15 Jul 2016

1997 - PS1 - Namco

What can modern side-scrollers learn from this gem?

I drifted into Klonoa's world in the same way I did with the videogames I played when I was twelve. I'm not twelve anymore. In some ways I'm downright jaded. Yet Klonoa enticed me. How?

Oh, the music is certainly a part of it. Chirpy, outdoorsy tracks full of flutes and other wind instruments — appropriate for a game for which the Japanese title translates as "Klonoa of the Wind". Xylophones and circus calliopes for added cheer. Other tracks are subdued and eerie, others punchy and exciting. All the tracks are fairly long and varied, and every level has its own. They transport you, then settle into your ears and make a home.

What about the controls? Boy, they hit the spot, too. Klonoa's grab: hit an enemy with your a "wind bullet" and it immediately snaps to being held over Klonoa's head, inflated. You can throw it, or jump on it whilst in the air: you shoot upwards again; the enemy shoots downwards, which can be used as a handy attack. Grab enemies whilst in the air to chain such jumps together. Actions like these, with a sudden changes in velocity, feel vigorous, satisfying. Connect them dangerously together, such as over a deadly pit, and Klona's grab-jump nears Bionic Commando's dramatic grappling hook swing for kicks.

If only they had taken it further. Klonoa is not only very easy, but very simple. An early enemy you can grab is a green triangular thing with a propeller head. Hold it and it whisks you upwards, which you’ll need to do to get highest gems in the level. I wish they had done more with these such effects, specific to enemies you grab, that will react in different ways when you hold them or when you throw them, or would temporarily give you new abilities in a Kirby like manner. But propeller-head and the enemies that explode like bombs are really the only ones, and Klona’s range of actions are limited in general. Not that the core mechanic isn’t a pretty great one — and the levels thoroughly and smoothly designed around it — but there’s no, for example swinging, climbing, sliding, swimming, or anything else of the sort to mix things up. You’re unable to pull off the cool momentum based tricks that you can in a Mario game.

I will also say it’s a shame the game isn’t longer. It’s true I went back to some levels, called "visions", because playing them is so...nice, though I do think with the only middling complexity of the level design and controls the game may have “run out of steam” after another few visions.

Yet none of them can dampen my enthusiasm, because it is the world of Klonoa that delighted me the most; a sidescrolling world that takes advantage of the 3D modeled environments so that levels twist and turn on themselves. You can see other areas of the level in the distance, and interact with them by punching or throwing enemies in that direction. Paths will bend to split in a way impossible in pure 2D games. It wasn't the first sidescroller with 3D modeled environments — take Pandemonium, levels in Crash Bandicoot, and no doubt other examples I don't remember — but it takes advantage of them better than some games released today.

It seems these "2.5d" games — horrible term, but I don't know what else to call them — are tricky to pull off. The character looks to exists in three-dimensions, but you see them stiffly proceed in a perfectly straight line though the level — and why is the architecture of this level designed in such a straight narrow line anyway? It looks as awkward as a limp. Compare the coherent 2D Mega-Man X with it's polygonal remake, Maverick Hunter X, and you may see what I mean. It takes some clever visual design to pull off.

Klonoa fairs better than others, first because the feline hero is a charmingly animated, 2D sprite. We only expect him (her?) to move along one axis. Second, because the foreground and background are relevant mechanically, with enemies there that can be punched and switches in the background that can be hit with thrown enemies. Your eyes are drawn deeper into the environment, and the space is more immersive as a result. Where other sidescrollers have been as if set on a balcony overlooking rolling hills, Klonoa and the others of its species puts you into those hills (tied to a foot trail of course, but one that meanders and forks and joins back up).

The effect is so lovely I think more 2D series should be brave enough to take it up. Castlevania, you shitted up your last 2D game, Mirror of Fates, when switching to polygons. Take some notes. 2D games have made some great improvements in making their environments look more natural and aesthetic (read this Ubisoft article on the art design of Rayman: Legends), but some contrivances are inevitable. Going the 2.5D route offers even more potential for coherent levels that feel like places.

My favorite levels are the forest levels, 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2, where the platforms are parts of the trees, or walkways used by the forest dwellers, whose huts you can see in the background and who sometimes pop up to help you by activating the moving platforms, which are in this-case gondolas.

You might notice that those the levels I mentioned aren’t in consecutive order or over one chapter, because Klonoa takes you around it’s world as befits the story. After the forest level in chapter 2 you need to make a detour to the waterfall level because the forest isn’t getting enough water and is withering. When you come back to the forest world newly nourished plants are shooting up all around you. Now, look at the eight predictable themed chapters of Mario: beat the ice world and proceed to the sky world, and so on. Doesn’t that seems a little trite?

Now, I love Mario, and how at it's best it can exploit it's own incoherence, making levels that are deep and challenging on a technical level that other platformers cannot match. Yet, with a few cute characters and very short cut-scenes Klonoa feels like an adventure in a way that 2D Mario never really has. The koopa kids can't compare. Despite a colorful cast across Mushroom Kingdom and some clever writers working on games like Mario & Luigi, Nintendo seems reluctant to elevate the worlds of recent games like New Super Mario Bro. which only feel superficially lively. 

Then again, Klonoa has one massive flaw that Mario does not: the Klonoa series did not make Super Mario 64 in 1996. Klonoa might be a more captivating 2D platformer, but such as they cannot top a true, majestic 3D platformer — the real McCoy — and the exciting ways of moving and the new depth to levels that came along with it. So, there we go.

It’s funny that Klona manages to have levels that feel more natural than other platformers, because it has a set-up would justify nonsense levels: it is a "dream-world". It is a shame this game is so easy. Most competent players will breeze through it without a single game over. Personally I saw the game over screen once during the last boss, partially because I started playing far too late at night. But the fact that I preferred to indulge in Klonoa’s dreams over my own says it all.


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