Note: This review is based on the Japanese release — the game launches in North America and Europe on 24th June 2022.
Pocky & Rocky, a Super Nintendo top-down run-and-gun, was developer Natsume’s gold standard, fondly remembered for its taut arcade action, adventurous stage design, and beautiful visuals. Where Tengo Project’s Wild Guns Reloaded and Ninja Warriors Once Again were deliciously pumped-up remasters, Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is a re-envisioning so markedly different from the original that it’s essentially an entirely new game. Completely redrawn from the ground up, it’s nothing short of magical from the flute note ditty that dials-in the opening title screen to the first stretch of road and beyond. Fallen leaves are displaced as you skid across them, floating back down to settle on the cobbles; weather effects desaturate the world with sepia flashes; the special effects, particularly surrounding boss entrances, are dazzling.
The Super Nintendo game’s distinct Japanese theme, travelling old Japan as a Shinto shrine maiden and a tanuki raccoon dog, was one of its most endearing aspects. This wasn’t lost on Tengo Project’s art team, who endeavoured — and succeeded with aplomb — to cram every inch of its freshly rendered maps with charming attention to detail. Water reflections, babbling streams, sun-bathed paddy fields and fiery village backdrops are all beautifully crafted, while the run-amok cast of Japanese mythological enemies positively bleed personality. These visual ingredients, brought to life with superb animation, are almost Metal Slug-esque in graphical precision. And, in-case you were wondering, a scan line option with a range of densities is available, as is the ability to switch between languages.
Reshrined’s switch-and-bait is that, when you head into the first stage, it appears a straight remake. Then, as you find yourself roaming up little pathways and stone steps, around bends and up against cartloads of enemies, that notion starts to fade. Stage two, although thematically the same, shifts further still, its layout and enemies fundamentally different. You battle roaming fire snakes with your repel attack, and balding, misshapen giants camped behind terracotta walls. When you eventually make it to the once-familiar octopus boss engagement — now a nightmare-on-raft with incredible visual bombast — it’s clear that this is a whole new ball game.
Mechanically, it remains mostly the same. You have a rapid-fire projectile attack, a repel defence manoeuvre that protects from incoming fire, a quick belly-slide to avoid danger, and limited smart bombs that aren’t replenished after a death. The repel attack now does a lot more work, and is better at taking out enemies by pinging their projectiles back at them. You still accrue an additional life-meter heart after each stage, and there are useful secrets scattered all over, regularly off the beaten path, within enclaves and forest glades, and quite often in the guise of stray chickens.
What is new, is that you’re forced to play one of five characters on different stages, each with adjusted weapon attributes, and one of whom is only available on your second completion of Story Mode. On the third stage, newcomer Ame-no-Uzume grants new skills, allowing you to produce an orb that auto-directs your projectiles when fired upon, and a temporary shield that requires a brief charge period. These additional properties arrive just in time for a string of never-seen-before stages (complimented by all-new musical arrangements). Here, haunted paddy fields littered with straw-thatch huts, pond demons and aggravating spirits, lead on to deep caverns and Egyptian-style tombs — all of which demand the use of your newly acquired skills. While there are callbacks to the original’s airship stage and torchlit castle, the structuring is altogether transformed.
As we’ve played the Super Nintendo game right up to present day — and with some conviction, we might add — we’re well-positioned to draw direct comparisons. The most immediate difference is that Reshrined plays a marginally slower game. Like the original, it’s not designed to be torn through: it’s a dense and strategic conflict that requires moments of digging in to clear the field lest it all get too much. At the same time, the original is that bit arcade-snappier, its layout offering greater room for impromptu slide negotiations, and the ability to take out most on-screen enemies fairly quickly once you have a strategy in play.
With both being superb examples of the genre, it’s difficult to say which is the more entertaining, although there’s something to be said for the 1992 game’s simplicity and brisker pace. Reshrined operates differently, weighing in at around an hour (including cutscenes) end-to-end, versus the Super Nintendo outing’s 50 minutes on a clean run. The way the stages are formed — especially the new ones, which, while superb, are arguably not quite as creatively inspired as the ones that inform the game’s opening 20 minutes — is to have obstacles that require you to camp and clear before moving on. Some enemies, such as the fire snakes or the worm-like stone hands, either slow things down or even require temporary retreat; while the airship stage — which was a forced-scrolling affair in the Super Nintendo game — is here segmented by gates that can only be opened by taking out turrets. You can still find the odd gap to slide out of in a clinch, but generally, Reshrined is more a war of attrition.
Getting powered up quickly is still critical, only now it’s much easier thanks to abundant weapon drops, and the game lightly directing you toward which is best used for each stage. Additionally, when you take a hit, weapon icons are knocked out of you, allowing you to grab them back unless they end up splashing into a nearby pond.
In terms of difficulty, it’s a lot easier than its predecessor, but newcomers may still find it fairly challenging. While the aesthetic is cute enough to take a bite out of, it can, at times, be punishing, requiring strict reflex and near-constant switching of both offensive and defensive techniques. That said, the difficulty curve does seem to meander. The first stage is a gauntlet that really shows you the ropes, while other, later areas occasionally dip in complexity, like the oddly easy stage three boss. And, while stage four’s winding caverns aren’t overly intense, its mammoth winged-cow guardian — brutally tearing across the screen and intermittently freezing you with its stomp — really puts your pattern negotiation skills to the test.
On the flip-side, while a one-credit clear is a still a reasonable test, continue restart points are very comfortable, allowing almost anyone to eventually push through the whole thing. Once you accrue 3000 coins swept up from destroyed enemies, you unlock an Easy Mode, offering infinite lives.
Despite us making numerous comparisons to the Super Nintendo game, Pocky & Rocky: Reshrined is, for the vast majority, a completely new entry in the series. And that’s worth celebrating for several reasons. Tengo Project, well aware of the original’s pedigree, was smart enough to only use it as inspiration, rather than attempt to follow its lead beat-for-beat. Within this modern framework, the developer has constructed a thrilling tapestry of light, colour, and action-packed junctures for hardcore gamers to get their teeth into. Is it better than Natsume’s venerable 1992 outing? No, but it’s about on par, albeit for slightly different reasons. Pocky & Rocky: Reshrined is a blessing, a gorgeous-looking, delightfully artful new interpretation of a much-loved classic, and a noteworthy example of what can be achieved, creatively, with the 2D medium. If you’re even mildly into the application of old-school gaming disciplines, it should be snapped up without a second thought.