There’s no such thing as too much cute. While my teeth have been rotted away by the sugar sweetness of Kirby, I can’t help but dive into the dream land of another. Klonoa: Empire of Dreams and Klonoa 2: Dream Champ Tournament are two candy coated romps and I can’t help but pour them straight into my gum holes.
What makes these two Game Boy Advance games so interesting is that they eschew the genre the series was founded upon, the sidescrolling platformer, and in the process became niche sequels to an already unpopular game. Problem is, these two Klonoa games are some of the genres best, and stand out from the series they grew from.
Klonoa: Empire of Dreams and Klonoa 2: Dream Champ Tournament were puzzle platformers before it was cool. Nothing is physics driven, and there’s no “interesting” art style; it’s just you playing as a cat boy who loves to toss dudes around. It looks and feels from another time, what with its mascot character hopping and bopping around brightly coloured environments, grabbing ahold of enemies that are nearly as cute as himself. While I drew comparisons to Kirby earlier, the element of difficulty is where they split; and don’t worry, Klonoa isn’t easier than Kirby.
While they have their differences, the two GBA games play the same. As Klonoa, players grab onto enemies and various blocks (using what the game badassedly refers to as a “wind bullet”), toting them around puzzle rooms before putting them to use. Enemies can be used to reach higher elevations by allowing a double jump, or tossed at other enemies to clear the way. Blocks can be used to hold down switches, or stacked to achieve new heights. Of course, as the game goes on the tools available to you grow in number, but Klonoa’s moveset remains the same. As I’ve made clear in the past, a game that begins and ends with the same abilities are favourites of mine (Punch-Out!!, Yumi’s Odd Odyssey). It challenges the developer to build a game around an evolving skillset, and naturally allows the player to feel empowered. If a game’s primary mechanic can last throughout an entire game and still be fun, then it’s a clear sign that the developer is onto something.
The flow of the puzzles in these Klonoa games are built with the Game Boy Advance in mind; while the levels are large as a whole, each is composed of a few rooms. Each of these rooms is a self contained puzzle, and each houses their own bits of collectibles to obtain. These extra trinkets (in the form of jewels and coins) are placed with a careful hand. While you may be on your way to the room’s exit, a little extra work yields the reward. It’s a tough decision to make, as sometimes I had just passed a rather tricky sequence only to have to double back and make it harder on myself to get a trinket.
Each of these games break up the puzzle platforming pace with “surfboard” sequences, although the two handle it differently. Empire of Dreams keeps the game’s sidescrolling perspective, with players taking care of Klonoa’s jumps as he hurdles through a stage. Dream Champ Tournament puts the camera behind or in front of Klonoa as he makes his way to his destination. Neither approach is poor, but both games may have been better served without them. The surfboard appears to be an aspect of Klonoa’s “edginess”, a holdover from the latter days of the mascot. Klonoa’s backwards cap was enough ‘tude for me.
Something many puzzle platformers struggle with is boss battles. Forcing a game’s puzzle mechanics onto a boss fight often leads to a miserable experience, or at least one that feels out of place (Mighty Switch Force! and A Boy And His Blob for the Wii come to mind). The Klonoa games managed to surprise me in this respect, as their pace worked well and Klonoa’s ability to throw items is put into good use. While fun, Empire of Dreams‘s encounters are the run of the mill “chip away at their health bar until they’re dead and buried”. Dream Champ Tournament mixes the events up, having a timer running as they race towards the exit. Some battles require beating the boss to the finish line, while others have you stop along the way and damage them before the race continues.
The Klonoa games came at an odd time, a period where we had moved beyond the platforming mascot, especially those that lacked the attitude found in Crash Bandicoot. Perhaps now more than ever we’re more accepting of this type of experience, a cute puzzle platformer that doesn’t need to mutilate a child ala Limbo to stand out from the pack. Thankfully that chance may come, as Empire of Dreams was rated by the Australian Classification Board. The same occurred with Mr. Driller 2, which will be seeing a release in Europe this Thursday, so it seems likely that Klonoa will have another shot at the spotlight. Let’s not let him down.