Jake Bourke ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Video Game Writer
Namco has created what is considered by many to be the most iconic video games of all time. Even if you aren’t familiar with the brand, you will surely recognize their classic arcade titles such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Dig Dug, and Galaxian. Namco – now operating under the moniker of Bandai Namco Entertainment – has cemented itself as one of the most prominent developers in the history of video gaming, and continue to release critically and commercially successful games and franchises to this very day.
However, while I can endlessly sing the praises of Pac-Man and their long line of Dragon Ball fighting games, I’m instead going to travel backward in time, all the way to the release of one of Namco’s most obscure, and underrated franchises.
Both developed and published by Namco, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile is a 2D platformer released for the original Sony PlayStation in back 1997 in Japan, with a North American and European release following in 1998. While Door to Phantomile received moderate success in Japan, it is speculated the game sold a measly ten thousand copies in North America. It was buried by steep competition such as Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, both titles with units sold in the millions. Despite receiving generally positive reviews, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile was a commercial failure, and because of this, if you are hoping to experience the original PlayStation title, prepare to spend upwards of $250 on eBay.
Surprisingly, Klonoa’s lackluster sales did not spell the end of the franchise. In 2001, Namco published a direct sequel exclusively on the PlayStation 2 titled Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil, as well as a few portable titles released on the Game Boy Advance. However, despite Lunatea’s Veil receiving critical acclaim from most critics, as well as being awarded various accolades, the game’s commercial success was still lacking, though it is speculated it performed slightly better than its predecessor. The same can also be said for the Game Boy games; positive reception, but poor sales.
It wouldn’t be until 2008 when the franchise’s next installment would be released onto store shelves. However, it would also be the last.
Developed by Paon Dp and published by Bandai Namco, a remake of the original Klonoa: Door to Phantomile PlayStation game was released for the Nintendo Wii in 2008 in Japan, with the North American and European versions releasing in May of 2009, with the subtitle Door to Phantomile removed in those respective regions.
Klonoa features several overhauls, including updated graphics, fresh character designs, tweaks to the gameplay, fully reanimated cutscenes, and a brand new ensemble of voice actors. However, despite the new coat of paint and gameplay changes, it is still the same PlayStation game, and that was reflected in some of its reviews. Weekly Famitsu, a Japanese video gaming magazine, awarded the game high praise, applauding its visuals and fun gameplay. However, the magazine also criticized the game for feeling dated, a sentiment many other gaming publications shared. Other publications, including fans, cited the game to be far easier than the original PlayStation title, due to minor gameplay changes and increased health.
Despite the qualms some people had over the gameplay, Klonoa still received generally positive reviews. Though not on the same scale as Lunatea’s Veil, these reviews assured that the Klonoafranchise was still indeed one of consistent quality. However, the reviews were also not enough to break the consistency that is the franchise’s commercial performance. While there isn’t a confirmed list of copies sold, it is speculated the game has sold roughly 160,000 copies worldwide, with most of its revenue coming from the United States. While a mild success, it simply wasn’t enough to break the franchise out of its cult status, which in my opinion, was a fate undeserved.
Though it may be just a simple platformer, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile is a special game. Its gameplay is greatly elevated thanks to its fantastic level design, its engaging story, and, most importantly, its likable and adorable characters. All three of these elements culminate into a title that is filled to the brim with an infectious personality. To put it simply, it’s a ridiculously charming game, despite its simplicity.
The game’s story follows the furry titular character, Klonoa, and his “ring spirit” friend, Huepow, as they set out to defeat an evil spirit named Ghadius before he can plunge the land of Phantomile into a world of nightmares. While the plot itself is nothing groundbreaking, it’s one of the most memorable things about the game simply because of the fact the story continuously progresses as the player progresses through the game. In other platforming titles such as New Super Mario Bros Wii, the plot only happens at the beginning and end of the game: it’s a three-act narrative that is missing the entirety of its second act. However, in Klonoa, the story has a constant presence throughout the whole game, with each level serving to advance the plot. This keeps the player engaged and excited throughout their playthrough, and allows for incredibly charming moments between characters.
