To The Bitter End

Klonoa: Door To Phantomile

We’ll Always Have Phantomile

Klonoa: Door To Phantomile invites its players to fall in love. Then it’s time to talk.

By Anthony John Agnello • May 10, 2012

Games are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.

Nothing sucks like getting dumped for the first time. No amount of Better Off Dead or Helen Fielding books can prepare you for the sloshing two-ton weight that settles in your stomach the first time someone says, “We have to talk.” It’s the worst. The betrayal lingers the most: You said you loved me, and so on. There’s a vestige of that pain in Klonoa: Door To Phantomile. The game’s a sweet ride with a poisonous center, like a peach and its dollop of cyanide in the pit. Finishing this game hurts, but as the old folks say, it’s better to have played Klonoa than never to have played it at all.

You’d never suspect the bitter turn that Klonoa takes. On the surface, Klonoa looks a chipper affair. The titular character is a happy cat man with floppy ears and a Pac-Man hat. He runs through a colorful fantasyland called Phantomile, jumping on enemies Super Mario style.

Klonoa: Door To Phantomile

The game’s twist on the run-and-jump formula comes in how you bop those bad guys—with Klonoa’s best friend, Huepow, a bubbly blue smiley face who lives in a magic ring. Klonoa shoots Huepow into foes, inflating them into balloons that Klonoa can grab and toss; he can also double-jump from them to reach higher ground. It’s kinetic fun, but it also tells you a lot about the characters. These are friends so close that they’ve worked out a seamless routine of adorable tag team violence.

Things get weird fast. The first half of Klonoa is all colorful forests, windmills, and damsel-in-distress adventure—you save a life-giving diva from a nightmare-prince kidnapper, for instance. It’s cartoonish, and the conflicts have cartoon consequences. Brainwashed kings get hit on the head and undo their evil deeds, that sort of thing. But the second half is strange, sad, and, at the end, sweetly cruel. At the end of the fourth chapter, the aforementioned kidnapper prince blows up Klonoa’s house, killing his grandfather. The level ends with the adorable cat man screaming as his grandpa dies in his arms. 

It’s brutal and unexpected, but not illogical. The change in tone, though jarring, lends the game a sense of urgency. Every jump matters more, every little puzzle to open a door into the next stage feels like a greater success. By the sixth and final chapter, which takes place on Phantomile’s moon, that sense of import reaches its peak. The moon stages are taxing and beautiful, a series of sparkling blue halls arranged around a central tower. Each new area is marked by a different phase of the moon, emphasizing themes of rebirth and change. 

Klonoa: Door To Phantomile

Revelations also abound in this final rush to save the world. When you first arrive, you learn that Huepow isn’t a bubble at all, but the prince of the moon, sort of a cross between The Little Prince and Astro Boy. After revealing his true self, Huepow says he’s ashamed to have deceived Klonoa, but Klonoa, being the jocular sort, shrugs it off and tells him not to worry. They’re still best friends, after all, and this shakeup only deepens their apparent bond. Here’s a friendship that can overcome monster attacks, death, and long-running deceit! Jumping across disappearing platforms to vanquish an evil menace feels perfectly surmountable by comparison. The journey culminates in a classic final boss fight. All of the colorful personalities you met along the way chip in to save their world. The nightmare is defeated, the diva is safe, and peace is restored. All’s well.

And then the game tells you, “We have to talk.”

After that final fight, the buddies sit on a cliff looking out over the windmills where Klonoa lived with his grandfather. The place is a mess—all drab brown earth and dull skies. Klonoa muses that life can finally return to normal. That’s when Huepow explains that Klonoa’s entire life is a lie. He doesn’t exist at all.

You, the player, are actually Klonoa, brought to Phantomile to save the day. Your friendship, history, and your very memories were fabricated so that you’d do just that. Klonoa is aghast, refusing to believe. Then a force begins to pull Klonoa from the world through a rift in the sky. As he’s wrenched into the air, he yells that he doesn’t care, that he wants to stay. Huepow, to his credit, reaches out and grabs Klonoa’s hand, but the pull’s too strong. Huepow has to let go. Klonoa’s gone. The last image is of the world coming back to bloom.

That last act—extending a hand—before Klonoa and you are pulled from Phantomile forever is a painful, gentle moment. The game dumps you, hard, but is an honest apology. It doesn’t do you the disservice of saying, “It’s not you, it’s me.” And it doesn’t condescend with, “We’ll still be friends.” It holds on as long as possible, and that moment of reconciliation lessens the hurt of that crushing breakup just enough for you to walk away bruised but smiling.

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285 Responses to “We’ll Always Have Phantomile”

  1. NFET says:

    Played this game on the Wii, was absolutely devastated by the ending. Still, there’s sequels to this game isn’t there? Doesn’t that sort of undo the point?

  2. GhaleonQ says:

    Excellent essay, Anthony.  People have nothing bad to say about Klonoa Of The Wind, but I don’t think enough LOVE the series.  It’s legitimately my favorite platformer series after Super Mario.

    1.  The series’ mythology and aesthetics are among the best of any generation.  It, more than any other series, captures Namco’s populist-but-upbuilding aesthetic.  All of the Tales Of fanservice in the world can’t diminish how much Namco nails its aims here.  I especially love its invented language.  It’s actually voice-acted, which is insane.  It tops garbled stuff from Animal Forest/Crossing, Okami, Panzer Dragoon, and, yes, Lovedelic.

