When we think back on the Klonoa games, it shouldn't be with sorrow that such a great series has been deemed terminal by its own creator. Rather, we should experience wonder that the games ever existed at all.
Klonoa always faced an uphill battle. The series' debut, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile for PlayStation, had no business being greenlit in Japan, let alone coming to the U.S. While the games industry marched in lockstep toward big, complex, immersive 3D adventures with hard-edged characters and themes, Klonoa put a sort of naïve sincerity front-and-center in its low-key 2D world. It had its complexity and darkness, but those features revealed themselves only to those who dared take a chance on its bright colors and saccharine cute characters to play the game beyond its cuddly opening stages.
Yes, from the very beginning, the odds were stacked against Klonoa. Namco had no idea how to sell it to Americans; their inexplicable solution was to present it as if it were an STD. At first glance, the original game looked like a relic of the 16-bit era. When protagonist Klonoa turned his hat backward to boogie-board down a river for the PlayStation 2 sequel, that looked like a throwback to the "edgy" teenages days of the original PlayStation. His first portable outing, Moonlight Museum, only showed up on WonderSwan, a platform that never came west. His first GBA adventure, Empire of Dreams, had the lousy fortune to launch on September 11, 2001. Poor Klonoa.
And that brings us to the last original Klonoa game to make its way to America: Klonoa 2: Dream Champ Tournament for Game Boy Advance. Though it debuted in Japan back in 2002, Dream Champ Tournament didn't make its way west until 2005 — well past the GBA's prime years. The Nintendo DS was already out; the PSP was weeks away. Nobody cared about a GBA sequel to a series that they had repeatedly passed over on other, livelier platforms.
Which, as always, was their loss. Dream Champ Tournament feels like a culmination of the Klonoa games, bringing together half a decade of great platforming and level design as a grand farewell to the series. Being a handheld game, it lacks the dazzling camera tricks of the console Klonoa games — those NiGHTs-inspired pans and pulls and swoops that made Phantomile seem so grand — but what it lacks in visual panache it more than makes up for with great puzzle design.
Like its portable predecessors, Dream Champ Tournament trains its sights on complex puzzle platforming challenges. While the first few stages may seem like nothing more than run-and-jump business as usual, the game quickly ramps up the intricacy of its level design to force players to think carefully about their actions, navigating their way to the end of each stage by making use of both enemies and interactive elements in the environment (and making sure to collect the three keys to unlock the end door along the way).
And, truth be told, Klonoa 2 didn't look too shabby, either. It features some of the best original sprite work ever to appear on GBA, bold and colorful. Granted, not every visual trick worked as well as intended — the fast-paced over-the-shoulder race stages feature some impressive scaling effects, but the objects pasted into those scenes don't fit well. Their inconsistent edges and the glitchy shadows they cast make the forward-scrolling sequences into exercises in frustration and memorization. They do look pretty impressive, though.
Thankfully, practically everything else about Dream Champ Tournament works as advertised. The more traditional auto-scrolling platform stages feel like Mario "athletic" levels cranked up to 11, forcing you to scramble not only to make all the tricky jumps while avoiding (and exploiting) enemies but also to collect all the various gems within the stage for a perfect score. Even more interesting are the boss "battles," which mostly play out as races against your opponents across seemingly normal game stages rather than as a direct head-to-head conflict. Dream Champ Tournament packs a lot of variety into its design, offering the occasional breather from all the puzzle-solving... though for those who just want to solve action puzzles, every one of the "twitch" stages (except the boss races) is technically optional.
From the very beginning, Klonoa's strength came from the complex actions and tasks the games' designers built around a streamlined set of mechanics — the hero could only jump, grab and fling enemies, and use captive enemies as a springboard for a double-jump. Compared to intricate action games of the late '90s, its two-button controls seemed almost archaic, but the top-flight level design allowed Klonoa to create interesting and complex challenges for players without ever feeling overly complicated or cumbersome.
That same fundamental simplicity meant that Klonoa translated wonderfully to the GBA and its stripped-down control options. All Dream Champ Tournament lacks compared to its console kin is the occasional use of background or foreground planes for puzzles, and it more than makes up for that absence with a greater array of interactive elements in the environment. From simple floating balls that Klonoa can grab as hooks to movable "planters" that allow players to turn a captive foe into a climbing vine that blooms with that enemy as the "flower," Dream Champ Tournament ranks among the best puzzle platformers ever.
Top-notch classic sprite work. It only falls flat in the ugly computer-rendered cutscenes and the overly ambitious forward-scrolling stages.
Forgettable at best. The only remarkable audio effects are the ones they sampled from the PlayStation game.
Strength in simplicity. Everything Klonoa can do, he can do with just two buttons... and he can do quite a lot.
While you probably won't need to return to the game once you've finished it, unlocking (and completing) the addictively brutal EX levels will keep you busy for quite some time.
Now that it's available on Virtual Console, this final Klonoa adventure has a second chance at finding an audience. Well, sort of. Naturally, it's only available on Virtual Console for Wii U, a platform with a tragically anemic user base. Still, it's a great-looking game with some devious puzzles. If you missed it a decade ago, now's your chance to put things right.