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Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Have a trailer and an official English title.


Pocky & Rocky Reshrined, coming this fall! Fingers crossed for Becky.
 
Yay (...but oh brother that trailer does everything in its power to hide the fact that this game is a brand new adventure. )
 
Is it? I thought it was another extremely fancy remake

Yeah, it is a new game (although I'm not ready to bet my life...I don't think the public has been able to verify for themselves). The marketing copy consistently says "brand new adventure", and this post up-thread offers the developer's clarification that "the reason it looks like a remake because the first level is based on the first level of the first SNES game."
 

ShakeWell

Slam Master
(he, etc.)
I did not realize this was the same folks as Wild Guns: Reloaded and Ninja Warriors Again Again (Yes, Again).

In fact, it somehow seems I missed this entire thread when Peklo posted it. Anyways, I'm on the hype train now. CHOO-CHOO.

Also, what is Natsume's relationship with Taito (who is owned by Square)? Ninja Warriors and Kiki Kaikai are both Taito properties, but I don't see really any indication of that?
 

Klatrymadon

Twilight Rascal
(he/him)
Taito developed both the original Ninja Warriors and KiKi KaiKai, but Natsume were the developers of The Ninja Warriors Again, Nazo no Kuro Mantle and Wild Guns on the SFC, so they're revisiting their own work with these remakes/new instalments for the most part. (Taito published the two SFC sequels to their own stuff, but didn't have anything to do with Wild Guns.)
 
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WildcatJF

Red After Image
(he / his / him)
To build on that, Natsume split in the mid 90s into Natsume Inc and Natsume Atari. Natsume Inc is the publisher we know in NA for Harvest Moon, while Natsume Atari is the development arm of all those 80s/90s Natsume action games, including the SNES Ninja Warriors, Pocky and Rocky 1/2, and Wild Guns. The original devs recently formed an internal team within called Tengo Project for the remakes/sequels to those games, and Taito's been cool with letting them do Ninja Warriors Again Again (aka Ninja Saviors: Rise of the Warriors in NA) and Pocky and Rocky Reshrined.
 

ShakeWell

Slam Master
(he, etc.)
Taito developed both the original Ninja Warriors and KiKi KaiKai, but Natsume were the developers of The Ninja Warriors Again, Nazo no Kuro Mantle and Wild Guns on the SFC, so they're revisiting their own work with these remakes/new instalments for the most part. (Taito published the two SFC sequels to their own stuff, but didn't have anything to do with Wild Guns.)

Right, but Taito (Sqeenix) still owns the IP of Kiki Kaikai and Ninja Warriors. Even if Natsume Atari is revisiting their own work, they don't own the rights to that stuff.

To build on that, Natsume split in the mid 90s into Natsume Inc and Natsume Atari. Natsume Inc is the publisher we know in NA for Harvest Moon, while Natsume Atari is the development arm of all those 80s/90s Natsume action games, including the SNES Ninja Warriors, Pocky and Rocky 1/2, and Wild Guns. The original devs recently formed an internal team within called Tengo Project for the remakes/sequels to those games, and Taito's been cool with letting them do Ninja Warriors Again Again (aka Ninja Saviors: Rise of the Warriors in NA) and Pocky and Rocky Reshrined.

Right, I knew about the Natsume split, etc, but do we know if Taito "being cool" with this stuff means they're getting a cut? They retain some level of publishing right? I just think it's kinda weird there's not really any Taito/Squeenix branding on either of these.
 

Klatrymadon

Twilight Rascal
(he/him)
Taito's name is all over my Euro copy of TNWOA ("The Ninja Saviors", puke) - I think they're the publisher in Japan, too. (The Euro release is published by ININ.) Sorry for the lack of clarity earlier, but what I'm getting at is that Natsume made the SFC games essentially in a subcontracting capacity, and given that this new trilogy has been kind of a passion project for their Tengo Project division, I'd assume it was they who approached Taito about doing the remakes in the same capacity. Could have it backwards, though! Interviews I've seen with the fellas didn't really go into it. But yeah, Taito'll be getting a big ol' slice of the pie, no doubt. ($2.50)
 
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Pajaro Pete

(He/Himbo)
taito has their name on the title card of the trailer
 

Klatrymadon

Twilight Rascal
(he/him)
Yeah, the Euro title rubs me the wrong way mainly because it's so out of step with the character of both Ninja Warriors games - the tone of their endings in particular is always one of futility, and the pat message they beat you over the head with is "Mulk sucks too, both sides are Bad, war never changes", etc.
 
