Even though the series first appeared in Japanese arcades in 1986 as Kiki Kaikai, Nintendo fans probably know the pair of titular characters from their two adventures on the SNES, Pocky & Rocky and Pocky & Rocky 2. Having played both games around the time of their original release, I was looking forward to the traditional Japanese setting of Pocky & Rocky Reshrined, with its focus on Japanese mythology and challenging shooter-style gameplay. While guiding the shrine maiden, raccoon, and their pals through nine total stages is fun enough, the poor writing during cutscenes and odd way of locking content prevent this blast from Taito’s past from being a must-play.
The story begins with Rocky rushing back to the shrine to tell Pocky that monsters from the mountain have started attacking, to which Pocky responds, “But why? They promised not to be bad anymore.” Even though this line definitely got a chuckle out of me, without a way to speed up the dialogue without skipping it entirely, it becomes a chore to sit through the lengthy cutscenes that bookend each of the game’s stages. Early on you learn that the villain Black Mantle, from previous games in the series, has made his nefarious return, and so much of the game sees you in hot pursuit. What’s interesting is that the character you play changes with every stage, so there’s a little bit of variety as you make your way to the final boss in stage 9.
Much of the gameplay loop involves running through forests, temples, and mountains as you shoot at enemies and deflect their bullets back at them. You can pick up three different types of weapon upgrades that stack multiple times. The basic upgrade generally adds more projectiles for a wider spread; the fire upgrade does more immediate single-target damage; the wind upgrade does more continuous damage when you land a shot, or even creates something of a homing shot, depending on the character wielding it. You can also pick up health restoratives and a temporary shield, but the former has a tendency of popping up either too late or too close to another health item. One of the final power-ups is a mount that hops around as you ride on it, which sounds cool until you realize that you can’t shoot while riding, its duration is incredibly short, and controlling it is miserable. Fortunately, the basic enemies you encounter and the boss fights that come at the end of every stage are varied and present a stiff and satisfying challenge.
The first and second stages are essentially ripped from Pocky & Rocky on the SNES, but the updated visual style does help with that sense of deja vu. Some of the new characters you encounter take center stage in their own levels, which are designed to take advantage of their specific characteristics. For example, Hotaru is more of a melee fighter, who rapidly jabs with his spear or slashes projectiles away with his sword. Powering him up does grant a bit more range to his basic attack, but the floating ships that make up much of his stage involve lots of fighting in close quarters. Unfortunately, you can’t choose which character to play as in the main story mode or even play with a buddy until you unlock Free Mode, which requires 10,000 coins or the completion of story mode. For some bizarre reason, Reshrined’s easy mode is also locked until you collect 3000 in-game coins, with a single playthrough earning me just under 4000 coins.
The music, sound effects, and visuals present a nice mix of contemporary and retro, and I was definitely transported back to the ‘90s as I plowed my way through scores of ghosts, demons, and yokai. The stages are colorful and take place across a variety of locales, and the audio is catchy enough that it’s worth turning up or putting on headphones for. Enemy bullets are almost always easy to spot; it’s timing your deflecting move to protect yourself that’s the hard part.
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined doesn’t really do enough to justify the series making a comeback. It experiments very little and takes almost no risks, compared to Pocky & Rocky 2 in particular. The five total characters are quite different, which makes going through all the stages with them in Free Mode a worthwhile pursuit, but locking co-op play and easy mode from the start of the game and not including a stage select option are obvious missteps. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the gameplay, which remains just as enjoyable now as it did almost 30 years ago, but Reshrined feels like a missed opportunity to add in new elements or mechanics. While the inclusion of an online leaderboard is welcome, the lengthy, poorly-localized cutscenes are not. If you go in not expecting anymore more than what the Super Nintendo games did and can tolerate some odd design choices, then busting these ghosts might make you feel good. Otherwise, wait for a sale or light some incense in hopes that one of the original Pocky & Rocky games shows up on NSO.