Even in the context of its PlayStation release in late 1997, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile looked a bit anachronistic. Coming a year after Super Mario 64's wide-open three-dimensional worlds, Klonoa was still confined to a linear, two-dimensional plane, using graphical trickery to evoke a 3-D feel. In a time when games like Final Fantasy VII were changing the way we looked at epic videogame storytelling, Klonoa seemed to revel in a simple narrative that didn't resort to fancy CGI cut scenes. Even in 1997, Klonoa smacked of a gaming past that was quickly receding -- a past where bright, colorful levels and mine-cart excursions and collecting 100 freaking gems for an extra life weren't just accepted, but expected, parts of what gaming was.
Over a decade later, all those anachronisms still remain in the recent Wii re-release of Klonoa. Rather than dating the game, though, they make it a delightfully charming throwback to a style of gaming that seems quaint and nostalgic.
It starts with the kind of whimsical, fairy-tale story that is a rarity in the post-Grand Theft Auto III world. As a floppy-eared, black-and-white cat named Klonoa, you find a mystical ring that contains magical powers. Of course, you have to use those powers to stop a lord of nightmares who wants to use a captured mystical songstress to fill the world with his black visions. The story takes a bit of a dark turn near the end, and tries its best to pull off a poignant, bittersweet ending, but it can't surpass the utter simplicity at its core. Oddball characters flit in and out of the story, sticking around just long enough to push the plot along without being at all interesting in their own right. But the whole thing bounces along well enough, with the help of a decent translation and some excellent (if chirpy) voice acting.
The 12 levels in Klonoa are called "Visions," and the name is appropriate given the game's beautiful art. Each world in Klonoa seems carefully constructed by a master architect, presenting a distinct, unified design -- no cookie-cutter level building blocks here. From the copious floating platforms and bulbous, rounded enemies to the bright, primary color-filled pallette and elegant background structures, every visual element seems designed to evoke a childlike wonder that is refreshing in today's hypermasculine "adult" gaming environment. Cartoony sound effects and gentle, lilting music don't hurt on this score either.
It's almost a shame that Klonoa can't fully explore these rich worlds. Klonoa's movement is confined to a single, two-dimensional path that's constantly twisting and turning in and on and over itself, to the extent that you can often see where Klonoa will be in a few minutes simply by looking in the background of the current area. All this twisting can occasionally lead to some confusion about which way Klonoa is actually meant to go, but for the most part it's just harmless, three-dimensional window dressing on a strong, two-dimensional run-and-jump core. Actual interaction with the third dimension is limited to the occasional switch that can only be activated by throwing an enemy into the background, or by a boss that can only be damaged by a similar extra-dimensional throw. There are one or two places where this is used to great effect (particularly a boss fight that takes place on a dramatically swaying bridge), but the game usually seems too timid to truly embrace the potential of 3-D platforming.
This isn't an entirely bad thing, though. Instead of trying to take the genre into a new dimension, Klonoa focuses on building upon years of two-dimensional platform game design. It does this primarily through Klonoa's magic ring, which can be used to pick up nearby enemies, inflating them into balloon-like balls over his head. These balloons can then be used as hurlable projectile weapons or, crucially, as a temporary platform used to perform a second, mid-air jump.
Klonoa's level designers seem to take great pleasure in stretching this inflatable enemy idea to its limits. While the platforming puzzles start off simply enough, by the final third of the game the platforming challenges come fast and furious. At one point Klonoa must string together four enemy grabs and mid-air jumps just to get over a single pit. In another, he has to throw an exploding pig at just the right moment to create a chain reaction to open a door. While none of the puzzles are tough to figure out (nor the slow-moving enemies tough to avoid), pinpoint jumps and precise timing will delight platform fans and might frustrate neophytes.
But just as these puzzles are at their most frequent and interesting, the game comes to a close with a simple, overdramatic boss fight. There are extra modes, including a limited time trial and a pointless "reverse" mode (the levels play exactly the same right-to-left as left-to-right!), and of course you can go back to find all the hidden items (if you didn't find most of them hiding in plain sight the first time through). In the end, though, I blazed through the game in only a few hours and was left wanting more.
Which is better than wanting less, of course, and for $30, I'm not really sure how much more I should have been expecting. But it was an enjoyable trip back in time while it lasted -- an exquisitely designed, beautiful trip through a fun and whimsical world. Given how few of those adjectives apply to most games these days, it feels a bit silly to complain that there's just not more.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.