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Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
No, this isn't a news update on Reshrined; as far as anyone can tell, it's coming along as scheduled, slated for that eventual autumn 2021 release. In so waiting and in the spirit of celebrating the return of a long-absent series, I did my usual and played through practically the full run, which in significance consists of four main games. I've known about the series for a long time, talked and written about it, played them too, but never actually finished any one of them before. That is now remedied, so a couple of words about each game that make up this legacy that's now being revived and which has inspired so many others.


1986's KiKi KaiKai arrives amidst something of an arcade renaissance period for Taito, who as a developer had as good a claim as any as being the foremost innovators and popularizers of an entire medium. The lineup conceived for release around this time gives pause to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the industry and its tentpoles: Bubble Bobble, Darius and Arkanoid can all claim to having influenced or dominated entire genres, and they speak to Taito's particular specialities--these were people very good at making puzzle and shooting games, and often in an intuitively hybridized package so as best to court the newly curious in addition to the diehards maintaining their niches.

KiKi KaiKai in its way is a refresh and subversion on the codified norms of the shoot 'em up genre, as contemporaries like TwinBee and Fantasy Zone had already paved the way toward expressions outside of militarized, space-faring dogfights--the difference is that those games turned toward the surreal and candy-coloured knowing nonsense, while KiKi KaiKai's heart is in the folkloric, mythological and religious, dressed up as adorably and lightheartedly as it can but no less authentic for it. It's a ghost story, as the title declares, and the supernatural extrapolations of real life belief systems give its world form and verve. This is important to establish, as the source material that informs the game is so universal and part of shared culture that it could never lay any kind of claim on being an innovator on its subject matter in bringing it to the context of a video game, but the specifics of the chosen genre, aesthetic and general playful tone have become definitive for many; just one would be the Touhou series which came into being from a strong love of Taito games, shooters, and folklore among other building blocks in a way that wasn't accidental and has never been in doubt. There is something to latch onto in this concoction that when it's seen to be in short supply, other creators inspired by it have taken on its ethos to fuel their own works and preserve its significance.

As an arcade game of the time and a shooter both, what's perhaps notable about KiKi KaiKai is just how manageable to learn and to cope with it is. The novel form of player-governed scrolling in addition with free movement makes Sayo's journey, set and linear as it is, feel grand in scope just through how many nuances in mobility and pace one can set for themselves as they scope out the temple courtyard or walkway. The mastery lives in those minute movements, as enemies thrill in approaching from all corners, and diagonal risk management becomes a true lifeline in handling the masses of yokai crawling and hopping out of the scenery. The importance of having space to work with in both evasive and offensive maneuvers becomes the centerpiece of the game's design sense, as there is meaningful topography that dictates safe spots and danger zones both; falling off a bridge or splashing into the water is as deadly as any common boogeyman, while an obstacle can shield from the roaming droves. The stage progression and world depicted in KiKi KaiKai is contiguous, and in that consistency can run the risk of being deemed plain, but the attention to spatial detail pays off that debt handily in what kind of investment and attention in the environment it's able to foster. The bosses, the big deal yokai, are both delightfully portrayed in true Shigeru Mizuki alumni fashion in their goofy-creepy appearances, and are also not overblown in difficulty as the guardian figures they serve as, instead opting for brief, memorable punctuation.

So many games, even those just a few years old, are judged for whether they've "aged well" or not--a symptom of the collective damage suffered by anyone paying attention to the medium and how it treats its own history and the chauvinistic thinking it fosters in turn--everything old becomes superfluous and unnecessary to ever think about again. KiKi KaiKai plays, looks, and feels like an arcade game from 1986, and there is little I would change about it.


The close partnership Natsume developed with Taito in the late '80s and early '90s benefited both parties, as the former made a name for themselves with solid ports and conversions of proven material, while the latter could boast an expanded lineup in their already significant operation without overstretching internal developers. Natsume, of course, weren't only a work-for-hire studio content to adapt other people's material, as they quickly showcased a canny understanding of the platforms they worked on and the genres they toiled in, whether that was dude-action with an edge on the NES or animal platformers on the Game Boy, and the greatest successes perhaps derived from a synthesis of compelling source material met with painstakingly high standards in living up to that pedigree; so profess the Taito licenses updated for a new era and platform by the developer. The Ninja Warriors Again transformed the spectacle-first brawler into one of the most thought-out and technically-minded single-plane beat 'em ups ever seen, while another revival from the mid-to-late '80s creative hotbed came in the form of the returning shrine maiden and her new tanuki companion.

