It’ll never be top of the list in Nintendo’s marketing when it comes to talking about the benefits of owning a Wii U, but the console’s portable ease can’t be easily ignored. Whether you’re using the GamePad as a means to wind down on perhaps the sofa or in bed, it’s befitting that indie titles can nestle comfortably in both palms as opposed to a large screen. It’s unclear whether Old Skull Games had this philosophy in mind during the creation process of Rakoo & Friends, but the marriage of portable gaming and software on Nintendo’s platform feels far from a fluke.
What’s more, given this is a full Nintendo-exclusive created solely by a third party (yes, those do indeed exist still), there’s a lot more to divulge in the wider context of design. Because for all its charm – verbally promoted or otherwise – Rakoo & Friends, a digital eShop title, appears relatively suited to a touch-screen peripheral and/or device for better or worse. That’s not to say playing solely on the GamePad somehow administers some kind of limitation on the presentation. For all of you nostalgia-types who can easily reminisce on your childhood of Saturday mornings glued to your TV watching those bright, vibrant cartoons, Rakoo makes sure to add itself to that list of titles fond to remind you of such days.
The art-style is unashamedly cartoonish. A stark contrast of color here, a wacky enemy design there; it’s not anything absolutely unique in 2015, but Old Skull know how and where to draw the line. The line being what’s genuine charm and what’s perhaps desperate or trying too hard at nostalgia-gazing. Rakoo & Friends lands players in a level-by-level format which centers around a variant on the endless runner rule of engagement. The objective is relatively straight-forward: reach the finish line for each of the sixty-plus levels without dying. Oh and help Rakoo show the love of his life how much she really means to him, of course.
Players go about avoiding death (and finding true love) by controlling the titular character, either traditionally via the analog stick or through the touchscreen, making sure not to knock into enemies of varying wackiness and malevolence, collecting flowers which act as both a tallying score and a power metre your buddies can use later on and nabbing the optional three golden coins scattered throughout each level. You can’t halt or stop midway, so the focus lies predominantly on bobbing and weaving (at points frantically) in-between waves of hostile creatures. Some will go out of their way to attack you — which most of the time correlates to simple up-and-down movement, much like first-level ships from an R-Type/Gradius opening — but the rate of onslaught does eventually increase, sometimes tripping you up.
Note my intended emphasis on the word “some,” because for the most part, Rakoo & Friends’ challenge is in majorly short supply. Before you can even question the potential difficulty curve later on, you’ll find you’re already half-way through the sixty-level assemble with barely a scratch or restart to shamefully admit to. Yet it’s not the volume of hostiles that warrant Rakoo’s jarring lack of challenge, but instead the very nature and delivery of the levels themselves — each of which presented in a somewhat stiff and flat prop-like transitioning of (admittedly) well-made assets. The fact enemies will simply slide off both the screen as well as the backgrounds — especially when said backgrounds are made out to be dense forests or solid rock walls — there’s an undying break of immersion in the experience.
Sadly, one of the most jarring and questionable design choices lies in how much it emphasizes use of the GamePad’s touch-screen. Overworld maps, simple navigation aside, can not be accessed with the face buttons and additional sections such as the settings tab similarly lack alternative means of usage. Even the touch-screen controls within levels can leave your character shooting from one edge of the screen to the next. Worse, there’s no way to adjust the sensitivity, with options limited to simply turning either music or sound effects on or off.
Couple this with the streamlined and often minimal end result screens and it all feels a little too mobile-orientated — the concept, though originally designed for these platforms, lacks any underscoring identity with Nintendo’s platform. It’s not a major drawback, but it does dampen what vibrancy there is to be shared through the visual and graphical presentation and takes away from what uniqueness Rakoo offers up. Even the in-level power-up’s and optional perks you can activate — which is where you sidekick-like characters come in handy — hardly differentiate from the standard model of knocking out enemies. The former does control in slightly more differing means but all still emanate with the same purpose but offer little lasting appeal.
While there have been many great and accessible titles gracing Nintendo’s growing eShop catalog in recent months, Rakoo & Friends sadly doesn’t offer as much variety, engagement and reason to return to aside from a graceful wind-down. The Saturday morning cartoon-esque art-style and aesthetic charm impress, but seldom certify what is all-in-all a shallow amount of content, even for an indie release of this kind. At the best of times, Rakoo’s innocence and straight-forward approach can generate some neat moments of outright mad finger-swiping delirium. For the most part though, Old Skull’s obscure mesh of mobile gaming simplicity within the Wii U’s interface — potential expansion and all — can baffle. An end-of-day way to relax, but sadly nothing more.