In my youth, my mother would occasionally indulge me by joining in my favourite hobby. Off the top of my head, I remember diving into Donkey Kong Country, and playing endless amounts of Stunt Racer FX with her. Those were good times.
Pocky & Rocky was one such game that we picked up a few times off the rental shelf. We never got very far, but what we had played stuck in my mind up into adulthood, cemented by the happy memories provided by my mom. In my adulthood, it became a priority title for me to track down. Remembering only images from the game, I was able to ascertain the name and find a copy of my own.
That was years ago, and though I had made a few attempts, I had yet to conquer it. Now, with the help of my husband and co-op buddy, Okamigami, I can finally put a cap on it.
WELCOME BACK, SAYO-CHAN
Pocky & Rocky is technically the first localized version of the Kiki Kaikai series. What was originally an arcade title by Taito in 1986, it lay mostly dormant until it was revived in 1993 by Natsume with an SNES sequel called Kiki Kaikai: Nazo no Kuro Manto. Looking back, it’s an unlikely title to localize, but Natsume took the chance and brought it over as Pocky & Rocky.
The reason why it seems like an unlikely candidate for translation is because it delves so heavily into Japanese folklore. The main character is a miko, or a Shinto shrine maiden, named Sayo-chan and she’s accompanied by a tanuki named Manuke. The localization glosses over some of this by renaming Sayo-chan to Pocky and Manuke to Rocky the Raccoon, but much of the rest of the game is the same as before. You do battle with various yokai and obake, heal yourself with dango, and protect yourself with omamori. It’s starkly Japanese.
FULL DECK OF CARDS
It may seem like an odd genre choice for a shrine maiden, but Pocky & Rocky largely subscribes to the top-down run-and-gun formula popularized by games like Commando and Ikari Warriors. However, instead of firing high caliber ammunition, Pocky throws ofuda cards at an incredible pace, while her pal Rocky throws leaves. Don’t let the cute aesthetic fool you, though, this game is tough as nails.
The plot isn’t anything special. The goblins that were tamed in the arcade original have gone berserk again under the influence of a shadowy figure in a black mantle. Rocky, a goblin himself, recruits Pocky to go set things right. It’s a cute little story, but merely a framework to string the levels together.
The levels themselves are a sight to see. Natsume outdid themselves on the game’s graphics, which are light on the SNES’s usual graphical trickery, but are so beautifully coloured and detailed. From the serene bamboo forests to the gloomy castle dungeons, the stages are packed full of small details and wonderful scenery. The level of visual polish never lets up and leaves a lasting impact.
That’s to say nothing of the variety in each stage, which often takes you through a number of diverse obstacles in a single environment. Each area has its own set of enemies, and contain their own flavour of danger. From forced scrolling sections to places where you need to time your movement carefully to avoid tripping into harm, you’re constantly being pushed into new trials. Rarely are you given a moment to rest.
GORGONZOLA GOBLINS? REALLY?
It’s not that Pocky & Rocky is as unfair as the quarter binging cabinets you’d find in an arcade; you’re provided with a few advantages. Unlike many run-and-guns, you’ve got a health gauge that gets expanded with each sequential victory over a boss. It’s reduced back down to its initial volume every time you die, but even at the minimal, it’s possible to make progress.
Likewise, there are two sets of power-ups for your throwing attack; red orbs that increase your damage, and blue orbs that give you spread fire. It’s best that you only focus on one colour of orb, since picking up the opposite sets you back and forces you to power up again. You can also be set back a tier in your power-ups if you take damage, but how much damage you can take before being downgraded is still something of a mystery to me.
You also have a sort of block attack. Pocky can swing an oharai wand to do damage to enemies or knock away projectiles, while Rocky swings his tail to do the same. It’s a pretty cool addition, and sometimes the projectiles get deflected and will actually hurt enemies. However, which projectiles can be blocked and which can’t is something you can only really find out by occasionally taking a shot to the face. It would be nice if there was a more visual way to tell. It’s sometimes better to just dodge attacks, which can be done by sliding out of the way on your belly.
Finally, both Pocky and Rocky have a charged defensive ability. Pocky twirls her wand around while Rocky becomes a statue. I never found a very good use for the abilities, outside a couple of occasions, but it’s nice to have options. Likewise, if you slide into your partner, it sends them flying across the screen. This makes them invulnerable, so it’s sometimes useful to get them to safety, but more often then not, you’ll probably set it off accidentally and send your friend off a cliff to their screaming death.
THE TANUKI TAKEAWAY
There are a few situational missteps that Pocky & Rocky takes, but they’re pretty insignificant when viewed in the bigger picture. Notably, the game is heavily pattern based, as it should be, but there are random elements that sometimes rear their head where they shouldn’t.
As a whole, though, Pocky & Rocky is a treat. It’s an extremely challenging game that works well with two players. It’s fun and charming, and seeing it through to the end is so rewarding. It also never lets up, never growing tired, and never losing its appeal. It provides unlimited continues, so the only restriction on your progress is your patience.
It’s a title that I can see myself jumping into again and again in the future, and highly recommend you check it out.
This review was conducted on an SNES using an original cartridge copy of the game. This was purchased by the author.