What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "Kokopolo"? An infectious disease? A new type of competitive sport? Or something so incredibly out of this world that mere words alone cannot describe it? Well, in truth, it is none of the above, but what it is, is a superbly designed, hidden-gem of a zany, arcade-action, puzzle experience, with a dash of platform-like elements sprinkled on top for extra awesomeness. In a single word, Go! Go! Kokopolo can simply be defined as "great!"
But, what's this? Chances are you have never heard of the game. Even though it was only released a mere 6 months ago, its lack of exposure has kept it as somewhat of an underground classic, until now. You might have stumbled across it by accident whilst browsing through the 3DS eShop recently, as online searches show very little information about the game itself, or the team behind it. A little digging reveals Go! Go! Kokopolo was developed by Tanukii Studios Limited, predominantly the work of designer and artist Keith Webb, along with Gergely Kiss and Szilard Peteri as programmers. Room 4 Games Limited meanwhile is credited as publisher alongisde Tanukii Studios itself. Somehow these talented folks managed to pull off this impressive little title which harkens back to the arcade classics of yesteryear.
Go! Go! Kokopolo can best be described as a hybrid of many different arcade tropes, containing elements inspired by classics like Pac-Man, Flicky and Snake, with platform elements and aspects of more recent titles like Chu Chu Rocket thrown in for good measure. Always viewed from an overhead perspective, ala Bomberman, Go! Go! Kokopolo presents the player with the goal of causing as much mayhem as possible. Each stage is laid out like a simple maze, littered with enemies, and simple hazards to avoid. The actual "enemies" in question actually begin as peaceful critters, strolling about the stage minding their own business. It is the player's prerogative to creep up and scratch them, without any provocation, in order to send these happy creatures into a rage filled frenzy! Upon being angered, the enemies relentlessly chase the player all over the stage, until they either catch him, and inflict damage, or get caught up in the bellies of hungry carnivorous plants scattered about the stage. A fairly simple premise actually, and one that becomes second nature after a few tries. This "cat-and-mouse" style chasing mechanic is the crux to the whole experience, and allows the player to start off simple, but build up once they can chain together multiple enemies and clear stages in super-quick times.
The game opens up with an impressive, 2D cartoony cut-scene. The plot is both simple and completely nonsensical: the snoozing wildcat, Kokopolo, is enjoying a peaceful nap in the shade, when he is accidentally hit on the head by a stray falling bongo drum! The guilty party is a peaceful sky spirit, named Jinbe, who was happily playing a merry tune on his bongo drums up in the clouds, but who has now become an unwitting target of the angry Kokopolo's rage. Angered by the fact that he has been rudely awoken, Kokopolo grabs his buddy, Tatsumo, and they dash off to exact their revenge on all the peaceful creatures of the forest. The game offers no more plot than that, and to be honest, any more would be overkill. The premise itself does a perfect job of setting up the character motivations and aims - basically, just piss people off!
The main offenders in our twisted tale of vengefulness:
A zany, highly-strung wildcat who seeks revenge on all peaceful creatures, for reasons that don't really make any sense. But then what good serial offenders do make any sense?
Kokopolo's more laid-back accomplice, who plays exactly the same as Kokopolo himself. He doesn't really seem to have too much of a personality, as suggested by the vacant look which always adorns his face! Also, apparently he is an Okapi!
Snap Snap Plant
These plants are littered throughout the stages in the game, and are constantly in need of being fed. They eat the enemies in the stage, if you can lure them into its jaws, and provide the player with some treats and rewards if successful, and hazardous bombs if not!
Even though he is the game's main antagonist, he doesn't actually antagonize anyone! This peace-loving spirit guardian is just enjoying his day, when the vicious Kokopolo targets him for his next assault of mischief and mayhem!
An intelligent robot built by Jinbe. Becomes a key player in later stages, and is ordered to track down our two (anti) heroes for crimes against peace and tranquillity.
Although the game is fairly simple, there is a fair amount of depth. Upon starting a new game, you are given the option to try the tutorial mode, which is highly recommended. The controls are fairly straightforward: control Kokopolo by pressing the d-pad in four directions to navigate your way around the maze-like stages. Tapping the A button will cause Kokopolo to scratch anything in front of him, whilst pressing the B button will perform a short jump, useful for leaping over spikes and other hazardous obstacles. Where the gameplay really starts to shine is with the dash feature. By holding down the R shoulder button, Kokopolo will dash away at full speed in the direction you are facing. This is reminiscent of the old Konami-licensed Tiny Toons and Animaniacs games on the SNES. The purpose of the dash is twofold. First, once angered enemies will run straight for you in a fit of blinding rage. By dashing away they give chase, and will keep on your tail until either you slow down, or you lead them into a trap. Secondly, it introduces the addition of the slash dash. This allows the player to scratch enemies whilst being chased by another. By using this in tandem, experienced players should be able to chain up impressive conga lines of 20 or more angry enemies hot-footing it towards our fleeing anti-hero. More enemies in a row means more points when fed to the hungry plants.