Six years is not an insignificant length of time by many earthly standards, but in the industry of video games, particularly in the midst of their still nascent, self-defining period, it may as well be an eon. Seeing KiKi KaiKai reborn as Pocky & Rocky (a great localized title saddled with an asinine logo) is an evolutionary step matched by precious few others, as far as gauging the impact a shifted sense of presentational fidelity can bring to a game. It is still visibly the same game, brought to an unprecedented level of lushness of visual dazzle, from environments to character art and their animations, to the creatures fought and met, and what is done with those assets along the way. The button-cute aesthetic is prominently featured in every possible nook of the game to be found, from the expected main menu splash screen and narrative intermissions, but also in more unconventional places like the tremendously intuitive button configuration menu, illustrated in sprites. To be rendered excited by an option screen alone speaks to the kind of game that's been created, inviting and to be partaken in joyously every step of the way.

That is not to say it's not a hard game; if anything, it's meaner than the arcade original. While situationally brutal, it's still a kind of stern attitude one can feel good about being recipient to, as it's not achieved through rigours of endurance or unsignaled surprises--Pocky & Rocky does not repeat environments, enemy concepts, nor even really their individual configurations; the challenge comes as much from breathless, anticipatory novelty as from iteration and practice of the central mechanics explored through those endless permutations to the previous standard. It's an incredibly difficult game to dislike on an imaginative level as it never feels comfortable settling on anything and so packs a ludicrous amount of sights and sounds to what is, reduced to numbers lacking contextual nuance, a game of six stages in total. It feels as if it extends far beyond that definition, and not in a weary, exhausted way of reflecting on a journey that could've resolved in half the time spent on it--it's simply so lovable that the paradoxical desire to spend more time within it is present, even as stretching out a game so at ease with itself would only dilute it.

Reshrined looks to this revival for its own material; the official line has been ambiguous as to what kind of relationship the new game will have with the original, but so far they have adapted and expanded on it with great accuracy to the form, and why wouldn't they? This game is KiKi KaiKai idealized, observant of the arcade-derived roots while also being hungry to riff on the standard in bigger and smaller ways that feel as if they always should've been there. It's streamlined in a sense that may seem invisible to a more modern, pejorative definition of the word, while turning that focus to its advantage in exploring new ways of having fun with the core toolset--sliding exists here as a mobility option and nowhere else, to highlight one notable wrinkle. It was the peak of the series once, and it may be so again. Here's hoping.


One cannot accuse Pocky & Rocky 2 of resting on its laurels as a creative endeavor. While the previous game could be read as having perfected its particular formula, the sequel does not settle for an easy remix of that success story, and instead turns the series to directions half in the past, half to somewhere beyond the horizon. As a shooter series dealing in mythology and folklore, the thematics and trappings of KiKi KaiKai have always been more readily and easily associated with other genres it's not actually part of which regularly make use of such material for creative fodder--RPGs and adventure games adjacent to them particularly so. It is what upon contextless exposure one might imagine the games to be from their promotional face and relevant packaging; human culture fueled into the ostensibly heady and analogous mediums for relating those stories forward in new forms. KiKi KaiKai and other media like it have turned this juxtaposition and striving against expectations into an enduring part of their appeal, but it doesn't mean the association isn't pertinent, as the dreaded "RPG elements" even in the old days worked their way into other, ostensibly uninfluenced genres until there was nothing else left than a shared, tangled heritage all were part of. That's Pocky & Rocky 2's premise: it's a little more conventional than before, in breaking out of its own series's legacy of unconventionality.

This observable shift need not be such a dramatic upheaval of the tenets that uphold the series, and upon first impressions it doesn't appear to be. The presentation is similar, still able to conjure up landscapes of wonder and merit, still drawing from a cultural bestiary of bizarre critters that if not ready to feature as part of the roster of a video game from age-old conception, then at least shaped for the purpose through centuries of passed-along verbal and visual interpretation. It is a game that moment to moment is played in a more than comparable manner to its siblings, and maybe that's exactly where the roots of the issues lie; that it is so unchanging in some ways, the ways that do not grow to accommodate the newly introduced aspects that come to define the play experience.

