Pocky & Rocky With Becky - Smart Boy
At this point, the sheer breadth of games available on the Game Boy Advance doesn’t really surprise me, but the fact is a lot of the real weird stuff made in Japan stays there, never getting a western localization. But every now and then, something pops up that just defies explanation as to why the hell this managed to paddle its way over to the west. A chief example of this is the Pocky & Rocky series, a arcade-esque shoot’em up that is incredibly, *inherently* Japanese in a way I don’t think a ton of GBA owners were aware of… and yet here it is, in all its, admittedly brief, glory.
Unsurprisingly, ‘Pocky & Rocky’ is not the actual, original name of this franchise, being originally titled Kiki Kaikai, or Mysterious Ghost World. Generally, from what I’ve gathered, this game is like the rest of the series - Pocky and Rocky are guardians of the spirit world, something goes wrong, ancient Yokai escape, and then we’re into the game. ‘Nuff said. Beginning life as an arcade game, this franchise has never really departed those design tenets; for better, not for worse. You take a glance at a minute of this game, you’ll know exactly what kind of game it is - a sea of enemies, a cute girl shooting spells like a machine gun; it's like a more anime, top-down Contra, which in itself is a bizarre sentence to write down. Anyway, this is a pretty basic game when we get down to it, so let’s get to the good stuff.
Pocky & Rocky with Becky is a shoot’em up, where the shooter happens to be a tiny, adorable shrine maiden girl and/or tanuki that can fire a barrage of spell-like blasts like it’s nothing, and sweep foes away with her fan like the goddess of wind herself. Taking place across seven stages, Pocky (or Rocky (Or Becky))) will blast all varieties of yokai foes as they try to find the real dangers released from the Yokai shrine. Pretty much everything dies in a single hit, becoming more a game of blasting down enemies before they reach you, dancing around those you can’t, and keeping yourself moving so you’re not bogged down with the small stuff. As opposed to more traditional shoot ‘em ups, you have free movement of your chosen characters, being able to move in more directions to evade enemy attacks. Like a lot of arcade titles, your skills aren’t particularly deep - you’ve got your machine-like spells to deal with normal enemies, and a super that’ll wipe out everything on screen (and seemingly prevent enemies from spawning a little further ahead, but I couldn’t be sure about this). Occasionally, enemies or boxes will drop scrolls that’ll seemingly grant new abilities, but there’s nothing really stating what they do; red scrolls deal more damage, but the others? No idea. Overall, the game does feel a little limited in abilities, and even the alternate characters didn’t bring that much variety to the table, but this really is a successor to the shoot em ups endemic to the arcades of yesteryear, so I can kind of cut it a break in that department, whilst still underlining this is a very barebones game.
Pride of place in these games are the bosses, each of which represent a different major Japanese Yokai, such as Yamata-no-Orochi, or Gasha-Dokuro. In true arcade shoot-em-up fashion, these bosses are just bullet sponges that can soak up a ton of damage, becoming a dance of avoiding blast after blast whilst keeping up your damage. In my experience, these fights are more a damage race then anything, as these are bosses that fire so many projectiles that you *will* get hit, unless you’re a master at this kind of game. Kill them before they kill you, basically. The visual designs are very strong - thankfully, the localization didn’t switch up on pretty much any visuals in this game - with bosses like Yuki-Onna or Kuroguma really sticking out as having genuinely fantastic sprite art. Really don’t have any problems with the bosses in this game - though I think that’s kind of a running character trait for me. Yes, I’m a Dark Souls fan. I particularly want to shout out the drunken oni boss fight - not just because it was an engaging, dance-like battle, but because to avoid the fact he’s drunk off his ass, the translation simply referred to him as ‘Smart Boy’. It’s just so blatantly out of place I burst out laughing so hard my partner was wondering what the hell I was giggling about. Overall, though, the bosses are the highlight in this game, being genuinely challenging, yet not impossible foes. Also, it might sound elitist of me, but I’m kind of glad that you can’t use the screen clearing, super attack during the boss fights - makes the fight feel a bit less cheap.
The big caveat here is that this game is short. Not ‘short’ in the Nintendo Difficulty kind of way, as this game, whilst challenging, doesn’t feel like an insurmountable challenge, but just short. My run of the game took less than an hour, with only a handful of stages I had to replay because the bosses kicked my head in. There also really isn’t a whole ton of variety to mess around with in this game, either - you’ll run through the stages, which are generally quite linear, grab a key, and then fight the boss, with minute changes in general enemies and no real stage hazards to speak of. If you’re a particularly skilled player, I’d expect you could just run through a ton of these stages, using your super attack only when you’re surrounded, and it’d be genuinely easier than fighting your way through every enemy. Thankfully, there is an Expert Mode to play around with that significantly ups the challenge of this title, especially in the pre-boss sections. It’s also not locked behind actually completing the game; beating the game will reveal the button combination to access Expert Mode, but it’s technically available from the start as long as you know the code. It doesn’t substantially change the game, mostly changing up enemy density or bringing in later-game foes earlier on, but if you’re looking for a real old-school challenge, I honestly recommend trying out Expert Mode first, as I’d say it provides a more genuine experience, and it’ll grant you a bit more mileage out of this bite-sized title.
Overall, I think the game looks pretty average; nothing sticks out as looking too bad, and the sprite work on the bosses is actually pretty cool, but otherwise it kind of just blends into the sea of arcade shoot em ups - honestly, when I look at it, I feel like I’m playing a Touhou fangame at times. I love the soundtrack, though, having a real retro, arcade feel to it that really sends the toes tapping, perfectly fitting the nature of the seven chapters.
I’m still blown away this series even made to the west; sure, everyone can enjoy a good shoot’em up, but seeing it in its true, almost totally unaltered glory really throws me off. Shine maidens, yokai, tanuki, ‘Smart Boy’ and even a cartoonish Yamata-no-Orochi; Don’t get me wrong; I love it. Accuracy can be a boon for localizations, but in a game as light on story and focussed on gameplay as Rocky and Pocky is, getting a chuckle out of those who know what ‘Smart Boy’ actually is gives the game an extra level of amusement.
I’ve read online that this game isn’t particularly well-loved by fans of the overall series, but I can only really speak on my experience with just this title - maybe if I tried the original, I’d see this game's flaws more clearly. Either way, I had a good, albeit brief, time with Pocky and Rocky With Becky. Sure, it’s short and lacks enemy or moveset variety, but wildly gunning down foes mere inches from your face, and the genuinely fantastic boss fights and soundtracks really do a lot of heavy lifting in this title. Even with Expert Mode baked in, this game can feel a bit too transient to absolutely recommend, but overall, I think this title is worth a play if you’re interested - and especially if you want a good laugh as to why the hell Taito brought this to the west!
Thanks for reading my review of Pocky and Rocky with Becky! Nice and easy game this week, but next up we’ll be taking a look at something a bit more… topical. Think of the 2023 game of the year… Anyway, as always you can find me over at Twitter @Lemmy7003, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com if you have any requests or questions. Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you in my next review!