While traditional horizontal and vertically scrolling shoot ’em ups have been thriving in recent years thanks to a combination of retro rereleases and brand new efforts, one subdivision of the genre that has been languishing somewhat is the top-down run-and-gun shoot ’em up, made famous through titles such as Capcom’s Commando, SNK’s Shock Troopers and, indeed, the original Kiki Kaikai/Pocky and Rocky games by Taito and Natsume.
Well, fret no longer, top-down run-and-gun shoot ’em up fans, because Pocky and Rocky is back in its brand new Reshrined form and, much like Natsume and Tengo Project’s previous work on The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors for Nintendo Switch, it’s an absolutely glorious, beautiful work of “modern retro” wonderment that simultaneously captures the joy of the games on which it’s based while also providing us an experience that simply wouldn’t have been technically possible on ’90s consoles.
For the unfamiliar, the Pocky and Rocky series originated with the first Kiki Kaikai game in arcades, developed by Taito and released in 1986, a year after Taito’s Commando popularised the genre. Kiki Kaikai immediately stood out even in these early days of video games by being a game based on a fantastic setting rather than the more common sci-fi and military-themed actions games — and it was also distinctively, unashamedly Japanese.
For most people in the west, the Kiki Kaikai (“Mysterious Ghost World”) series came to prominence with Natsume’s 1992 Super NES take on the series, which is where the Pocky and Rocky moniker was born. This was followed up by a 1994 sequel, again for Super NES, and a Game Boy title in 2001. Pocky and Rocky Reshrined effectively acts as a reimagining of the first Super NES game — but, much like The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors was no simple remaster of The Ninja Warriors Again; this is a complete remake that draws enough inspiration from the original to feel authentic while still feeling like a fresh new game.
In Pocky and Rocky Reshrined — which is developed by a number of folks who worked on the original SNES titles — you initially take on the role of shrine maiden Pocky, who is warned by her raccoon friend Rocky that the monsters of the mountain have become violent and things are about to get pretty real. Having been through this once before in the original Kiki Kaikai, Pocky sets off in an attempt to sort all this nonsense out, only to discover that a mysterious robed figure that she dubs Dark Mantle is seemingly up to no good.
When you first start playing Pocky and Rocky Reshrined, you’ll only have access to the Story mode, where you work your way through a stage at a time with specific characters and abilities available to you on each level. Once you’ve beaten the game or collected enough coins, you’ll unlock Free mode, which allows you to use any of your unlocked characters on the stages you’ve played up until this point. Story mode features unlimited continues and the ability to step away and pick up where you left off later — which is a blessing, because although the game is fairly short, it’s also pretty dang tough, and the Easy difficulty doesn’t open up until you’ve collected enough coins!
The basic gameplay of Pocky and Rocky, regardless of the character you’re controlling, involves moving around in eight directions and either “shooting” or “deflecting”. The exact form of each varies according to character — Pocky initially throws ofuda talismans and deflects attacks with a gohei wand, for example — but shooting is your main form of attack, while deflecting is mostly used defensively.
Like most shoot ’em ups, there are three colours of power-up that cause your character to change their firing pattern and shot power — again, these vary quite a bit between characters but can usually be categorised as having a wide arc but relatively weak power, a narrow arc but strong power, and rapid shots with a bit of a spread and more power than the default weapon. Picking up multiple items of the same type increases the power, while picking up different types simply swaps without upgrading — and getting hit sometimes causes you to power down.
The deflect option, meanwhile, can be used as both a melee attack and a means of reflecting projectiles back at enemies. In some cases, there are enemies and obstacles that can only be removed using the deflection moves — in the second stage of Story mode, for example, Rocky has to blow out numerous fires by using his tail-wafting deflection attack.
Characters also have a slide, which allows them to quickly dodge out of the way of incoming attacks, and a limited number of special attacks that mostly act as screen-clearing smart bombs. Again, there are some differences between characters, and since the Story mode gives you a chance to try everyone out — as well as unlocking some additional attack and defence options as you progress — you’re sure to find a favourite way to play.
The levels are linear in nature but don’t simply follow a straight line; very often you’ll find yourself proceeding up a path vertically, then heading through an area horizontally and weaving through complex terrain before continuing onwards. The level design is probably where the “remake” part of Pocky and Rocky Reshrined shines the most: the environmental detail is absolutely gorgeous, featuring beautifully animated foliage, various bits of wildlife just hanging out looking cute, and a general feeling of liveliness that simply wouldn’t have been possible on the SNES hardware.
The spectacular pixel art visuals extend to the bosses, too, which feature incredible animation that looks great without getting in the way of gameplay. Indeed, the highest compliment I can pay to Pocky and Rocky Reshrined is that it successfully marries some of the most stunning pixel art and animation you’ll ever see with immensely solid gameplay that you’ll definitely want to keep coming back to time and time again.
And besides all this, Pocky and Rocky is a delight for another reason, too: that aforementioned distinctively, unashamedly Japanese nature. While the game is simply visually appealing to anyone who cares to play it, those who have a familiarity with Japanese mythology — particularly the legends of the gods and the various peculiar types of youkai that are always causing trouble — will find it particularly enjoyable. The game is chock-full of instantly recognisable references, handled with a delicious blend of light-heartedness and a slightly sinister nature.
Pocky and Rocky Reshrined is an absolute triumph. Much like The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors, it’s a textbook example of how to do a respectful modernisation of an established retro title; it’s not attempting to be a slavish recreation of the original, but nor is it abandoning the things that have caused people to enjoy it for so many years. Rather, what we have here is a brand new game that just happens to cover some of the same ground as its illustrious predecessor — but which is modern in a way that only today’s tech can provide. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Pocky and Rocky Reshrined is available now from Play-Asia in its Japanese form, which includes full English text. An official European release, including a limited-edition version from Strictly Limited Games, is coming later this year.
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