Pocky & Rocky 2 introduces an economy to the series, in the form of collectable coins to be spent in shops discovered across the stages. The incremental build-up of resources is a central aspect of the game, as Sayo spends most of the time managing the accrued totality of her arsenal in its varying degrees of completion--does she have a full set of protective armour on? What about the ofuda's power level? Are the defensive bunny ears affixed to her noggin? What kind of partner character does she have access to? What about her key stock to unlock treasure chests? In filling out the game with more things to keep track of than ever before, a sensation builds that this is the highlight of the game as a case it's making for itself as a Valuable Product; the breadth and depth through sheer volume becomes the argument for self-worth. It may have been an angle to pursue if it all didn't feel so superfluously implemented, as the established manner of discovering power-ups in the world is still retained--now you just have more opportunities to patch out the arsenal, and more incremental steps to take in order to accomplish that. Filling out the game spaces with chests holding money does little but remind oneself of the odd sense of busywork instilled in a game that previously held itself to such immediately understood standards, in a fruitless effort to imbue a sense of value on a condescended genre through enforcing artificial longevity.

That sense of being stretched too thin is the lasting impression that the game leaves one with, in ways that are so holistic that they speak of a consistent creative mandate, consciously applied or not. At nine stages, even if one is an optional tutorial, this is the longest game in the series, and for that amount of material the inspiration in the scenery and the threats encountered therein simply doesn't justify the length of the ordeal in how interesting it is to experience, as a setting or a set of play patterns. The barren environments are more interested in housing the requisite shops than crafting memorable layouts of their own, while the bosses are the deathknell for the game should it ever be isolated to just one cause.

I particularly wanted to emphasize the brevity of boss encounters in other games in the series, as the fights in Pocky & Rocky 2 are uniformly these minutes-long epics in length if not qualitatively as the slang definition goes. The patterns are "solved" within moments, and they do not change, but the amount of health each opponent boasts is ridiculous beyond reckoning, and that's if you're in possession of the maximum ofuda power level, which continued access to is dependent upon flawless play as any hit at all diminishes its potency, unlike in the previous game which provided a buffer of a handful of mistakes. The battles are not hard because of the intrinsic difficulty posed by the related patterns--they are hard because they can defeat one through sheer boredom, as I experienced more than once when attention was simply grated away as the mind could no longer justify its own inactivity in concert with the required finger gymnastics and so abandoned the venture totally. I am the kind of player who tends to relish bosses in video games when they serve a narrative, mechanical, emotional or atmospheric purpose--I can't figure out why Pocky & Rocky 2 is the way it is, what creative instinct or need its bosses fulfill beyond that conjectured premise of arbitrarily lengthening the inevitable.

Pocky & Rocky 2 is a game full of charming things. The narrative--as much as the localization lets by in its contemporary treatment of whitewashing anything Japanese--centers around Princess Kaguya and brings in various other mythic figures, including a recurring oni warrior who decides to imprint on Sayo as her eternal and worthy rival, explored in likely the best-faring battles among those grueling many. It expands the cast of the series massively with the companion characters that are now always present, exponentially adding to the list of potential playstyles and niche abilities embodied in them. Even the bloated length is put to diverse use on occasion, as a few stages feature the only instances of traditional autoscrolling shooting the series otherwise never involves itself with. Ultimately though, even in those positives you can find the root cause of the difficulties it faces in defining itself: that in trying for something fresh and novel in the context of its own series, it ran afoul of popular design elements contaminating the specific ingredients that had previously flavoured the games to a tantalizing texture not found anywhere else, upending the entire recipe.


I don't know what kind of consensus, if any, there exists for Pocky & Rocky 2; it's just as likely the game is viewed as part of a set for a better-than-original revival, or even cherished for its individual merits that I could not latch onto or reconcile with the rest. Whatever the reality, the series went away again for a longer period than the last time, and upon returning things had changed very much and not at all. The awesomely, majestically titled Pocky & Rocky with Becky is not of Taito's making, nor is it Natsume's even if through licensing and publishing aspects both are part of the game's being. It's instead the work of Altron, a developer of notable vintage but whose catalogue consists almost exclusively of the kind of thankless licensed work that doesn't even land one on unimaginative, tiresome mock-listicles decades later--it's work that leaves you entirely forgotten and devoid of a legacy to call your own. When Robo Pit is the shining star of a creative oeuvre... well, that speaks for itself to whom it may signify anything at all.

Being unknown doesn't translate to a lack of skill in the relevant field or subject, so the pedigree of Altron is maybe not indicative of however with Becky turned out in the end--instead it may tell more of where the series was at this point in time, in the early 2000s, at the dawn of a new handheld standard. The aesthetic, subject matter, genre and whatever marketing it may have ever received all firmly slot KiKi KaiKai as a niche product, as popular in a vacuum as it may seem sometimes, and even as it's tried its hardest in welcoming people to a notoriously forbidding and intimidating genre. That it rose to a degree of prominence was aided by being the creation of an industry giant who could throw their weight around in establishing it in the first place, and then shopping it around to new, capable custodians in its second turn. It was always destined to fade away as economic realities and industry trends took away its safety nets, and so the tentative reintroduction through a reliable but unsung developer, on a new system that was viewed as the last holdout of those traditional modes of game by at least big publishers at large... the more one rationalizes and (I stress) assumes, the more with Becky's curious existence seems to clarify.

