Virtual Spotlight: Klonoa and the Comfort of the Familiar

Virtual Spotlight: Klonoa and the Comfort of the Familiar

Jeremy contemplates a personal connection to new Virtual Console release Empire of Dreams.

My parents remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparents remembered how they first learned about Pearl Harbor. For me, like so many of you, that personal, heart-sinking news memory happened 13 years ago, when the World Trade Center was destroyed.

I remember everything about that day vividly. I had gotten up early to make my biweekly phone call to my girlfriend, who had just relocated to Japan to serve a two-year stint as an English teacher. We spoke briefly (as much as was affordable in those dark days before Skype) and decided to jump onto Instant Messenger to continue chatting for a while after the call. But I made the mistake of checking the news before opening AIM. It was another hour before I was able to shrug off the shock and confusion of what I saw happening in New York and Washington, to regain the presence of mind enough to go online like I'd promised I would.

I remember everything about that day vividly. Including, weirdly enough, Klonoa: Empire of Dreams, which had the poor fortune to launch in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

It's kind of like the time Roger Sterling's daughter got married the day JFK was shot, except not a work of fiction.

Nothing could be further from the prevailing mood of that day than a whimsical Klonoa game. This is the series that began life as a reimagining of the classic 2D platform action genre in a post-3D world, wholly embracing cartoon whimsy and floppy-eared animal people. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon initiated by Super Mario 64, Namco instead stuck with very traditional 2D mechanics and used the advent of polygons to make the old-school approach to platforming look more spectacular instead of throwing it all out the window.

Of course, that approach was all well and good on PlayStation, but what about less capable handheld hardware? Klonoa couldn't make use of those whizzy 3D camera angles on more mundane systems, which means the series would have made for a more typical (albeit very well done!) platformer when bereft of polygons. So beginning with Moonlight Museum, producer Hideo Yoshizowa pushed Klonoa into puzzle platformer territory.

That's where we find Klonoa: Empire of Dreams, available today on Wii U Virtual Console. Empire of Dreams features tidy graphics, appropriately simple play mechanics derived from the PlayStation original, and dozens of stages that present players with increasingly complex action puzzles. (Yoshizawa admits that the bonus levels may be too hard, which sounds like a challenge if I've ever heard one.) It's a great little adventure, one of the first stand-out releases for Game Boy Advance, and one I'm looking forward to revisiting... difficult as that may prove to be.

Despite this screenshot, Klonoa's time-to-crate is actually quite high.

I love Empire of Dreams deeply. But it's hard for me to separate my feelings about the game itself — its actual merits — versus everything surrounding the game.

While I wasn't immediately affected by the events of Sept. 11, it was a difficult, unsettling day. Everything about it seems so contained and fleeting in hindsight, but at the time no one had any way of knowing whether or not the morning's destruction marked the extent of the attacks or if that was simply the first of many attacks to come. The uncertainty of it all made me feel deeply, hopelessly small and alone. At the time, I had recently moved across the country in search of work, which — thanks to the recession that hit in early 2001 — I wasn't able to find. My girlfriend had just moved to Japan. My brother had begun his first day of service in the Navy on Sept. 10. I was living in a temporary apartment in an unfamiliar city in a state far from home, digging up freelance work where I could find it.

Watching the towers fall on the news, sitting through hour after hour of news analysts struggling to make sense of events, consoling my girlfriend via IM as she lamented the attack on her hometown, worrying about what my brother had gotten into: I can't remember ever feeling so tiny and powerless. Isolated from pretty much everyone I knew and unable to suffer through more bleak new reports, I eventually decided to pour my attention into Klonoa: Empire of Dreams.

The game proved a welcome respite from the chaos of television. Couched as it was in the mechanics of the well-worn 2D platformer genre, any experienced gamer could dive into Empire of Dreams and thrive on muscle memory alone. The series' one truly unique mechanic, grabbing enemies and using them to propel the protagonist higher when leaping, really just amounted to your standard double jump.

Inflated bad guys aren't just cute — they're practical, too!

But despite its simplicity, it made for a wonderful distraction. Its dozens of stages demanded concentration and contemplation. Using the standard design elements of a platform action game, Empire of Dreams constructed a series of tricky platforming puzzles built around the specifics of Klonoa's rules. Take, for example, the way Klonoa holds enemies over his head, inflated into spinning spheres by the wind power he uses to capture them. Low-hanging ledges and narrow openings that Klonoa could traverse alone become impassable with a captive held aloft. And Klonoa's use of inflated monsters for double-jump leverage made it possible for the developers to incorporate more sophisticated moves like chain-jumping by grabbing and leaping off consecutive enemies in mid-air.

Above all, Empire of Dreams is a profoundly comfortable game, built on time-tested principles and mechanics. As a result, I found it a profoundly comforting game at a time when I needed some reassurance.

The Klonoa series has always toiled in obscurity, to the point that Namco's remake of the original adventure for Wii flopped so hard it killed the series forever. I've always been fond it, though, for its commitment to excellence within well-defined genre boundaries. But it's Empire of Dreams that I regard with the greatest fondness. It's neither the most beautiful nor the most intricate game in the franchise, but sometimes what life really calls for is a simple, reliable game, not a revolutionary one. Granted, I've never been able to go back to Empire of Dreams, given all the unhappy feelings that surround it... but with its Virtual Console release, maybe the time is right.

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