The ‘90s and 2000s were a totally different era. I can’t tell you how many times I sat down playing the same demo discs over and over or replaying the same handful of games as a kid. Bandai Namco’s old mascot Klonoa — soon to return in the upcoming Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Series — is the first-ever video game character I ever did this with.
I had a mild obsession with one particular demo disc that contained the first level of Klonoa: Door to Phantomile – the chirpy, woodwind music, the adorable floppy-eared character, and the lovely visuals just captured my enthusiasm like nothing else. And eventually, I got my hands on Door to Phantomile and the PS2 sequel – Lunatea’s Veil – and played both of them to death. For many people, these two games (and the Wii remake of the first) are where the series ends, and these are the two titles that are included in the upcoming Switch game.
But I adored Klonoa and I wanted more. I couldn’t resist his fluffy black and white design, or his oversized baseball cap. And I discovered a whole other world of adventures that the cat-like, rabbit-like creature had been on – particularly on Nintendo’s own Game Boy Advance. Klonoa: Empire of Dreams and Klonoa 2: Dream Champ Tournament are often forgotten alongside the black and white mascot’s more famous Sony outings, but their attempts at translating Klonoa’s aesthetics and gameplay to a much smaller, less-powerful system deserve attention. You can still snap them up on the Wii U if you're quick.
These two handheld entries aren’t even the first non-Sony titles for Klonoa, as the character got a Japan-exclusive WonderSwan game back in 1999. Klonoa: Moonlight Museum sees Klonoa and his friend Huepow having to restore the moon in the sky and escape the eponymous museum. The game has five worlds with six visions (levels) in each, and in each vision, you have to collect three stars to unlock a door to reach the end. It’s this, and the shift to more puzzle-focused platforming, that serves as the basis for the two GBA games.
Dream a littler dream
I haven’t played that Wonderswan entry, but I snapped up Empire of Dreams faster than one of Klonoa’s wind bullets the minute it dropped back in 2002 (in Europe) and devoured most of it in two sittings. Revisiting it now, I can see maybe why people don’t remember this one, or didn’t even know it existed, because it’s missing the console game’s signature 2.5D visuals. But even as a bright-eyed kid, I could tell this was 100% a Klonoa game.
To me, the hallmarks of a Klonoa game – besides circling around a 3D tree on a 2-dimensional plane – have always been the kaleidoscopic colours, inventive levels, adorable characters (and enemies), and the emotional gut-punch tucked away within the story. Yep, in short, Klonoa games are cute, cuddly, and always ready to make you cry. Empire of Dreams has all of this.
The story might not have the emotional highs of Door to Phantomile or Lunatea’s Veil, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t sob as a littlun, and even welled up a few times while replaying it recently. Klonoa is a Dream Traveller, after all, and it’s often his job to save people’s dreams. And that’s exactly what he’s doing here. Who can’t relate to having dreams, or being scared of falling short of your dreams and ambitions?
One of my favourite things about Empire of Dreams is just how effectively Namco translated the puzzle-platforming elements of the “3D” games to a 2D screen. There are some real clutch moments of platforming where the difference between missing a ledge and landing on it is mere pixels.
Across the game’s five worlds are seven visions (levels) – five normal, an auto-scroller, and one using Klonoa’s trust board – as well as a boss level at the end. You can also make levels as easy or as hard as you want – do you want to collect all 30 Dream Stones (gems) in every level? Will you risk it all for an extra life? My kid self would grip on to the GBA tightly in bed with my Worm LED light peripheral for every tight jump, hoping I’d make it across. I grew up on collectathons, so there was no way I wouldn’t try and get every single Dream Stone.
A few challenges genuinely stumped me too, and still do even today. A lot of these involve creative uses of Moos – the game’s inflatable enemies – that Klonoa can pick up with a wind bullet from his special ring. Vision 4 in every world is that aforementioned boarding game, and getting all 100 Dream Stones in those levels can be really, really tricky.
I spent ages huddled up over my GBA trying to memorise every little hill and every enemy placement, learning when to time the perfect jump or make Klonoa flap his big ears to make him float. And the auto-scrollers take Klonoa’s platforming precision to Super Mario World levels. It’s all about instinct, which as an impatient kid I was lacking a little. I’m actually still a bit impatient, so replaying these levels now still caused me to get a little frustrated!