The one thing to be understood about Pocky & Rocky with Becky is that it's not a sequel to the Natsume games at all. It borrows their brand nomenclature for the English releases, but the rest is as if the preceding fifteen years and change had not occurred for the series at all. "Canon" is not a concept to latch onto with a series like this, so instead the signifiers are found in the overall presentation and structure of the game: it's a single-player only jaunt through environments that stand more uniform than apart aesthetically and in their layouts, securing keys to unlock boss rooms, all done with an unadorned set of mechanics; fundamentals are what you'll learn because that's all there is. Even the titular Becky calls back to the more obscure branches of series history, as she's also known as Miki, the fellow shrine maiden who took on the role of player two's avatar in the first game's home ports.

The Natsume duology, whether the takeaway differs between them or not, can be assessed as enormously feature-rich for the genre they occupy and everything one can do in them; that's been a big selling point for them in contemporary and retroactive assessment as they're just games people like to impress upon and exist in. In that working context, with Becky seems so at odds with the accepted baseline that it almost comes off as a betrayal of those supposed tenets to be upheld. And yet, after the enormous volume of the previous game, something slighter of investment seems acceptable, even desirable in seeing the series reorient and assess what it wants to do with itself. The reliance on the original's model is less damning when it occupies a sort of acknowledged but unexplored prehistory in how the series is usually remembered, so twists on its formula come off as less nakedly placating of audience anxieties than deference to a formative work otherwise might--the sense you get here is that the relative simplicity of a 1986 arcade game was astutely deemed a viable model to follow for a 2001 Game Boy Advance project. Not shooting for the stars, but for a realistic and reachable mark for the means and stature afforded to the series at this point in its life.

For all the stark straightforwardness that with Becky possesses, it's still capable of delighting in ways that all games in the series have proven to be able to. The bosses fought exchange brief (and in localization, assuredly even more truncated) quips before and after battles, comprising the bulk of the game's dialogue in so doing. The twist on this comes upon finishing the game, as the unlocked Expert Mode frames itself as a continuation of the standard playthrough: the same things happen in the same order, only now Orochi breaks its seal again and the exasperated trio get hot on its trail once more, the previously fought bosses upping the ante in both their banter and the intensity of their patterns. In fact, the entire game is recipient to an overhaul of enemy patterns and configurations, with several entirely new foes appearing only in this mode, fitting seamlessly into the original material and transforming its challenges. Combined with the no-frills nature of the game and the very manageable length, this was the only game out of the set that I immediately played through again, and found much of merit in the process. It didn't hurt to realize that Becky is an absolute monster of a shrine maiden in her yokai-fighting capabilities.

Pocky & Rocky with Becky is not a game one is "supposed to" like when taken at face value. It's slighter of previously established features, less audiovisually engaging, unsure of itself in ways that shouldn't be allowable like odd instances of hit detection and the general pace of the adventure... yet I cannot help but be endeared to it, for the underdog qualities that feel like the only thing holding it together. In adequacy, it found its place in the series and secured a legacy none other could claim.

~~~
This isn't even all the KiKi KaiKai there is! There's the fascinating home port of the first game for the Famicom Disk System, Dotō-hen, which shipped with exceptional "feelies" for the era, depicting the Seven Lucky Gods, and redesigned the game to a more freeform exploratory style indicative of the platform--or how about the torrid tale of Heavenly Guardian, Legend of Sayuki, Snow Battle Princess Sayuki or however many other monikers the game has gone by; a game that began life as a new installment in the series, lost its license, was retooled into an original creation and then rereleased a decade later for modern platforms today. Be those as they are, the above four are really the "main" series for a lineage that isn't so long, but it sure feels storied, and I'm glad there's cause to look forward to more. For those potentially interested, KiKi KaiKai is available on Switch through the excellent Arcade Archives line; with Becky is still available for those fortunate enough to have owned a Wii U through its (similarly excellent in emulation quality) GBA VC; and for the Natsume games... well, those one must find somewhere else. Reason enough to anticipate Reshrined!

Enjoy a fishman.
 
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WildcatJF

Red After Image
(he / his / him)
I appreciated this post so much Peklo, thank you for sharing your experience with the series! Got me even more excited, haha.
 
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