Takeru was a small developer that only ever put two games out for the Famicom under the Sur-De-Wave label. It was founded by a small group of industry veterans who largely felt stifled by their previous employers. They went bankrupt not terribly long after formation, mostly due to their overly ambitious adventure game, Nostalgia 1907, not meeting expectations.
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Directed by Akira Kitamura – the director of the first two Rockman (Mega Man) games and perhaps the man most deserving of the title of father of that series – Cocoron is a game that tends to take after Rockman while trying to provide its own unique twists on the formula. Despite the fact that Kitamura was almost undoubtedly significantly more responsible for Rockman’s beginnings than Keiji Inafune, the artist who popularly came to be incorrectly known as the father of Rockman, his hand in the series was little known for many years due to the fact that early games in the Rockman series’ credits used nicknames rather than actual names. This led many to wonder exactly who “A K,” the man credited as planner in Rockman’s credits roll, actually was.
Leaving Capcom during the development of Rockman 3 due to creative differences (and leaving that game in turmoil – despite some common love for it, it feels unfinished, poorly thought out, and rushed in many aspects), he went on to form Takeru with a few other veterans, including the director of Strider. This leads one to believe that Cocoron was more the game that he wanted to make after Rockman 2, given that it happens to contain many similar mechanics and the basic jump-and-shoot type of play, but a vastly different setting.
In Cocoron, you take the role of an unseen child who has been visited in their sleep while dreaming by a mysterious tapir with a parosol and polka-dot pajamas. This tapir, fittingly calling himself Tapir, asks you to help him find a missing princess in the dream world. To do so, you must first create an ally to act as your avatar in the world, and this quickly puts you into a surprisingly robust character creation menu.
You’re able to choose your character’s head, body, and weapon from a wide array of choices with no restriction on what combinations you can come up with. These pieces consist of many fantasy and sci-fi bits evocative of popular entertainment for boys at the time, such as dragons, robots (one resembles a Gundam), cyborgs (including ones resembling both Astro Boy and Cyborg 009 – popular inspirations for Rockman), and silly things like jack-o-lanterns or smiley faces. Put a skull on a dune buggy, make a bird-headed submarine, criss-cross a tough looking fighter with a cloud – there’s a lot of fun to be had, here.
Unfortunately, one of Cocoron’s immediate failings is in tying stats to these pieces. Each piece has a certain weight and amount of hit points to it. The hitpoints unsurprisingly act as your in-game health bar, but weight is a little weird – higher weight means slower movement and shorter jumps. However, the stages in the game have their platforming balanced around the idea that you should be able to complete them with minimum jump height and slow movement. In addition to that, many enemies and bosses deal a ridiculous amount of damage, and both of these elements work together in skewing the usefulness heavily in favor of pieces with higher HP. Sure, there are a couple of points where if you could jump higher, you might get a recovery item or 1up, but this does almost nothing to mitigate the game’s extreme jump in difficulty for a character with minimum weight versus its opposite. You’d think a character with high weight would be irritatingly slow, but they’re instead roughly as mobile as Rockman.
Some body types also have unique behaviors, such as being unaffected by inertia on slopes, floating atop water, or short bouts of flight. This game is still a platformer like Rockman, however, and flight becomes far and away the most useful ability when considering it allows you to ignore many of the game’s challenging elements by simply hovering right over them. There are two tiers of body types that allow for flight, and the obvious choice is the heavier tier that has greater HP, unless you’re for some reason playing for fast completion time.
Shoehorning your freedom even further, the selection of weapons also has different weight and damage values in addition to different behaviors. Would it surprise you to learn that one option far and away outclasses the others? How about that it’s the heaviest option, again? The shuriken not only deals 50% more damage than the next most powerful weapons (and double most other weapons), but also travels quickly and in a straight arc, making it ideal for rapid-fire and quick kills on enemies and bosses.
