Finding a decent third party Wii game can be tough. For every Red Steel 2 or Okami there are literally dozens and dozens shovelware titles like Petz: Crazy Monkeyz and Ninjabread Man – games that are so atrocious one can’t help but yearn for the revival of Nintendo’s now defunct Seal of Quality. For the average consumer, a quick glance at Klonoa‘s box art might reveal the game to be just another inane, kid-friendly button-masher; especially when taken in conjunction with its bargain bin, twenty dollar price tag. And that would be a shame, for Klonoa is a vibrant little platformer with history, heart, and more than a little charm.
Anyone with videogaming experience back in the mid-90s may remember a gem of a game known as Klonoa: Door to Phantomile. Developed by Namco for Sony’s PlayStation, this title featured endearing sprite-based characters (especially Klonoa himself – the game’s floppy-eared, dog/rabbit/cat-like protagonist), a surprisingly poignant story and some of the most polished 2.5D platforming gameplay on the system. For fans of the genre, Door to Phantomile was a rare treat, and proof that the 2D platformer could survive – even flourish – as the industry barreled full steam ahead into the third dimension.
These days, of course, both 2D and 3D games vie side-by-side for consumer attention, with sprite-based titles being kept strongly in demand due to the popularity of Nintendo’s DS handheld and the advent of bite-size, downloadable “arcade” titles across all three current generation consoles. With the industry climate so warm to the presence of 2D games, it’s ironic that Namco should choose now to release a 3D Klonoa remake on the Wii. Thankfully, the ‘3D’ part of this remake refers only to the switch from sprite-based characters and enemies to fully polygonal ones, and the outstanding 2.5D platforming gameplay that won over the hearts of many gamers all those years ago has been kept faithfully intact.
So what is 2.5D platforming, exactly? Simply put, it’s when the player moves an on-screen character along a two dimensional plane (a la Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man), but that plane bends and twists in and out of three dimensional environments. As with standard 2D side-scrollers, a 2.5D game needs to have snappy responsiveness and engaging gameplay to succeed, and Klonoa performs admirably in both areas. Armed with a mysterious, magical ring, Klonoa can snatch up enemies and use them to dispatch foes, perform double jumps or crack open out of reach item containers. It’s a simple mechanic, really, but one used cleverly in-game, especially when the player is forced to interact with objects in the background and foreground to progress. Plucking an enemy out of the foreground and launching it at a moving switch in the background, all the while dealing with rampaging bad guys on Klonoa’s immediate plane can provide some good, clean, platforming fun that hearkens back to the many great side-scrolling experiences of the 8 and 16-bit eras.
On that same train of thought, it must be noted that playing the game via the remote and nunchuck control setup just doesn’t feel right when compared to using either a Classic Controller or the GameCube pad. Namco tried to add a bit of motion control with a new spin attack (the only new gameplay addition to the Wii version) that requires the player to shake either the Wii remote or the nunchuck, but the mechanic can be sluggish to execute (and totally unnecessary, since the game doesn’t require its use to progress), and this imprecision will most likely lead to death by bottomless pit in the game’s later, more difficult levels.
Besides snappy responsiveness, another requirement of a good 2.5D side-scroller is level design that doesn’t confuse the player with constant and/or jarring twists and turns within the 3D environments. Thankfully, Klonoa rises to the occasion in this area as well, with well-paced levels that slowly ease in the 2.5D aspects and give the player a chance to appropriately prepare for the tougher, later areas. On top of that, the stages all look absolutely fantastic – especially when viewed in 480p on a high-definition television. Lush green forests, ice caverns littered with the bones of some giant, long-dead creature, a shimmering crystal castle in the sky (with some stellar reflective texturing) – environments such as these tickle the imagination and spur the player forward, eager to see what’s around the next corner. And then there’s Klonoa himself, who looks just as huggable in his newly polygonal form as he did as an animated sprite back in 1996.
The game’s story is also worth praising. Light-hearted and whimsical in the beginning and picking up steam and complexity as the game progresses, the plot wraps up in such a way that has the player questioning the nature of the world of Phantomile and Klonoa’s place in it. Even now there are threads on major gaming websites dedicated to the discussion and unraveling of Klonoa‘s ending, and when a platformer elicits this kind of reaction from its player-base, you know that it has pushed well beyond what’s normally expected from the genre.
As good as the overall story arc is, however, it’s undercut slightly by some cheesy dialogue that seems to have been written for young children. Lines like, “Now my mom is a nice mom again!” aren’t going to win any awards for originality or clever use of the English language, especially when experienced aurally in this version’s new English dialogue track. The Saturday morning cartoon quality of the voice work coupled with the kid-friendly writing doesn’t do the game’s intriguing plot any favors, so it’s advisable that players over the age of ten use the Phantomile (the Japanese-like gibberish spoken by the denizens of Phantomile) language track as opposed to the English.
Another minor black mark is the lack of challenge the game poses for hardcore platform gaming veterans. Although quite fun throughout, Klonoa doesn’t become truly difficult until the last two levels, and even then skilled players will likely make it through with only a handful of deaths. The main reason the game is so easy is because Klonoa is given too much life (significantly more than in the original, for some reason), thus making the only true threat the bottomless pits found in the later levels. Many of the boss fights are also cheapened due to one particular character in the game actually explicitly telling you where the enemies’ weak points are; it’s like Namco wanted the game to better appeal to the Wii’s younger user-base, but failed to recognize that there is no way a six-year-old is going to successfully perform the precision platforming required to clear the last few levels.
Despite these inconsistencies, this Door to Phantamile remake is important for a few reasons. First, it’s proof that the great games of generations gone by can still shine in this era of online first-person shooter fragfests and harpy-dismembering action-spectacles, especially when companies like Namco are willing to throw on a fresh coat of graphical polish and not just offer up the original code for download. Secondly, Klonoa shows that not all Wii third-party games are trashy, low budget remote-waggle-fests – stinkers that exist only to sucker clueless moms into shelling out twenty dollars for the game industry equivalent of a straight-to-DVD Pauly Shore flick. If you like action/platformers – get this game. If you’re looking for a bite-sized bit of gaming goodness to tide you over till the upcoming releases of Metroid: Another M and Super Mario Galaxy 2 – get this game. Basically – get this game. You won’t be sorry.