Once a plant has devoured said enemies the action shifts to the lower screen. Here several icons appear in what looks to be the plant's limitless stomach. By tapping on the enemies portraits at the correct time the plant will devour the critter, and afterwards spit out a fruit or useful item to be collected. Occasionally X and bomb icons will appear on the lower screen, which need to be avoided, as tapping those will send hazards out to harm the player. A cute little touch happens when the player himself accidentally jumps into the mouth of the plant: Kokopolo's face will appear on the bottom screen in the jaws of the plant, and will require you to tickle his nose with the stylus until he is agitated enough to sneeze himself out. The fact that it is included as a little aside is a really nice touch, and shows the amount of love and attention the developers placed in the game.
The graphics are exquisite, featuring big, chunky sprites, that are a real throwback to SNK-style arcade games of the late 1990s, and gorgeous animation filled with little hints of character. In fact the sprites are so large on screen this can sometimes work to its detriment. The environments are varied and colorful too, although they tend to be a little cliched, featuring green meadows, icy mountains, beaches, temples and haunted houses, but each is unique and has its own specific color-palette. Although each stage is required to be structured in a maze-like way with loops and grid-like routes, the level design disguises this well, bringing each world to life, rather than simply dressing up a grid pattern in a mundane way. Hazards and traps are nicely animated, and retain the cute look, whilst still having an edge of danger about them.
Boss battles occur every 8th level, and as expected, mark the end of a specific world. These are unique, in that they are spread out across both DSi or 3DS screens, allowing the player to get a wider view of the arenas in which the battle takes place. Bosses are generally large and well-animated, and although it can sometimes take a few tries to work out their weak points, each battle displays a handy hint somewhere in the environment to help you out. Bosses in general require a little bit of strategy, as no two are alike. Sometimes you'll be turning a 3-headed totem pole against itself, hitting a flute-playing cactus with musical notes, or simply dodging laser blasts and returning deadly lightning bolts to a strange woodland pixie, ala Ganondorf. Upon defeat, each boss explodes into giant fruits, in true arcade style, and an option to choose your next world appears.
There are many other little hidden features in the game, which really add to its charm. On the main title screen for example you are treated to a short mini-game, which is actually hidden away for players who like to experiment. Several butterflies will fly past along the bottom screen, and by tapping on them Kokopolo will slash at them. The more of these you scratch the more appear, and if you can eventually clock 300 of the colorful pests you are rewarded with a little Easter Egg, which seems to be inspired by Terry Bogard of Fatal Fury fame. There are tons of these little references to classic arcade games dotted around. Scratch cards are the generic unlockables found in each stage, and collecting them unlocks said scratch card on the main menu. These contain bios for all main characters, enemies and bosses in the game, as well as a neat little feature allowing you to "scratch" away at the bottom screen, to view in-game sprite animations. Some of these cards are hidden quite well, and a few in particular require some very ingenious thinking, involving turning the basic play mechanics on their head in order to reach them! A Bonus round can be unlocked also, by collecting a certain quota of falling fruits. This is basically a stage set high up in the cosmos, on a cosmic spider web, where you are dragged around by a large insect collecting fruits. As wacky as this sounds, it fits right in with the structure of the game.
The music is wonderfully cutesy and cheesy, with several memorable tracks. It would have been nice to have a sound test included, but many of the themes are easily accessible simply by playing the appropriate levels via the time attack mode, which is unlocked upon completion of each stage in the main story mode. Time attack allows players to beat their fastest time, as you'd expect, and the developers have included a few targets to beat also. Many of these involve learning the best route through a level, and racking up the biggest chain of enemies, so you don't end up retracing your steps. Some of the times can be pretty tight, and there are certainly a few which I'm not sure can actually be beaten without pixel perfect skill, or sheer luck. But it takes a while to perfect, so it might still be possible. Boss stages can be time-attacked too, but these are not quite as unforgiving, once you've already figured out how to defeat them.
Now the bad points. This game is difficult! There is a slightly repetitive nature to each level, as you'll need to explore the layout and location of enemies quite a few times before being able to clear it. Each stage will likely take three or four tries before you get to grips with it, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it's clear the game is based on an old-school arcade style of design. The game does introduce new hazards, and variations at a steady pace, so you won't always know what's coming next, and this helps break up the monotony, but also adds to the feeling of chucking you in at the deep end on several occasions. There is an Easy Mode included, which slows the pace down a little, which is great for beginners. But it's only possible to see the first 32 stages in this mode, so you'll have to tackle normal mode if you want to experience the whole 80 stages.
As mentioned before, the fact that the sprites are so big also has its disadvantages. Seeing what obstacles are coming up is a necessity, while the huge sprites and close up nature of the camera limit your viewing area somewhat. An option to pull the camera out a little further might have been a welcome addition to tone the difficulty down a little bit. Whether this would have removed some of the fun and surprise elements remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised if in any sequels we see the option to zoom in and out added, as that would really add an extra layer of depth to the experience.
These small shortcomings aside, Go! Go! Kokopolo is still a spot-on arcade-style, fantastic experience, which would have been an instant classic if it was released in the early 1990s. It can still be a classic today, and stand out as a cute, colorful and often-mischievous gem, amongst all the generic, bland shovelware that we've been seeing over the past decade. The risks it takes, and its refusal to follow the crowd is what stands it out. It is wacky perfection. It's easily available for the 3DS or DSi system via the eShop or DSiWare digital distribution services. It comes highly recommended, especially if you like playing games that no-one else has heard of, while still retaining the quality, polish and depth of a mainstream title from more recognized companies like Nintendo and Treasure.