Pocky and Rocky was a fun little shoot ‘em up developed for the Super Nintendo just about thirty years ago by Harvest Moon publisher Natsume. It wasn’t a barn burner by any means, another shmup in an era flush with shmups, but it was appreciated by many at the time for its novel, fun presentation. You play as either a shrine maiden named Pocky, or a tanuki named Rocky, and you go around throwing spell cards and leaves at all sorts of crazy yokai across six levels. It’s a simple game, primarily and obviously as a result of its arcade origins (under the name KiKi KaiKai) but there’s nothing wrong with that, especially way back in the era of “you just bought this licensed game of a TV show/movie for full price and it’s like two hours long and it’s going to be the most miserable two hours of your life.”
When Pocky and Rocky Reshrined was announced, it was pretty unclear what exactly it was going to be. Was it a remake of the original game? Was it an entirely new one? The answer lies somewhere in the middle, with Reshrined taking the levels and concepts behind the original release, and updating them with all sorts of modern bells and whistles to make something that’s akin to idealized nostalgia. It’s not the Pocky and Rocky you remember, but it’s exactly how you want to imagine Pocky and Rocky having been.
Reshrined mixes things up immediately by being separated into two different main modes: Story, and Free. Story Mode is the eight levels of the game presented in a deliberate, curated way, with cutscenes and a different character depending on the level. Whereas the original game had just Pocky and Rocky, Reshrined has a total of five playable characters, each with a completely different playstyle that gives the game the sense of modularity inherent to most other shoot ‘em ups. Free Mode lets you play through those eight levels again, but without the cutscenes, as any character you like, and potentially in local co-op. The original game only had a story mode, which meant you had to watch (read; skip) the cutscenes everytime you finished a level, so the compromise of two different modes to encourage replayability without slowing the player down is a nice one, especially for the type of sickos who are actually going for 1CCs or speedruns.
The story mode is cute, with classically styled cutscenes, and a surprising variety of locales. While the original Pocky and Rocky was fairly straightforward (i.e you go from the shrine, to the woods, to the graveyard) Reshrined cranks each of these classic levels up a notch. What was once a pretty basic foray on a floating boat is now a hectic fight across flaming spaceships, and a lot of the classic bosses have been given either additional mechanics or an extra phase to their fights for an extra layer of complexity. Everything about Reshrined’s presentation feels exactly like the original being improved upon and reconsidered in accordance with modern expectations and possibilities, without sacrificing the simplicity and charm it’s known for.
If there is one aspect of Reshrined that does feel like a bit much it’s the writing. It’s not frustratingly obtuse, or complex in a way where you have to know the rich lore of GBA spin-off Pocky and Rocky with Becky or anything; it’s just really funnily convoluted. Whereas the original was just a story about Pocky and Rocky freeing their goblin friends from the mental manipulation of the evil sorcerer Dark Mantle, Reshrined adds in all sorts of new characters and world-hopping that at times can feel like a fever dream. Black Mantle goes back in time to stop Pocky and Rocky from beating him in the original game by killing Pocky, who then goes to the spirit world and gradually fights her way back to the future where Dark Mantle has just sort of lit everything on fire. Then it’s revealed that Dark Mantle is actually a girl named Anna who was some kind of priestess who got possessed by a demon named Gastaroth who is actually Dark Mantle? So then you team up with some other gods to deal with that while Rocky just sort of runs around doing nothing.
There isn’t anything wrong with this insane presentation, if anything I’d say it adds a lot of fun to what could have just been a fairly basic retread of a cutesy nineties game. It especially helps that the pixelated artstyle of the game is incredibly detailed and adorable. When the original Pocky and Rocky came out, it was praised for its highly detailed 16-bit art, in an era where 16-bit was the new hotness, and Reshrined does good by that legacy. Old designs have been made more complex without sacrificing the core concepts underpinning them, and usage of more complex effects like melting one screen into another as a demon bursts into the world showcases a dedication and appreciation for the aesthetic that all art should strive for.
