a review of Plok
a videogame developed by software creations
and published by tradewest
for the super nintendo entertainment system
text by Ario Barzan
In the earlier days, videogame companies were in the business of pumping often terminally hip mascot-hopefuls out by the truckload. The eagerness to catch on like Mario or Sonic did, the wishful, perhaps less than noble, sweat, was almost palpable. The Great Giana Sisters, Boogerman, and Aero the Acrobat were but a few. Sometimes, figures’ escapades would continue on, for whatever reason (though to occasional delight). Bubsy, a pants-less bobcat who starred in a diseased tsunami of a game, and who mimicked tapping the TV’s screen if you waited long enough, would seal his fate in 3D. Rygar, shield-slinging warrior, made a gorgeous, kind of boring comeback on the Playstation 2. To this day, there still is the rare release promoting a cartoon-ish character with the glimmer of Franchise in their look – Psychonauts and Blinx come to mind.
Put alongside this slew of odd characters and the history of video games, Plok is a rare find, because not only is the game damn good – it is also immensely obscure, and has never been capitalized on further. This is puzzling. When you see Plok himself, he’s clean and approachable. Two prime colors comprise his design: yellow and red. His head resembles a Hershey’s Kiss with eyes. His body comes close to a person you’d see a six-year old make with silly putty. Unadorned, honest, Plok is a good guy who you are satisfied guiding. If you leave the controls alone, he doesn’t crack any painful witticisms or start juggling oranges or some shit – he’ll simply move his shoulders up and down to visualize breathing.
The game calmly, surely eases you into its world. Plok is a territorial fellow, and when his flag has been stolen, he sets out to a nearby island to retrieve it from the miscreants. The start-off point is a hilly, un-broken path that acquaints you with the mechanics. Plok attacks by shooting his limbs out – all four of them if you tap the button fast enough. He has a normal, short jump, along with a higher spin jump. And, well, he can crouch. The landscape is divided into two pieces – an immediate, glossy foreground dotted with floating flowers and funky trees, and a distant background of the ocean and bodies of land, rendered in an Impressionistic hand.
At the end of each level, you will arrive at a flagpole, only to find it’s a fake. And at the start of each new one, signs of an oncoming evening will become more evident. When you confront the boss, the fact that it’s a couple of giants with lips for heads is acceptable after the previous weirdness – but the game suddenly sends shivers down your spine, perks your eyebrows up, because this is where Plok truly begins. The boss anthem is a thudding thing with a sense of humor and a 90’s dance rhythm, a song that is so sudden, so wonderful, so this isn’t on an SNES…is it?, it makes you wait around after the cretins have been finished off just to hear its entirety. The nighttime colors are beautiful and you can feel the whisper of promises.
This is an enormous part of what sets Plok apart from the crowd. It wants to impress ambience onto you. It wants to show you that it has soul. The thing’s got style, a real feel. True to the sensation, the narrative follows suit and shows that while you were gone trying to find your flag, the Flea Queen has replaced all of Plok’s flags with her own. It’s only by ridding the established number of her offspring (who don’t look like fleas, at all) that you can clear each stage. Before you may object to the “gotta catch ‘em all” situation, you’re on a surreal beach, waves at the base of the screen, a morning sun shining on the far-off water, with crashing, glorious music playing. And as you go on, you realize that the level design has changed, has become quite good. Everything before was a prelude to get you ready for the actual structure. It is manageable, though exact and textured enough to keep you on your toes.
One of the highlights enters soon afterwards, wherein Plok comes home and, wondering where his grandfather buried a magical amulet, dozes off. Gameplay resumes moments later, and everything is in black and white as you take a leap back into history and assume the role of the grandfather when he was looking for the amulet. The stage names appear on flickering, silent film plaques, a jittery piano and frumpy backup puff out, Grandpappy Plok has a mustache, and the lip-headed dudes you fought before are a trio, rather than a duo. It’s “old-school”-tough and grin-inducingly clever.
Part of what makes Plok so absorbing is its focus. The world isn’t crammed with a deluge of crazy varmints attacking you as if they’re starving and you’re the steak, or heaps of power ups, or complex puzzles (enjoyable as those things may be!) – the conflict is between you, the eccentric land, and appropriately dispersed critters. Environments are lovingly crafted, mindful of leaving room for thinking, and bold when need be. A certain segment has you traveling through a melancholy, abandoned town with “For Sale” signs poking out of the ground and boarded up buildings. As Plok makes his way past bumblebees and projectile-spitting flowers, up lopsided cliffs topped by pasta vegetation, forested hills beyond giving way to the sky, the music pulls your eyes open and grips your hands. It is stuff you can listen to outside of the source and yearn to go back to something you never even had (as I’ve found the case to be with Earthbound’s soundtrack).
There are no save points or password system. This might be a problem, were it a bit longer. Fortunately, Plok is digestible in one sitting. Such a decision on the part of designers completes a subtle role, as well. Since you’re not leaving the system and having other occurrences in between, playing becomes singularly connected.
If one stumbling block does rear up, it’s the final portion: the Flea Pit. It isn’t poorly made, so much as it can’t stand up to the panache of the rest with its bubbling tar pits and crags. Also, every so often, it contradicts the overall reasonable difficulty. To be honest, right before this transition, I generally switch the game off. I’m satisfied with what I’ve been offered. For me, the quest ends when Plok finishes reclaiming his flags.
At the core is adventure. There’s the necessary objective, but that plays second fiddle to the compulsion spurred in the mind to navigate that peculiar, smart universe. Plok is not perfect, but it is one of kind, and unquestionably worthy of being tracked down.