Pocky & Rocky is a little known gem that went largely unnoticed in the shadows of popular games and exciting titles like Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It was released in 1993 by Natsume, which took a chance at introducing a game loaded with Japanese mythology to audiences across the seas. Admirable, but without commercials or ads it didn’t receive a lot of attention. A lot of the original context and graphics were also changed up, erasing many of the Japanese meanings and ties to folklore. It’s too bad because it’s a great cute ’em up that deserves more love.
You play as one of the eponymous duo: Pocky the Shinto shrine maiden or Rocky the tanuki (called a raccoon for some reason; there wasn’t a problem in using the term “Tanuki Suit” in Super Mario Bros. 3). This unlikely team has joined forces to find out why Rocky’s fellow “Nopino Goblins” – they don’t look like goblins though and are actually supernatural monsters called yōkai – were agitated and crazy when he woke up. So agitated, in fact, that monsters show up to attack the shrine. One butt-whooping later and they learn that the Nopino goblins were placed under a spell by someone named Black Mantle. Determined to help out the rest of the monsters, Pocky and Rocky take off across feudal Japan to follow Black Mantle’s trail and cure all of the yōkai by beating the senses back into them.
Combat is frantic and fast-paced with a variety of enemies popping in from off-screen, hiding in plain sight, or waiting underneath the ground. Some have movement patterns while others simply target Pocky and Rocky while remaining stationary or actively pursuing the two. On top of that most of the monsters spawn indefinitely, urging you in conjunction with the timer to keep moving. Later levels throw in obstacles and monsters attacking from just out of sight, meaning you need luck or practice to keep from dying. Thankfully, there are an unlimited number of continues and depending on the difficulty you can start with up to four lives. If you die, you respawn right on the spot with a screen-wide attack that obliterates minor enemies and damages bosses.
There are no big differences in gameplay if you decide to choose Rocky over his companion or vice versa. They play exactly the same with only a few differences showing up in boss monologs, the power when respawning with a vengeance, and what happens after charging up and releasing their short-ranged attacks. The shrine maiden throws ofuda tags, er- I mean “magic cards” and swings around her oharai, a purification rod that was translated into “magic wand”. Meanwhile the tanuki tosses leaves at the hostile monsters and swings his tail if they get too close. Cards and leaves can be thrown in eight directions in either rapid succession with the X button or one at a time with the A button. The B button activates the close-range attack. Holding the button for a short time and releasing it makes Pocky spin around, deflecting objects for a short time. Rocky will turn into an invincible statue for a bit, which is great if you can’t dodge a barrage of attacks. Unless your escape routes are barricaded or you are on a narrow path, you should be able to dodge most of the time by sliding with Y. If you slide into your friend while playing together, however, they will take damage and be sent sliding all over the screen, hitting every enemy. A useful, if costly, move. It’s just about the equivalent of respawning or using a bomb. As with the number of lives, the amount of bombs you are given depends on the difficulty. Easy gives you 3, normal gives you 1, and hard has none at all.
Adding some oomph to your attacks are colored orbs dropped by enemies and found in baskets. Purple orbs upgrade and multiply how many tags or leaves can be thrown while red orbs give the power to shoot fireballs. Additional orbs increase your power, but only if you pick up the same colored orbs. Switching colors resets the power level as does getting hit several times. Other items restore health, create a shield, and allow you to ride an animal around for a little bit to trample enemies.
The music is pretty good with some ear worms stuck in there, like the boss theme. Every enemy is cute and well-designed, although a few palette swaps show up. The levels have a lot of detail, more so than one would expect out of a scrolling shooter. Considering how many times players might wind up doing the same level over and over and over again, it keeps the stages from being dull after the umpteenth attempt through. Combined with the need to memorize various attack patterns, there’s plenty of incentive to keep coming back.
Altogether, Pocky & Rocky feels like it belongs in an arcade, waiting to eat up your quarters for every occurrence of a continue screen. There are six stages so the difficulty ramps up pretty quick, although playing with a friend makes them a bit easier with successful cooperation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Pocky & Rocky will hit the Wii Virtual Console anytime soon, so if you want it, start searching your local thrift stores because it is too fricking expense on eBay.