Upon creating your character, you’re released into a stage select screen with a small house in the center. This screen allows you – much like Rockman – to select where you’d like to start your adventure. Although this might seem completely similar, at first, one of the ways in which Cocoron comes alive is in having a unique stage for every conceivable combination of points to travel between. For example, traveling from the woods to the castle will be a different stage than traveling from the woods to the pirate ship (though traveling back from the pirate ship to the woods would simply be the same level played in reverse). Although some say that levels simply have “entrance” and “exit” portions that remain the same, but combine in ways to create the illusion of additional stages, this is actually false – try the specific two combinations I just mentioned to observe the woods having two different “exit” portions for both combinations.
Many of these stages do recycle copious visual elements, but some may feature unique portions and will always have different enemy placement. While you might see repeat enemies, like the skunks or armadillos that litter the game, they may now have unique behaviors. Like with the character creation, however, the game tends to once again overextend its boundaries. The stages are relatively short, and the enemy placement and level geography is largely uninteresting. If you’re familiar with Rockman’s incredibly tight design, this slips up almost tremendously in comparison and will not provide you with a similar quality experience in its mechanical design. Enemy health and damage values are often nonsense, and every enemy drops an egg with a random item in it upon death – usually small amounts of health – as if to act as some sort of very poor substitute for actual balancing.
Beating a level rewards you with a bit of story advancement and prompts you to create another character. While this seems like it would possibly become a way to tie the game together and have a cast with various useful abilities, you can only play as the one you choose from the beginning of a stage all throughout it. In addition to that, enemies drop weapon upgrades that require a total of 25 of to fully level your weapon, which heavily encourages you to stick with your first character and never change, as those upgrades only apply to the character who picks them up. Balance even further untethers itself by weapon damage values never changing, just the size or number of projectiles on-screen. Most weapons fire in multiple arcs as they level up, which hilariously reduces their effectiveness, as this makes it harder to rapid-fire them due to a limit on the number of projectiles that can be on screen at once.
Once you’ve cleared all available stages, every single character you’ve created but your first is then abruptly stolen from you as you’re forced to go on a multi-tier stage to the final boss. Characters are returned to you one by one as you advance, but die just once on this stage and you start it from the first tier with all the characters stolen again. Although the stage is relatively low difficulty with a flying character, it can be immensely frustrating without. You’d expect design to tighten up near the end of the game, but it stays roughly as bland as it did all throughout the rest of it.
What Cocoron cannot save in its mechanics, it tries desperately to make up for with brightly vivid, colorful visual work and a mesmerizingly delightful soundtrack (which you may have heard before if you’ve ever played the flash game Eversion, which steals much of Cocoron’s music). The visual work in the game is great and the music is genuinely superb, both featuring highly distinctive flavors that both help to set this game apart as a real stand-out in the library and give incredible life to the dream world the game takes place in.
Beyond the quality of worksmanship put into the visuals, the subject matter helps to make the game feel more appropriately part of a dreamscape. Seas made of milk and cheese, skunks on UFO’s, little homes for penguins built into icy terrain, math equations floating in empty space – all appropriately silly or bizarre enough to feel as if they would pleasantly work into a dream. The levels changing based on your paths and character creation options also help to further make this game feel as though it’s but a dream, itself. Despite the game’s poor balancing not always accentuating it particularly well, the changing heroes and landscapes make the entire experience surprisingly fluid and fun to come back to.
While many famous directors often find themselves unable to escape the sheer weight of their most popular work – and Cocoron’s relatively minimal success did little to escape Kitamura from this in the public’s eye – the effort put on here to make this not just another Mega Man game is both endearing and admirable. He does not simply take his masterwork and play it out again with slightly different trappings, as Inafune found himself helplessly doing into infinity, he dares to do something new and exciting with his work, even if it didn’t turn out quite as hotly as you might have wanted it to.
I do ultimately find Cocoron a bit hard to recommend to the action game enthusiast turning over stones and hoping to find another Rockman 2 somehow lying under one, but it’s an easy recommendation to those with an enthusiasm for the Famicom who don’t mind trying something that’s a bit offbeat and are willing to suffer a potential disappointment in favor of the excitement of its unique flavor. The bittersweetness is undeniable, but there’s something that has brought me back to completing it over a dozen times, the game repeatedly finding itself lovingly nestled in my Famicom for another go, time and again.