If there is one thing I am sure of in this hobby, it’s that developers love surprises. Sometimes these are good, like A Link To The Past springing what at the time seemed like A GAME WITHIN A GAME on us after beating Aghanim. Sometimes they are bad, like Super Ghouls and Ghosts making us PLAY THROUGH THE ENTIRE GAME AGAIN (not that we expected anything less ). And sometimes they are just weird, which brings me to Rocky and Rocky. This has the distinction of being a game that is so bizarrely Japanese that it seemed certain to remain there like its NES counterparts. But fate (and Natsume) had other plans in the 16-bit era, leaving gamers with one question: Is it weird in a good or bad way? Let’s find out!
Right off the bat it’s clear that Pocky and Rocky is not afraid to give us a taste of Japanese mythology, a rare thing in the 90′s where most games that made it here were designed with western influences in mind. For one thing, the two main heroes are Pocky, a Shinto Priestess and Rocky, a Tanuki (or Raccoon if you were playing in the 90′s). They set out trying to help Rocky’s friends who have fallen under the spell of a Dark Wizard. Even stranger are the villains, essentially brainwashed Yokai (Demons) that range from Kappas to Tengu. All of this is welcome weirdness since the only other game that is steeped in Japanese lore that I can recall offhand is Legend Of The Mystical Ninja. This theme goes a long way in making Pocky And Rocky stand out from the crowd.
The gameplay itself operates as top-down, run-and-gun that is differentiated by some nice touches. Each player has access to two modes of fire; single-shot and automatic. Each character can also utilize a short-range melee attack designed for close encounters and batting away projectiles. This was an amazing decision considering how frantic this type of game can get. If any other shooters are listening, STEAL THIS IDEA!!!
Aside from offense you will also have access to some evasive maneuvers, since both characters have a dive move to get you out of harm’s way, alongside a unique special attack that either knocks enemies back (Pocky) or makes you temporarily invincible (Rocky). Finally, like any shooter worth its salt, there are various power-ups that do everything from give you a shield to increasing the potency of your projectiles. It’s that simple … on paper.
In reality this happens to be one of the most frantic and challenging run-and-guns you are likely to experience. Enemies surround you on all sides and ambushes are commonplace. And the later bosses are grueling, forcing some skilled use of the dodge and special attack functions to survive! In short, it’s the kind of experience that is no longer available to modern gamers in most circumstances. Yet continue forward and watch as your diligence will be rewarded in the best way possible: As you improve you will get to see more of these brilliant set-piece levels.
That’s because each of Pocky And Rocky’s six levels have a sense of progression, evolution, and escalation that is rarely seen in even the best games. A world map traces the journey from Pocky’s shrine to Dark Mantle’s castle, only showing you what’s next and helping to give a sense of coherency to this adventure. Levels are dynamic, often changing midway through and ensuring that you will never be bored. What starts as a trek through a forested area becomes a tower defense-esque raft ride! What begins as a battle through a foggy cemetery and chapel morphs into a perilous journey through a shifting cavern that almost feels like an isometric platformer! What starts as a climb up a mountain path ends up as an all-out assault on an airship! It may contain only six levels, but because of the variety present throughout, it feels more like ten!
It should also be mentioned that this game can add a second player, something you may be required to do because of the big difficulty (If you are like me and are no good at games like this ). If so, grab your girlfriend or buddy and fight over which one gets to be Rocky, because having a companion makes this quest a lot easier. Just make sure to avoid sliding into each other lest you send your partner pin-balling around the stage!
The graphical presentation is stellar. Colors are vibrant and sprites for characters and enemies alike are fairly large, allowing you to see all the little details the game contains. The game also uses some nifty Mode 7 effects such as the use of fog in Stage 3 and rain in Stage 1. But the most impressive aspect of Pocky and Rocky is how it manages to leverage the graphics into a gameplay experience. Night time in Stage 1 brings out scary new foes. The multi-limbed boss in Stage 2 make you watch out on all sides. The shifting walls and crushing skulls in Stage 3 ensure you feel like you are traversing a cavern in the middle of a tectonic shift! Graphics are always at their best when they serve to enhance gameplay, a trait Pocky And Rocky definitely has.
In regards to the game’s sound design, it gets the job done. The sound effects go a long way in ensuring we know what kind of attacks are heading our way, and nothing seems off. It’s not bad, it’s just not great, either. The same could be said for the soundtrack as well, which is very oriental in nature and gives the game a unique charm. Every song does a good job of bolstering the game’s identity as a Japanese influenced game, and while it doesn’t exactly get you pumped for the firefights, it fits perfectly and does not interfere with concentration.
At the end of the day, Pocky and Rocky delivers with an exotic flavor and superior gameplay. While the game is brutally tough and slowdown can occasionally become an issue, these things are well worth mastering in order to experience one of the best shooters on the system. Nowadays games are not afraid to show us a more Asian-inspired design, with games like The Wind Waker and No More Heroes giving us a distinctive taste of Japanese flavoring. But back in the 90′s this was the first taste of Japanese culture for many American children. It wasn’t long after playing this game (MAYBE a few years later) that I discovered Dragon Ball, and I have to wonder if I would have been as receptive to it if not for this whimsical adventure starring a young Shinto Priestess and a Tanuki. But back then, we all just called him a Raccoon.
Time and context remain a funny thing …
4 out of 5 stars