Speaking of, the writing is perhaps the best aspect of Klonoa. The dialogue is incredibly witty, each character has a strong and unique personality, and the story’s exposition is conveyed in a natural, non-intrusive way. However, this also segues into a rather nitpicky criticism I have that is specific to the Wii remake. Despite Klonoa not being a silent protagonist, there are multiple
instances in the game where Huepow essentially serves as the main character’s voice, talking on his behalf. This is especially obvious in the first half of the game, where the titular character usually has dialogue consisting of no more than five words, while his ring spirit has multiple speech bubbles. In a game that is filled with characters with such likable personalities (including the villains), I found it disappointing to see Klonoa’s character lack some exploration. However, this nitpicky issue is rectified as the game continues and does not detract from the overall experience.
Moving on, the raw gameplay of Klonoa is most comparable to Super Mario Bros. 2 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but that’s not to say it’s bad, or even derivative. It’s a pretty standard 2D platformer where your goal is to reach the end of each stage while jumping over various obstacles and defeating enemies. However, I compare this to Super Mario Bros. 2instead of referring to the original grandfather of platforming for one simple reason: the way Klonoa interacts with enemies and the environment. Utilizing Huepow, Klonoa can pick up and toss his enemies in any direction, using them as projectiles. This is not only the method for defeating bad guys but is also a way of traversing the level, as well as solving some light puzzles. For example, you can propel yourself high up in the air by grabbing an enemy and tossing it beneath you. While nothing extraordinary, it sets this game apart from most modern platformers and gives the player an extra series of maneuvers and acrobatics I greatly appreciate in these sorts of games.
However, what good is great gameplay if the level design doesn’t take excellent advantage of it? Luckily, I am proud to say that Klonoa has some of the best level design ever seen in a 2D platformer, and I do not say such a thing lightly. While the game is indeed a 2D platformer where the main character can only move left and right, you’ll often come across paths that branch off into different directions, curve, or overlap with each other. Pathways that are visible in the background are often guaranteed to be explorable later in each level. This obtuse, semi-nonlinear form of level design brands Klonoa as an incredibly unique experience not usually seen in other platformers. It adds a sense of exploration and genuine discovery. What I have also come to love is the way the stages and obstacles are visually presented. There are no abstract floating platforms; this is not a Mario game. Instead, every platform is part of the physical location, from unsteady rock formations to bridges and platforms built into the sides of trees, it is this incredible attention to detail that makes the world of Phantomile much more organic. It feels like a real location rather than a complex obstacle course made for the sole purpose of running and jumping. Platformers such as Celeste and the modern Donkey Kong Country games employ a similar design philosophy when creating their levels, and the result with a fantastic atmosphere and a plethora of memorable moments. It makes each stage feel special, which is a word that essentially sums up this entire game.
Klonoa’s journey as a franchise is one of tragedy. This series deserves far more recognition than it has received over the past twenty-two years. Despite its simplicity, this game has that rare ability to capture one’s heart. Namco has crafted a charming, adorable, and beautiful experience with an amazing character that has so much potential to coexist alongside gaming icons such as Mario, Sonic, and even Namco’s Pac-Man. However, no matter how hard the developers have tried, people were simply unwilling to give Klonoa a chance, despite consistently positive reviews. As a result, we have not seen anything from the franchise in over a decade. A faint glimmer a hope arose when a feature-length animated film was announced to be in production in 2016, only for it to be canceled on January 5th, 2019.
However, that being said, Klonoa is a game about dreams. This franchise has an incredibly passionate and vocal fanbase that wants nothing more than to see their floppy-eared hero once again take the spotlight; that’s their dream. In an age where several retro franchises are starting to see some sort of revival, nothing is impossible for Klonoa. Recently, as of writing this article, Bandai Namco has filed several trademarks, one which being Klonoa of the Wind Encore, possibly hinting at yet another remake of Door to Phantomile. While the gaming industry is an unstable and unpredictable landscape, with so many projects susceptible to cancellations, it’s always good to hold onto that glimmer of hope and optimism.
Klonoa: Door to Phantomile truly is a special game, one that I cannot recommend enough. It is considered to be one of the best third-party games on the Nintendo Wii, and for great reason. The Wii is also the system I recommend buying the game for, as the North American Wii release is leagues cheaper and is far more attainable than the original PlayStation title. Graphical and gameplay changes aside, it’s essentially the same game.
By the end of your first playthrough, you will be begging to have Klonoa as the next DLC fighter in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.