Starting life on the PlayStation in 1997, at a time when Super Mario 64 had just brought the gaming world triple-jumping headlong into the era of 3D platforming, Namco's Klonoa series has always done things differently. Klonoa's first outing, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, was a pioneering foray into 2.5D, mixing polygonal backgrounds with sprite-based characters, and restricting movement to a two-dimensional path while letting the path itself wind its way enchantingly through a three-dimensional world.
It was breathtaking then and continues to captivate today, as Nintendo gamers discovered with the excellent Wii remake in 2008. But Klonoa's earliest appearance on a Nintendo system was back in 2001, with Klonoa: Empire of Dreams for the Game Boy Advance, a title now available on the Wii U Virtual Console. Given that one of the series' defining features is its innovative use of 2.5D, does this fully two-dimensional performance manage to capture the charm of Klonoa's original adventures? Absolutely, and in the process, Empire of Dreams delivers one of the finest puzzle-platforming experiences found anywhere.
Rabbit, cat, or both? Klonoa's species is never really explained, and isn't worth fretting over; in game he's referred to simply as a "Dream Traveller". Empire of Dream's story revisits the series' staple theme this time in the Kingdom of Jillius, where an insomnia-stricken emperor has outlawed dreaming within the realm. Naturally, Klonoa runs afoul of this law and is tasked with ridding the kingdom of various monsters to atone for it. Told through mostly static cut-scenes, the story is charming and more engrossing than you might expect, and it's happily backed up by wonderfully engaging gameplay.
The main gameplay hook of the series is that Klonoa can use a short-range "Wind Bullet" from his ring to lift enemies above his head, inflating them in the process in a visual homage to Namco's Dig Dug. From there he can hurl them at other enemies, or throw them towards the ground mid-jump, leapfrogging over them to perform his signature double-jump. It feels great, and re-imagining enemies as stepping stones rather than strictly obstacles makes for a very different kind of platforming experience. It means that just moving around the levels (or "Visions" as they're called here) involves light puzzling elements, and collecting the three stars needed to clear a Vision and the 30 optional gems requires creative use of Klonoa's skills as well as puzzle-solving prowess.
Barring some head-scratchers in the later areas, these puzzles are never difficult. But they're not designed to stump you. Rather they're meant - like Klonoa's central double-jump mechanic - to engage you in your surroundings, and to encourage full use of the environment. By design, Empire of Dreams is a game that invites you to enjoy the little things. An array of different foes and environmental elements are introduced as you progress through the game, bringing new puzzle-solving techniques with them and making each world feel fresh in gameplay as well as visual style. The level design is fantastic throughout, and keeps a strong sense of forward momentum even when there's backtracking involved. It's very difficult to get lost, and since enemies and objects respawn automatically, you'll never be stuck having to restart a Vision.
The main puzzle levels are broken up by two faster-paced stage types, with both forced-scrolling platforming and side-view hoverboarding sequences thrown into the mix. Yes, Empire of Dreams hails from the Sonic Adventure 2 era, when every mammalian mascot worth their salt added some sort of extreme board-sport to their résumé, but Klonoa feels like he comes by his hoverboard honestly. These stages are a lot of fun, and collecting all 100 optional gems requires quick thinking, split-second jumps and likely a lot of replay. The forced-scrolling levels in particular are beautifully designed, easy enough to complete without being frustrating, but with gems placed tantalizingly just out of reach so that you're always tempted to risk squeezing in another double-jump or potentially deadly detour.
Even as an early Game Boy Advance release, Empire of Dreams looks wonderful, making excellent use of the system's impressive 2D capabilities. Sprite scaling and rotation add real personality to Klonoa's foes, environments, and boss battles, while parallax scrolling brings the multi-layered backgrounds to life. Animations are beautiful, the sprites are charming, and the bright colour palette - which thoughtfully leant itself to easy viewing even on the non-backlit first generation Game Boy Advance - shines brilliantly on both the GamePad and the TV. The visual themes in the different worlds also skip the usual platformer clichés of fire, ice, and so on, and are much the richer for it; the opera house-themed second world is a real highlight.
The soundtrack was a stand out feature of both Klonoa's console outings, and this previously-portable version lives up to their musical legacy, albeit on a smaller scale. The loops are shorter, but the series' trademark sound is still here in spades, with catchy melodies lilting over the action and often evocative of the wind mentioned in our hero's Japanese name (Kaze no Klonoa - "Klonoa of the Wind"). The impressive voice samples included are also a treat, and Klonoa's trademark "Wahoo!" adds a gleeful sense of triumph to every double-jump.
Empire of Dreams has 40 Visions spread out over its 5 worlds, and while it's not a lengthy game by today's standards - you could easily beat it in a weekend - the focused stages are perfect for quick trips into Klonoa's world. You can return to previously cleared Visions at any time, and there are extras to be unlocked by collecting every gem in every level, which significantly extends the replay value for ambitious players. The restore points afforded by the Wii U's Virtual Console are largely unnecessary, given the game's save system and relatively short levels, but the other emulation extras - including an optional screen-smoothing graphical filter, customizable controls, and a full scan of the original instruction booklet - are excellent additions.
The Game Boy Advance was blessed with an enviable and nearly endless parade of platformers over its lifespan, and this game stands out as one of the very best. With thoroughly satisfying mechanics and more charm in the opening stages than many games manage by the closing credits, Klonoa: Empire of Dreams is an absolute joy, and well worth revisiting in this Wii U re-release. If you enjoyed Klonoa's big screen adventures, you'll love Empire of Dreams both for the same reasons and for its distinct, pocket-sized personality; if you've never had the pleasure of taking a trip with Namco's fuzzy Dream Traveller, this is a wonderful place to start.