Past meets present: Pocky & Rocky Reshrined
The series returns with a reboot-ish remake-ish, sequel-ish kind of thing, featuring the characters you know and new ones, to boot.
This column is “Past meets present,” the aim of which is to look back at game franchises and games that are in the news and topical again thanks to a sequel, a remaster, a re-release, and so on. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
Pocky & Rocky was never a particularly prolific series, but still, vanishing for over 20 years before reemerging in 2022 with a game that’s part remake, part reboot, part sequel is all a little much. You’ll see protagonists, foes, and environments that you recognize, but also new ones on all three counts: unlike the more straight enhanced remasters of Natsume’s Super Nintendo games that have released this generation, for Wild Guns and The Ninja Warriors, Pocky & Rocky Reshrined serves as a brand new entry. Though, it picks up inside of the first Pocky & Rocky, and uses that game’s mechanics for its foundation instead of those of its sequels. All of this in spite of its remaster-implying name, too. Cute? Yes! Confusing? Also yes.
Basically, if you were looking for Pocky & Rocky, you might be disappointed, but if you were looking for Pocky & Rocky, then this is just what you wanted. I hope that clears things up.
Reshrined effectively throws two more difficult, re-imagined versions of the first two stages from the original Pocky & Rocky at you, including the opening cutscene, and then veers off into some time travel nonsense that makes sense if you really think about it, but honestly, don’t worry about that. You’re playing Pocky & Rocky because it’s a multidirectional shooter whose cute exterior belies its challenge, and Reshrined absolutely delivers. It looks like the SNES original(s) in the sense that the art style is reminiscent of the era, but the quality of it all — the sprites, their animation, the explosions and dissolves and the locked-in frame rate of it all — is thanks to more powerful hardware. The SNES game was always a looker, thanks to its art style, but the redrawn artwork really pops on modern platforms.
A quick history lesson aside: Pocky & Rocky itself is actually a sequel. The original, Kiki Kaikai, was a Taito arcade game and Japan exclusive, and it’s… fine. It’s just very basic: all of the innovations that made Natsume’s Pocky & Rocky work so well came in that game, not from Kiki Kaikai. You could now slide out of the way of enemies and their attacks, your shots could be upgraded, your melee attack would reflect enemy projectiles and could be charged into a more powerful move, and, as became more of a norm in shooters of all types between the 1986 start of this franchise and 1992’s SNES and international debut, a limited screen-clearing bomb became available. If that was all new from Natsume’s developers, you can imagine how relatively simple the gameplay for 1986’s Taito entry was.
Taito licensed out the Kiki Kaikai license to Natsume in 1992, it was given a co-op mode in addition to all of the above changes, and renamed Pocky & Rocky for its international release. The first Pocky & Rocky game was long believed to be the best one — its sequel made some changes for the better and some for the worse, while Game Boy Advance release Pocky & Rocky with Becky was handled by Altron, not Natsume, and feels more like a sequel to the original, co-op-less arcade game. So it was partly by default but also because it ruled that the first Pocky & Rocky was held in such high esteem. Reshrined, mercifully, is a return to form that does everything the original did well, only more of it. There are a few complaints that make it a little more annoying than the SNES classic, but, for the most part, those complaints are also temporary ones that, once resolved, will never bother you again.
We might as well get those out of the way now: co-op, which is part of what makes Pocky & Rocky so good in the first place, is locked behind two doors. You either have to complete the game in single-player before co-op is available, or play so much of the game that you earn enough coins that it seems basically impossible that you wouldn’t have beaten the game by then, anyway. The game’s easy mode is also locked behind a door, though, you need just 3,000 coins to unlock that, against co-op’s 10,000 coin key. Now, there is a reason for this (at least, for the co-op part), and it’s up to your own mind to determine whether the reason is justifiable or not: Reshrined’s story is told in such a way that you play as specific characters in specific levels, with Pocky and Rocky never actually together at any point. Sometimes, Pocky’s spirit is in a completely different part of the timeline than Rocky’s physical body, inhabiting another playable character. On the other hand, just let player two be Rocky, narrative be damned, I’m here to pew pew youkai with a pal.