Perhaps that’s why I never beat the game as a kid, even though I loved the aesthetics. I can’t get enough of Klonoa’s little pixelated “Wahoo!” cries as he double jumps with a Moo, but Empire of Dreams is a little tougher than the mascot’s PlayStation outings. When I got to the game’s second world, Priamill, I remember getting to vision 2 and having flashbacks about a particular jump that I spent ages trying to nail. I hit the same brick wall this time around, too!
Maybe because it came out so close to Lunatea’s Veil (which launched before the GBA game in Europe) – a game I’d probably consider one of my favourite platformers ever – Empire of Dreams got buried in the hype. Critics raved about the PS2 game, but it sold pretty poorly. Still, Empire of Dreams did get a sequel in 2002 that carried on the 2D puzzle formula and amped up the difficulty even more. But it took almost three years to make it over to Western shores.
Champ on this
Dream Champ Tournament is probably the most difficult Klonoa game in my eyes, and my first time playing it was pretty recently because the game never came out in Europe. I was definitely bitter about this at the time, but it was perhaps a sign of Klonoa’s dwindling popularity. Although, for some reason, we did get Klonoa Beach Volleyball on PlayStation while North America didn’t – perhaps Dead or Alive needed a cutesy rival in Europe more?
I’ll be honest, I don’t adore Dream Champ Tournament as much as the other games I’ve played. For one, the story is lacking a lot of the emotional draw I’d expect from a Klonoa game. It’s essentially a big tournament where lots of new and returning Klonoa characters participate – Joka from Door to Phantomile and Lolo and Popka from Lunatea’s Veil make an appearance and new characters such as Guntz (called Gantz here) debut. But that’s mostly it – just a bunch of friendly rivalries and a final, unsatisfying twist.
The levels, though, are even more tightly designed than the first, and even more beautiful. The GBA screen pops with colour and the condensed, maze-like levels are chock full of puzzles that will have you thinking. A few new enemies from Lunatea’s Veil – like one that changes colour with every enemy it hits, and a second that catapults Klonoa upwards like a bullet of lightning – are utilised in some even more deceptive conundrums.
The bosses are a pretty big departure from the usual Klonoa formula, however, and I really don’t enjoy these. In “traditional” tournament fashion, Klonoa must race against a rival at the end of every level and fight a boss at the same time, in many cases. One involves running away from a giant rolling beetle that’s pretty darn fast. Another sees a giant pink seahorse/prawn-like creature float around every section and shoot homing missiles at you. And, despite these boss levels being split into three sections, if you fail or die at all, you have to start right back at the beginning.
I like the change-up in formula in practice, but in execution, Klonoa's puzzle-based platforming and the speed-based races don’t mesh together well. Unlike in the auto-scrollers where it’s just Klonoa, the Moos, and devilish platforming, there’s now also a timer and another huge obstacle in the way. Not to be a negative Nancy about it, but these bosses just don’t work for me!
I do, however, appreciate the challenge of the game – especially the EX stages, which Klonoa fans will be familiar with. These unlockable stages put all of your skills to the test in some pretty tough platforming stages where you have to use everything you’ve learned up until this point. They’re hard in Lunatea’s Veil, but Empire of Dreams and Dream Champ Tournaments really take the cake.
Don't dream it's over
Sadly, Dream Champ Tournament was the last new Klonoa game to release in the West. An action-RPG – Klonoa Heroes: Densetsu no Star Medal, often translated to Klonoa Heroes: The Legendary Star Medal – came out in 2002 as a Japan-exclusive, but a fan translation was completed earlier this year by Klonoa Mega Chat Translation Team (as is an English patch for Moonlight Museum). But the series has otherwise been dormant since the Wii remake of Door to Phantomile bombed in 2008.
Bandai Namco hasn’t ever forgotten about Klonoa, though. He’s made cameos in multiple Namco games such as Xenosaga Episode 1, multiple Tales of RPGs (as alternate costumes or as dolls), and even in Soulcalibur V and Tekken 7. But I’m especially glad that we’re soon getting Phantasy Reverie Series on Switch.
Just because those GBA games don’t reach the same heights as the PlayStation entries, Empire of Dreams and Dream Champ Tournament don’t deserve to be forgotten. Perhaps they’ll pop up in that rumoured GBA Nintendo Switch Online line-up? Or did we just dream that?
Feel free to share your love for Klonoa and excitement for the upcoming Phantasy Reverie Series below.