Klonoa, in many ways, reminds me of Osamu Tezuka’s Unico, the mangaka’s Sanrio published comic strip-turned-film-series about a nascent unicorn doomed for unhappiness. “As cute as cute can be,” goes his theme song for The Fantastic Adventures of Unico. “What strange gift do you hold in your hand?” Unico is a creature so blessed with innocence, so preternaturally good, that the Gods became jealous and cursed him to a mythical limbo. The West Wind, who is charged with his banishment, balks at the idea of something so cruel and instead deposits him somewhere remote on Earth away from the watchful eyes of the Olympians. Because Unico is so pure-hearted, though, he uses his gift to bring happiness to those around him and makes lifelong bonds that augur his discovery.
And so the cycle goes: Unico is saved by the West Wind just in time, left somewhere else to fend for himself, meets someone new, and grants their wishes. His kindness is his sword of Damocles, the proof of his loneliness and the weapon that severs his ties to the people he comes to meet and love.
Klonoa, similarly, exists as a flash of brilliance. He arrives, shines, and must leave. His playing an active role inevitably dooms him to unhappiness, to casting away his friends and memories so he can share his gift with the greater world. The floppy-eared little critter debuted in Namco’s 1997 Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, a 2.5D platformer in the vein of the later Kirby 64 and Yoshi’s Story. Door to Phantomile is simple enough—there’s only 12 stages in the game with a boss nestled at the end of every other level. Klonoa never gets any new abilities; he can float for a brief second with his winglike ears, shoot a “wind bullet” that “blows up” enemies, and use those enemies as projectiles or an extra boost for his jumps.
To shoot his wind bullet, Klonoa relies on his best friend Huepow, a floating blue blob that Klonoa has known for as long as he can remember. Klonoa lives with Huepow at his grandfather’s house, where they lead an idyllic life. Phantomile is a rather obvious parable about childhood. Klonoa’s life until now, however false it might be, exists as a dream. He lives in his guardian’s benevolence and spends every day playing with his best friend. His halcyon days are disrupted by the coming of a primordial nightmare.
That nightmare, Phantomile’s villain Ghadius, is an inevitability. A person cannot live in a dream forever. Those dark parts, the badness, will naturally seep in. And a child is best equipped to deal with this if they know what to expect, if they have people around them to support them and hoist them up. A child is weak and lost on its own, but truly blossoms when they confront these challenges head on.
Though Phantomile ends with a victory, Klonoa’s peaceful days never return. In the game’s final moments, Huepow informs him his memories are a lie; he is a Dream Traveler, a being summoned to different worlds to preserve the joy of people threatened by impending chaos. His time spent with Huepow was a fabrication—the moment Phantomile is restored, he’s whisked to the next world, forgotten like any pleasant dream is seconds after waking up. Phantomile’s final frame is a decidedly haunting one—Klonoa disappears into the sky as the grass greens again and flowers bloom. Huepow wipes his tears and smiles, almost vacuously; the nightmare is over and peace has returned, Klonoa’s resonance lingering as little more than a sense of contentment, a fleeting notion of gratitude.
Phantomile is not only a game about killing the inner child, but one of preserving its corpse. Remembering what it was like to spread your legs for the first time, to smell the fresh air of youth. These memories may only be impressionistic—an image, a sound, a taste—and they may not even be real. But Phantomile seems to argue that these memories are genetic imperatives, and they’re what press us to continue surviving. If Phantomile explores childhood, then Lunatea’s Veil, its PS2 sequel, is adolescence; summoned to a new world to save, Klonoa must deal with the grays of life, the unsureness of purpose, and the weight of the emotions around him. Klonoa teams up with a young priestess named Lolo (who becomes the new spirit of his ring, and his new wind bullet) and her friend Popka to stop the sky pirates Leorina and Tat, who plan to invite a forgotten fifth element—sorrow—into the world of Lunatea with the power of the four elements housed in each of the world’s four kingdoms.
Like Phantomile, Leorina represents a sort of entropy, an acceleration of what will come to pass one way or another. In her haste, Leorina raises the lost Kingdom of Sorrow and succumbs to the transformative, twisted power it plans to blanket the world in, a miasma of despair and rage. But with proper care and support, this misery can be allayed; she can be quelled and refreshed with a little understanding. Yes, it’s a sentimentalist’s idea of how to deal with depression—but Lunatea’s Veil earns that sentimentalism by structuring its very philosophy around it. Leorina, like Lolo, was a former priestess scorned by her own inadequacy. Throughout their journey together, Lolo doubts herself, even struggling to continue as Klonoa’s bullet because of her insecurity. She manages to persevere, though, because of the support she’s afforded by her friends, as well as the space they give her to feel her emotions.
If Lunatea is a stand-in for a body, then the Kingdom of Sorrow is the psychic illness we attempt to stymie, that we push deeper into the darkness of our subconscious, below our gut. This suppression unfortunately allows for sorrow to suffuse itself throughout our entire nervous system, to plague our minds and use us as vessels for its silenced voice. Lunatea’s Veil proposes that the solution to this malady is to embrace the sorrow within, to allow it to rise from the depths of our heart’s ocean and confront it as you would with any of life’s other aberrant emotions. This is, of course, something we are never taught to do properly—something that becomes harder and harder to ignore as a child burgeons on adulthood, teetering towards being not just a solitary island but amidst a community of others experiencing much of the same turmoil. The unity of Lunatea is a tapestry of the ways we naturally become connected.
As a duology, I can think of few other things that interrogate immaturity in the way Klonoa does. They are a gentle reminder to myself that stories don’t have to be complex to be essential; in fact, the simplest stories may be the ones that stay with us the most. Though dreams are fated to fade, I’m thrilled the world will get a chance to be reacquainted with Klonoa when Klonoa Phantom Reverie Series releases this summer.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire