Growing up a Sega kid, I was completely content with the offerings I received on the best console of the 16-bit era, the Genesis. Well—mostly content. Every now and then, a game would hit the Super Nintendo that I desperately also wanted on Sega’s system. Three of the best examples of such games all came from the same company, Natsume1: Wild Guns, The Ninja Warriors Again, and Pocky & Rocky.
It turns out that that trio of games came thanks to a trio of game creators: Shunichi Taniguchi (designer and graphic artist), Toshiyasu Miyabe (director and programmer), and Hiroyuki Iwatsuki (composer and programmer). Now together as part of an internal team known as Tengo Project, the three decided to return to their earlier days of game creation by producing the fantastic retro-styled remakes Wild Guns Reloaded and The Ninja Saviors: Return of the Warriors. Both games revived their predecessors with refreshed visuals, improved gameplay, and other expansions not originally possible on the SNES.
While I was over the moon with both of those releases, deep down in my heart, they were really the appetizers before the main course. To this day, Pocky & Rocky remains a classic and beloved run ’n gun experience that many either wish to replay or experience for the first time (just check out the current going prices for a copy). Giving that game the Tengo Project treatment could really result in something special—and now that said game is in my hands, I can assure you it has.
At first, Pocky & Rocky Reshrined felt like a more polished and expanded re-release of the original 16-bit version. And then I actually went back to play that version again and realized just how massive of an overhaul this is. Reshrined isn’t that original game with some improvements; it’s a total rebuild from the ground up, with an amazing amount of work put into making the game look, sound, and play better than it ever did before.
It feels appropriate that I ended up reviewing Pocky & Rocky Reshrined right after TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, as both are love letters to an era of pixel-crafted graphics that deserves to not be forgotten. Every single screen presented here is dripping with detail, from the first stage’s shrine, which starts off similar to its original self but then comes to life in new and interesting ways, to a fully original late-game area that presents an Edo period city engulfed in flames. We’ve already seen Tengo Project’s skills with sprites in those previous two releases, but this is easily the team’s best visual work. It just looks so good, speaking as someone who still holds a lot of love for the original.
Except, that does cause a problem should you go back to play Pocky & Rocky again at this point as I did, which I almost recommend you don’t do. Even though it’s a great way to appreciate the amount of effort that went into Reshrined, it’ll also kinda break your heart once you take the rose-tinted nostalgia glasses off. Just let this be the way you remember the original. Even if it’s a lie, it’s okay.
At the same time that Pocky & Rocky Reshrined pays sincere homage to its predecessor in its striking visuals and steller remixed soundtrack, it also seeks to both improve the gameplay of the original while also expanding it in all-new ways. We now get a third type of weapon pick-up, a new set of offensive and defensive skills, and three new playable characters, more than doubling the cast.
Having somebody other than Pocky and Rocky in my Pocky & Rocky game isn’t always an appealing offer—the last time we got that, it resulted in that idiot Becky—but I think all three of the new additions here genuinely bring something worthwhile to the game. The Shinto goddess Ame-no-Uzume sports classic shooter-style Options, the “what if Pocky was a furry” Ikazuchi unleashes powerful lightning-based attacks, and the undead samurai Hotaru Gozen is a melee character. Introducing a more close-range character in a series all about running and gunning seemed almost a bit blasphemous to me at first, but she might actually now be my favorite of the newcomers.
There isn’t a bad pick in the bunch, and the expanded cast of characters brings new ways to approach the game while also adding much more variety to replays and 1CC runs. The new heroes also ended up changing my mind on something that I originally saw as a negative about the game: that you can’t even access the Arcade mode until you’ve gone through the Story mode. At first, I didn’t like not having a choice of which to focus on, but the campaign undeniably does a great job of introducing you to all five of the heroes and what they offer. I still might prefer to make that choice for myself, but I now understand why the team did what they did, and I can’t necessarily argue with their decision.
Beyond those and numerous other gameplay revisions, Reshrined also makes some serious shifts to Pocky & Rocky’s original stages. Some, like the opening stage I mentioned before, are moderate tweaks to their original selves. Other stages have undergone far more drastic reworkings or are gone altogether, making way for all-new locations and challenges that are almost always better than what they replaced. On paper, Reshrined only has two more stages than the original did, but in practice, the game feels and plays quite a bit longer than before. As well, all of those levels feature enemies and bosses that have either had their attacks and patterns tweaked, or who are brand new, which results in a great balance of familiarity and a fresh challenge, even for longtime fans.
It’s hard not to gush over Pocky & Rocky Reshrined, so let me admit that I experienced two negatives during my time with the game. As you may have heard others say, yes, this version does play at a bit slower pace than what we had on the SNES. To be clear, Reshrined does not feel slow, as this is how it is meant to be—it just isn’t quite as frantic as Pocky & Rocky was. Well, actually, the game did feel slow on rare occasions, but that’s due more to some slowdown that the Switch version seems to suffer from. The slowdown is minor, brief, and not much of a factor, but if the idea of any slowdown bothers you at all and you’re trying to pick which platform to go for, I’ve heard that the PlayStation 4 version is the way to go.
In the end, all of the love, care, and effort that Tengo Project has put into Pocky & Rocky Reshrined has resulted in an experience that both pays tribute to its original 16-bit incarnation while also not being afraid to become its own game. As much as I fell in love with Pocky & Rocky so many years ago, and still hold it fondly in my heart, it’s hard not to consider Reshrined to be its superior in nearly every way possible.
And yet, in this moment, my joy mixes with sadness knowing that the men at the core of Tengo Project have now finished their journey in reviving the three games that made them most famous during their early days at Natsume. Sure, they could maybe also tackle the inferior Pocky & Rocky 2, but I’d rather see them take on something a bit more ambitious. Maybe something from an earlier era. Maybe something with the words “Shadow of the Ninja” in its title.
1: In the interest of not getting too in the weeds in this text of this review, I’ve avoided directly referencing the complexities of Natsume as a company. In general, at this point, Natsume Co., Ltd. would be the part of pre-split Natsume that worked on the development of the games mentioned in this review, while Natsume Inc. is the part of pre-split Natsume that published those games in the West.
With this third of Tengo Project’s revivals of classic 16-bit Natsume releases, the team has certainly saved the best for last. Pocky & Rocky Reshrined takes what was already a fantastic run ’n gun experience, and expands, enhances, and improves pretty much all of the original Pocky & Rocky’s components to masterful degrees. From its stunning graphics, to its rich gameplay, to its fleshed out cast of interesting characters, Reshrined makes its predecessor proud while also introducing an all new generation of players to a core game that’s still just as worth playing today as it was 30 years ago.
Natsume Atari, Tengo Project
|Pocky & Rocky Reshrined is available on Switch, PS4. Primary version played was for Switch. Product was provided by Natsume for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.