We have to be up front about our knowledge and experience of Pocky & Rocky, as we suspect it’s rather important. We have never played the original SNES game, although we were aware of it at the time (our excuse being that it was an import-only title). We’re coming to this review with little context of how it improves on the original, outside of some gameplay videos. If you’re a veteran Pocky & Rocky player who is looking for a Digital Foundry-esque comparison of the two games, then I’d suggest you look elsewhere. What I can do is give a take on whether this vast overhaul of the original Pocky & Rocky is worth playing, as a modern shmup fan.
It didn’t take many of those gameplay videos to understand just how much of a visual improvement Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is over the original. This is bloody lovely looking, and we struggle to recall a more detailed or characterful shoot ’em up from the last five years. Every single enemy, even the grunts, are beautifully animated and look like they’ve been drafted in by top-tier Ghibli artists. Most of the beasts, in fact, could have been bosses in other games.
The quality does dip in the latter of the stages, as if the work has been front-loaded on the first levels that most players will see. But even then, Pocky & Rocky Reshrined represents both a lavish shooter and a huge graphical hike on the originals. We were excited just to see what was around the next corner.
Not that we got very far – not often, anyway. We’ve read reviews of Pocky & Rocky Reshrined, from players who lived and breathed the original, and they’ve said that this is substantially easier than the original. Blooming ‘eck: we can only imagine what the SNES version must have been like, because Pocky & Rocky Reshrined beat us black and blue on multiple occasions.
Part of that difficulty comes from the anachronistic controls. We’re twin-stick fanatics, so not having the capability of aiming with one stick and moving with the other feels debilitating. We haven’t played a game with these controls in such a long time. The left-stick moves Pocky, and you can only fire in the direction you’re facing. Which is completely counter-intuitive, of course: you are firing because enemies are coming from that direction. You don’t want to be walking towards them at the same time.
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined has an answer to this core problem, yet it never manages to feel completely natural. There’s a defensive melee move that swishes some ribbons in the way of the various demons. It’s not quite fast enough to kill all enemies nearby, but it tidies up some stragglers that the bullets didn’t hit, and you can also reflect some projectiles back at their owners. Rounding out the move-set is a dash, which leaves you momentarily vulnerable after using it, and a finite number of smart-bomb-like attacks. These are essential when you’re surrounded, which is pretty much always.
It took us far too long to get used to the moveset. Unlearning the twin-stick reflexes took some time. We learned to dink the analogue stick to aim, but not hold it down and move afterwards. We constantly rolled away from threats, swishing our ribbons as we went, as defense was often the dominant approach. ‘Guns blazing’ just gets you killed.
Pocky & Rocky Reshrined doesn’t help with checkpoints or save states, not particularly. Again, we’ve read criticism that Reshrined added too many checkpoints, which boggles the mind. After each boss you get a save state, but that’s it. Fluff the route to the boss, and you’re back to the start of the game or the nearest checkpoint, which is – to modern eyes and fingers – hugely punishing.
This becomes even harsher with the knowledge that there are massive difficulty spikes throughout Pocky & Rocky Reshrined. The first of those is the opening sodding level. We kicked ourselves repeatedly for dying thirty times on the first level, but managed to forgive ourselves when we found out that a) there’s a checkpoint after the boss, and b) the first level is one of the hardest in the game. It’s a baptism of fire, and there should be a disclaimer that says ‘don’t worry, it gets easier’.
Don’t get us started on an ‘Easy Mode’ being locked behind – of all things – progress in the game. Who on Earth is going to master the game and then dink the difficulty down a peg? It makes no sense. The same goes for a locked cooperative mode. Again, this would have made things easier, and would have brought another player along for the ride too. But Pocky & Rocky Reshrined chooses to hide it behind progress, which makes precisely zero sense to us.
But you know what? We’re glad we persisted. We pushed through the ‘classic’ controls and the nobbly first level, only to emerge into the daylight. There, we found a shoot ’em up that every enthusiast should try. The levels were always surprising, pumping out enemies that could have spilled out from an animated movie. The controls, once they became second nature, were exquisitely balanced, as we moved from bullets to melee to smart bombs, depending on how overwhelmed we were. And – by all accounts – this is almost a new game in the Pocky & Rocky universe, such is the degree of change from the original.
We don’t have the experience of the original Pocky & Rocky, so we’re saying this as first-timers: Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is a gorgeous bastard. It was unabashedly mean to us, and required a complete rewiring of our twin-stick shooter sensibilities, but once we managed to ride this bucking bronco, we enjoyed the hell out of it.