The core gameplay is pretty 1:1 to its predecessor, with the exception of a couple new abilities. Generally speaking, this is a scrolling shooter, so you sort of, you know, scroll and shoot. Pocky shoots her spell tags out, Rocky shoots his leaves, you can get upgrades that change these a little but for the most part you’re gonna just learn enemy patterns and omni-directionally shoot at whatever comes your way. While it’s fun to fool around with Pocky’s new mirror moves, and Rocky’s ridiculous mikoshi float carried by a bunch of tiny tanuki, the three new playable characters are where Reshrined really gets added depth.
Goddess Ame-no-Uzume floats around with two magatama that sort of work like options; with one on each of her sides with different trajectories for more widespread damage, while the little weasel yokai Ikazuchi has some fun weapons like an auto-targeting beam, and the ability to summon tiny little versions of herself that hop along and shoot on their own. The last character, Hotaru-Gozen, is only playable by beating the story mode twice but she’s easily the most fun; with short-range yet wide spear attacks, and the type of moves you’d expect out of a character action game rather than a shooter.
The variety of characters adds a lot of replayability to the game; something that’s inherent to shoot ‘em ups, but also something that was lacking from the old SNES game. You could play Pocky and Rocky over and over again, and it kept its luster (especially through co-op), but at its core it was being carried by an individualist desire to constantly improve your score and ability. While that thrust remains, the ability to replay in all sorts of different ways with different weapon ideas and goals helps broaden what you’ll get out of the game, evolving it past what could be a simple one-and-done experience.
When it comes to complaints…it’s kind of hard to think of much wrong with Reshrined. It’s a little frustrating that you have to unlock co-op by beating story mode, but realistically the story mode is an hour long, and it’s kind of nice to have a game be like “Okay please I am begging you learn how to play this game a little before you drag another person into all this.” More frustrating, I would say, is the placement of “Very Easy” mode behind just playing a certain amount of Normal difficulty. I get the desire to try and get people to punch above their weight class a bit, and the retroness of this design philosophy, but it’s the sort of arbitrary limitation that’s ultimately pretty unnecessary.
It’s also a little underwhelming to see, especially in the age of, you know, a global pandemic that is perhaps preventing many people from physically hanging out with each other regularly, that the game only has local co-op. This feels like such an odd omission, especially when the original was incredibly popular among some of my childhood friends as an SNES emulator netplay game. I realize that this isn’t a game with an extravagant budget behind it, but at the same time you’d really think that at least some form of online play would’ve been in consideration, especially with recent Nintendo Switch Online games doing exactly that. It also would’ve been nice to see some more integrated challenges that a lot of the arcade and retro collections of recent times have put in, but I can also see the benefit of keeping things simple and sweet.
All-in-all, Pocky and Rocky Reshrined is a quaint fun little time that isn’t an outrageous game changer, but instead a nice little distraction and reminder of a simpler time in games. Though it used to be commonplace, these days it really is hard to envision a world where games like this could be talked about at the same length as something like a Mario, or a Call of Duty. It’s interesting, every so often, to evaluate just how the landscape of games has changed, as well as just how little has to be changed in the end to still have a fun time.
BONUS TECHNICAL COMPLAINT ZONE:
So I didn’t talk about one thing, which is that this game really made me realize just how much the PlayStation 4 D-pad sucks. Like we talk a lot about the degradation of controller quality over the years, but it cannot be understated just how much harder it was to aim in this game with the PS4 D-pad, compared to playing the original via emulation and an Xbox Series X controller on the PC. I struggle and waver at the prospect of using the wretched Switch Joy-Con D-pad to play this game.
Pocky and Rocky Reshrined is available now on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.
Pockin' and Rockin' HD 4K 120 FPS
Pocky and Rocky Reshrined isn't gonna blow your mind, but if you want a little bit of fun nostalgia, it brings more than enough.