The Bottom Line: Boasting a delightful mix of retro charm and modern conveniences, this fantasy platformer/puzzler shouldn’t be missed.
When someone brings up the topic of old school games, what are the first ones that pop into your head? For me, it’s the pixel platformers that have been flooding the market for the last decade, such as Shovel Knight and The Messenger. The best of these games combine amazing throwback aesthetics with the mores of modern game design. They make liberal use of checkpoints, progress saving, and other quality of life improvements that either hadn’t been invented or simply weren’t practical to implement in the 80s and 90s.
If I’m being completely honest, though, Shovel Knight feels to me more like a very polished modern game with a retro coat of paint. Don’t get me wrong – I love Shovel Knight. But does it really capture the essence of a bygone era, or is it something entirely new? What if I want to play a game that really channels that classic spirit, warts and all?
Enter Pocket Kingdom, a pixelated wonderland overflowing with mystery and adventure. While it does include many modern conveniences, Pocket Kingdom generally feels more old school than most of its contemporaries. If you took three guys and locked them in a garage with an old IBM-compatible PC for a month, they’d probably end up creating a game like this.
Island in the Sky
The premise of Pocket Kingdom could’ve been ripped from the storyboard of a lost Studio Ghibli movie. Long-standing rumors hold that there is a mysterious floating island, hidden amongst the clouds, and a newspaper editor has offered a hefty sum to any brave explorer who can capture this gravity-defying mass on film. Ordinarily, you would never think to go on such a wild adventure, but you’re heavily indebted and collectors are threatening to impound your airship. Left with no recourse, you take to the skies in search of this secret island.
Discover the island you do, but unexplained forces cause your airship crash land as you approach. Your goal as the player is to find a functional set of wings and escape the island, which residents refer to as the Pocket Kingdom. Mysteries and secrets abound, and as you chat with the locals it quickly becomes apparent that no one knows how to leave. Is the Pocket Kingdom a dream world? A purgatory? Or just a chunk of rock in the sky?
In game, the island is presented as a world of approximately 100 rooms. Some rooms have characters to chat with or items to buy, while others feature puzzles. It’s these puzzles that will occupy the bulk of your time in the Pocket Kingdom.
Each puzzle room fits on a single screen – no scrolling here. Furthermore, each room has designated exits. If you walk off the edge of the screen instead of through an exit, your character will wrap around to the opposite side of the screen. This mechanic often plays into the puzzles. At times you may need to jump off a ledge to reach a higher platform, or shoot a missile off one side of the screen to hit an object on the other side. It’s a clever design choice that accentuates the retro vibes – early PCs didn’t have proper support for scrolling, after all.
The game’s puzzles are primarily of the box-pushing variety, with a few wrinkles thrown in here and there. I enjoyed most of these puzzles and didn’t find any of them to be overly frustrating. There was one particularly difficult puzzle that required a smidgen of outside-the-box thinking, but in the end I was able to crack it without resorting to a guide.
The Beating Heart of Retro
That isn’t to say that I didn’t use a guide at all. Because while the box puzzles usually offer a moderate but fair challenge, finding all the items hidden around the Pocket Kingdom is a far more difficult task. This island kingdom is littered with hidden walls, invisible grapple points, and hard-to-spot ladders. Finding all these secrets and reaching the good ending would’ve been nearly impossible without a guide, and it’s in this aspect that Pocket Kingdom feels most decidedly old school. While I was able to consult Steam guides and forums for answers, I also remember how people used to handle these sorts of challenges. They’d gather on the playground or around the water cooler and attempt to tease out a game’s riddles together.
Fortunately, this old-school challenge is nicely complemented by heaping doses of lively visuals, immersive sounds, and all-around charm. The game’s graphical style is a fond mix of eras: The colorful backgrounds bring to mind the 16-bit generation, while the small sprites and their subtle animations would feel more at home in an early 90s PC or Amiga game. The result is visually cohesive despite not being true to a particular piece of hardware.
The music is also an essential part of the package. The soundtrack is full of rich, warm synthesized melodies that perfectly match the visuals. The audio is softer and more rounded than the tones that an NES or Sega Genesis would’ve pumped out, but this proves to be a wise choice, as it makes for tunes that are memorable yet easily retreat to the corners of your awareness as you ponder over a puzzle. Truth be told I often found the melodies bouncing around my head for hours after playing.
Pocket Kingdom is an endearing love letter to gaming’s early-to-middle days. Your mileage will vary; this is a game of limited scope that will only appeal to a certain audience. But if you’re seeking retro vibes, tricky puzzles, and a good all around time, I can’t recommend Pocket Kingdom highly enough. Just don’t blame me if you get lost and can’t find your way off the island.