cackles. The whole thing is cool and eclectic, and it’s the most fun part about the game. What’s less fun, and where the game gets too weird, are the graphics; the colors are bright and lively, but the game doesn’t seem to be in control of its own color palette. There are a lot of uncoordinated parings of primary and secondary colors – greens paired with purples and dark pinks, the red-and-yellow design of Plok – and it all feels disorienting. There are a few exceptions, fortunately; the stages with grandfather-Plok look like silent films, complete with black-and-white visuals replacing the garish hues, and the special stages where Plok collects seashells have a uniform psychedelic layer of purple. With their looks, these parts exercise control where it otherwise seems absent in both graphical design and gameplay.
But these things can be forgiven by regarding Plok! as just an experiment, and not an attempt to create another franchise. As nondescript as his personality might be, Plok has a kind of humility to him; he loves his grandfather, whom he calls “Grandpappy”, and his game is more content being eccentric than thick with fake attitude. But with that in mind it’s an iffy experiment, one that’s overly difficult and a bit poorly designed. It can be a cult classic, surely; it’s far from the worst Super Nintendo game to have come out in the hazy year of 1993. But neither is it the best.
Three out of five stars.