[24 June 2005]
The immediate goal of any platformer is to pull the player into a somewhat nonsensical world, and charge them with saving something (i.e. princess, city, or society in general) by running, jumping, and collecting items. Generally speaking, platformers would be deemed absurd if they were to be analyzed in any meaningful way with respect to narrative. But that’s beside the point. These games are meant to be exercises in gameplay alone. Tight control, fun power-ups, and imaginative level design are all that really matter to a single game.
From a wider perspective, it could easily be argued that any entirely new platform game seeks to ape the success of Nintendo by laying the groundwork for potentially popular franchises. There’s little chance that a new Mario game, for example, isn’t going to sell well. As development costs rise and vast sales become more important to the developer and publisher bottom lines, guaranteed sales would clearly be a boon to any company in the video game business. Much of this potential franchise success also hinges on a key aspect of platformer design: the mascot.
Once a successful mascot is established, it can be used in a variety of games outside of standard platform fare. It can be involved in sports games, driving games, or pretty much any other genre, so long as a cutesy aesthetic is maintained. Mario, Sonic, and Crash are certainly examples of this phenomenon. Platform heroes that have been left by the wayside like Blinx, Tak, and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger have never been afforded this opportunity.
But what of a mascot who has never really broken into the mainstream, yet has starred in what are some of the best platformers available? Klonoa, a fairly generic looking Namco creation, first made an appearance on the original PlayStation. Door to Phantomile is rare enough that a used copy can still fetch around $50 on eBay. I’ve seen sealed copies go for well over $100. Door to Phantomile and its PS2 sequel Lunatea’s Veil both exhibit outstanding level design and a unique pseudo 3-D perspective where the path taken by the player can go in and out of the screen, and the camera repositions accordingly. Regardless, given Klonoa’s stiff competition in mascot territory, a game starring him in a completely different genre is not likely to be successful, as evidenced by the forgettable Klonoa Beach Volleyball.
The challenges present in taking Klonoa to the GBA are then twofold. First, the unique camera perspective of the previous incarnations of the game are not possible on Nintendo’s handheld. Second, pulling Klonoa into some game too far removed from his genre of comfort would be a severe risk to the quality. Namco solved these problems admirably in 2001 with Empire of Dreams, an all-new Klonoa adventure for the GBA. What set Empire of Dreams apart from previous Klonoa adventures, and in a sense from all other genres, was its puzzle-oriented nature. As the Mario games have long been driven by power-ups, and the Ratchet games have been set apart by gadgets and weapons, the Klonoa franchise is unique in that the key to solving challenges traditionally has to do with appropriately using enemies. Some adversaries in the Klonoa universe, for example, are living bombs that can clear paths for the player. Others serve as helicopters that allow Klonoa to reach new heights.
In Empire of Dreams and the more recently released Dream Champ Tournament, these interactions with enemies are the key to getting to a higher platform or opening a door. Each level is a series of rooms that constitute a large environmental puzzle. The challenge is not only if something is possible, but also how. In this sense, the GBA Klonoa games serve as an entries in a new genre, somewhere in between traditional platformers and environmental puzzlers like Ico.
As with the best games based on environmental puzzles, level design is paramount. Since this quality is such a key element of what makes the console Klonoa games memorable, it is not surprising that the level design in both Empire of Dreams and Dream Champ Tournament are remarkable. And while Dream Champ Tournament is virtually identical to Empire of Dreams in format and actually serves as more of an expansion pack for the first GBA Klonoa title, it is truly enjoyable thanks to its uniqueness.