January 13, 2012

Rokko Chan Parties Like it's 20XX

I usually cringe at the term "fan game," but Japanese indie developer King Soukutu has treated retro gaming enthusiasts to a pleasant surprise with Rokko Chan. Skirting the line between homage and blatant rip-off, this 8-bit-styled, 2D action-platformer looks, feels, and sounds like the classic NES Mega Man series in every way. The justification? It also matches the fast-paced fun and challenge of the original.

While the game ironically features "original" characters and situations, that's little more than tongue-in-cheek window-dressing. The protagonist, Rokko Chan, is clearly just a female redraw of Capcom's blue, robotic mascot (Mega Man's name in Japan is "Rock Man," after all). The graphics, sound, controls, music -- everything in this freeware Flash game would be right at home on the NES. It's perhaps a little too faithful and familiar to be merely an "homage," but the imitation is as adorably self-aware as it is authentic. King isn't trying to fool anyone, and this game is essentially a good-natured tribute from a die-hard fan. It's like someone just dug up an old cartridge containing a lost Mega Man title that mysteriously never saw the light of day, until now.

Like Mega Man, Rokko Chan's plot is a simple, bare-bones affair: in the year 20XX, the wicked Dr. Mad has sicced six of his robotic creations on the unsuspecting populace. Upon learning of the wanton destruction, Dr. Sane's newest creation, Rokko Chan, decides it's up to her to put a stop to it. Each ridiculously-themed robot serves as the end boss of their respective stage, and you're free to choose the order in which you tackle them. Defeating each boss rewards Rokko Chan with that robot's signature ability, and each robot is weak against certain powers. Sounding familiar? Stop me if you've heard this before.

Just like in the old days, some of the bosses were sillier than others.
Hockey Man? Rolling Man? Are you kidding me?

Despite similarities, the amount of work King must have put into this game is staggering, and some of the high points are actually the original tweaks that have been made. For example, Rokko's jump is significantly higher than Mega Man's -- and there is an added dash move, lending the heroine a welcome boost of speed and momentum -- thus making this character noticeably more maneuverable than her NES inspiration. King has also taken advantage of the features of the Flash medium to incorporate subtle tricks that the NES system could never have pulled off, such as sprite rotation effects. Certain platforms in Rolling Man's stage, for instance, rotate the entire room around you, turning the world on its head.

Perhaps the most impressive feature is the music, which really sells the experience for me. Capcom's tunes for the NES Mega Man titles had an unmistakable sound and energy to them, and Rokko Chan's soundtrack captures that feeling so convincingly that I'd swear it was lifted directly (if I didn't know better). Composer ASAGEN's work is full of gung-ho, galloping beats and charmingly sincere, operatic melodies that would make even the cheesiest of power metal bands blush (but also wish they had written it). If this game had been released in 1988, old-school gamers would be lauding the first stage of Dr. Mad's castle as one of the NES era's greatest tracks, as they do now with Dr. Wily's theme from Mega Man 2.

The scale of the difficulty is roughly on par with stand-out examples like Mega Man 2 or 9. Each stage has its own quirks to master, and the bosses themselves can be real hard-asses if you don't have the right weapon for the job, but practice and perseverance will eventually get you through to Dr. Mad's castle. Keeping true to tradition, this multi-tier fortress of pain ramps up the difficulty considerably, culminating in a final encounter that promises to sweaty your palms, set your heart racing, and demand from you no less than everything you've got.

Rokko Chan reaches for the stars, in an all-too-familiar jumping posture
The only real snag that may prevent one from fully enjoying Rokko Chan is the bare fact that it's a Flash game, and by default requires keyboard controls. That might have been sufficient if we weren't talking about a full-fledged, fast-paced action game -- but anyone looking to play all the way through this killer gauntlet using only the keyboard interface is on a fool's errand. Fortunately, there's an easy fix for that in the form of a handy little program called Joy2Key. Basically, it allows you to map buttons on a gamepad to keyboard keys, and getting it running is fast and simple.

Fight, Rokko Chan! For everlasting peace!
King Soukutu is one of those indie game makers who gets it. It's one thing to hack a previously existing game and rearrange its elements into a clumsy pastiche, but quite another to master the underpinnings of quality design and make it your own. Rokko Chan was crafted lovingly, with the hindsight of someone who understands what worked -- and what didn't -- in those old NES platformers. It's also refreshing that the game's difficulty hasn't been dumbed down for modern audiences -- which may be a turn-off for some, but that much more of a pay-off for those who appreciate a serious test of wits and reflexes. If you're someone who's looking for a dose of 8-bit nostalgia, or even a youngin' curious to see what video games used to be like in the olden days, do give this gem a try.

* Extra! *
King and his team have also put together a virtual art book showcasing all the character designs that went into the game. It's pretty impressive in its own right!

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