Again, though, once you do complete the story, co-op unlocks in “Free Mode,” which lets you choose any character to play any stage. And the characters all play differently — Pocky & Rocky has never been about palette swaps. Both Pocky and Rocky retain their differing bomb and charged melee attacks and play a little bit differently, with Pocky moving faster, Rocky sliding further, and now there is also the addition of Attack Augmentations that you can use by pressing the fire button instead of holding it down. The new characters are even more different, with demon samurai Hotaru an entirely melee-based character, albeit one with different ranges to attack from, the goddess Ame-no-Uzume, who wields a pair of magatama that float around her and can be manipulated like options in a shoot-em-up, and another friendly youkai, Ikazuchi, who fires off powerful blasts of thunder. In story mode, you actually only will get to play as either of Hotaru or Ikazuchi, and that happens at random. Luckily, the Free Mode lets you play as whoever, in whatever pairings you’d like, once you unlock it.
Luckily, there isn’t much lost in translation this time around — Pocky & Rocky 2’s localization removed some of the Japanese-ness of a very Japanese setting from the game to its detriment (please remember these games released at a time after anime-style box art was often changed to something western-looking, but before critics could stop themselves from saying “Goemon is so Japanese, that’s so weird!”), and the first Pocky & Rocky inexplicably didn’t bother translating the cutscenes for PAL regions. But here, the only major difference between the Japanese release and the international one seems to be that they’ve covered up some goddess cleavage for North American audiences. I’m not about to sign a petition over it or anything or yell "CENSORSHIP!!!” like certain corners of the internet, but it is a bit of an odd choice. Given how localization went for the SNES games, though, let’s be happy that a little bit more fabric was all that changed this time around.
While locking co-op and character select behind the unavailable Free Mode at first is annoying, it’s pretty clear once you get to mess around in there that the real depth of the game is found there. It gives you time to really acclimate yourself to a particular character, and determine just when the best time to use their various abilities, be they charge attacks, attack augmentations, melee, projectile, or bombs, is, and against which kind of enemies. Pocky & Rocky Reshrined might be easier overall than 1992’s release, but it’s not an easy game, and it will take you time to master it even on the normal difficulty. Beating it is one thing: clearing it without having to continue, or being able to finish the game on hard, is something else entirely.
Reshrined, like the game it’s a remaster of/sequel to, was designed with co-op in mind: it’s a far tougher experience in single-player, especially in the first few levels. As you get used to the rhythm of how it works, though, and become more attuned with knowing when to fight, when to slide, when to reflect, you’ll find that it’s overall an easier title than the original Pocky & Rocky, likely because it’s not quite as co-op friendly as that one, given you have to complete the game solo before tackling it with a friend. Still, though, look at the level layouts: left and right or top and bottom are often mirror images of each other, which you can complete by yourself with a lot of timely dodging and reflecting, but were you playing with a friend, you could outmuscle your opponents pretty regularly by virtue of being able to cover both fronts at once. The one real downside to co-op (once you’ve got it, anyway) is that there is no online functionality. On the other hand, us local co-op lovers get so little these days that you just need to let us have this one.
Let’s go back to how it looks for a moment. Here’s video of the first stage from Pocky & Rocky on the SNES, including the title screen and opening cutscene:
It looks great, in terms of style and what it managed at the time on a 16-bit system in 1992, but check out what the redrawn, Reshrined effort looks like 30 years later:
It is stunning. Not just “hey, they made this SNES-era game look good” kind of attractive, but the animation and look of it all is truly beautiful. Tengo Project — an in-house developer for Natsume-Atari that also worked on Wild Guns Reloaded and The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors — didn’t just throw a new coat of paint on the old look and call it a day, or re-release a classic in 16:9 with all kinds of bugs and issues attached because they were trying to hit an anniversary date. It’s clear real love for the series went into this new entry, and with any luck, it won’t take two decades to see the next one.
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is available on the Playstations 4 and 5 as well as the Nintendo Switch, in both physical and digital formats, for $29.99. While locking co-op and the easy modes from the start are weird choices that are difficult to defend even if, at least in the former, it makes some narrative sense, overall, Reshrined is a worthy successor for the series. While this particular kind of game might not be everyone’s favorite — a tough, arcade-style, multidirectional shooter with just a handful of stages — the series has its supporters, and it’s about time both of those got to experience what has mostly been a long-lost franchise in some form. That the form is as lovely as this one, and seemingly capable of bringing in new fans given its quality and multi-platform exposure, helps quite a bit.
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