    2.  ALL of the games are superb.  The action roleplaying game’s nails 2-d isometric action.  The 3 puzzle platformers put to the test any “kiddie” accusations.  Could you beat this?  No, no you couldn’t.

    3.  The 2nd console game is even better and even sadder, if you can believe it.  Lunatea’s Veil disguises the way better Japanese title, That Which The World Wants To Forget.  What do they want to forget?  It’s like Psychonauts before Psychonauts.  You play through 4 worlds that represent bad ways people cope with problems: despair, juvenile pleasure, floundering, and anger.  After the boss’ world, you fight your enemy, the person who tried to get people to be sad again…in the right way.  “When people encounter sorrow, they try to forget it and pretend it never existed at all.”  The bad guy summoned Klonoa so that he could make the world sad again (in a healthy way), which would help your princess friend resolve her own issues and save the world from destruction.  After you stop him from making the world TOO sad, Klonoa actually DEFENDS the villain’s logic, and promises that the world will stop running away from grief.  So, as a direct refutation to the above ending, the princess agrees to be sad for a moment, only, and Klonoa willingly walks away after they say their goodbyes.  If you just take the console games as their own story arc, it’s WAY more ambitious than it has to be.

    I mean, for God’s sake, how much children’s entertainment is an explicit defence of sadness and responsibility?  Klonoa Of The Wind is phenomenal!

    I really love Final Fantasy Tactics Advance/White Dream’s themes for the same reason.  Don’t cross from fantasy and ambition into delusion and selfishness.

    • Fixda Fernback says:

      The only few examples I can think of as far as children’s entertainment that defends the importance of sadness and responsibility are: 1) Sesame Street and 2) Doctor Who. I’m sure there’s more, but you’re right, it’s not extremely common; and there’s a reason those two shows are upheld as children’s, or in Doctor Who’s case, family entertainment exemplars. 

      • The_Misanthrope says:

         Watership Down is *meant* to be a childrens’ story.

      • Girard says:

        Mr. Rogers touched on that stuff, too. You know, because he was awesome.

        The ending of Charlotte’s Web was quite sad, and that book dealt a bit with the character’s/animals responsibility to each other.

        On another note: I had always written these off as generic knock-off mascot platformers. Looks like I have more classic games to add to my backlog…

        • GhaleonQ says:

          Yeah, the series is 100 percent dead and buried after the remake failure, but I’d prefer that to other possibilities.  Before the remake, Klonoa was going to get a ‘tude, Ratchet And Clank redesign to bleed off people from the Playstation 2 Sony platforming trio.

          I can’t imagine this scene working with that one.  You need the juxtaposition of cuteness with sadness.

        • Girard says:

           @GhaleonQ:disqus : Ack, ‘tude!

          That reminds me of how in 2005 they released a PS2 sequel to the quite cute and well-made PSX Zelda-clone Brave Fencer Musashi, but they had let Nomura off of his leash and he turned the protagonist into this insane club kid with jnco pants, a half-shirt, and straps everywhere, and the setting was all industrial. Like, zero charm.

        • Aaron Riccio says:

          Yeah, @bakana42:disqus, if there’s an inventory list out there of the world’s most disappointing or unconnected sequels, Brave Fencer Musashi 2 and Alundra 2 belong right up at the top of that list.

        • caspiancomic says:

           @google-19efbd0104cbaffa5782aef5b7104019:disqus Ooh! Ooh! I wanna play! Disappointing or unconnected sequels: Bomberman Zero, Devil May Cry 2, Super Mario Bros 2, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Which of those are disappointing and which are unconnected is left as an exercise for the reader.

      • Pretty much everything by Sendak. His life philosophies:

        Also Owly and Bone, if I’m not mistaken, get rather deep and sad and doesn’t sugarcoat the painful parts of their tales.

      • doyourealize says:

        Up works, too.  Really anything Pixar.  I mean for fuck’s sake I had to actively hold back tears at the end of Toy Story 3!

        • Girard says:

           There’s that part in TS3 where the toys are all sliding slowly down to the incinerator, and hold hands and confront their mortality was pretty impressive and pathos-driven for a mainstream kids’ cartoon under the Disney banner.

          I’m typically not a huge fan of Pixar (and may be the only person on the planet to admit that), but I really enjoyed TS3, and that series in general works really well for me.

      • caspiancomic says:

         I think anything by Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki in particular, could be called kids’ entertainment that embraces the inevitability and importance of sadness.

    • doyourealize says:

      Like I need this comment from you!  My backlog of games is already large enough, thank you.  I still haven’t even downloaded Journey, and just played Bastion recently.  Now there’s three more games to put on the list.

      I need to get fired or something.

    • GhaleonQ, you might be the first person I’ve met who has actually played Klonoa Heroes. That is amazing.

    • R. Kasahara says:

      The second console Klonoa was my first experience with the series, and agreed that it does have a very melancholy ending. It also had the effect of making the ending of the first Klonoa (when I finally got around to playing it) not all that shocking since by then I knew the dreamlike nature of the title character.

  3. Shain Eighmey says:

    That’s an utterly brutal ending twist. Looks like they handled it well though! They could have pulled that punch at the last moment but correctly chose not to do so. 

  4. doyourealize says:

    Haven’t played this game (I’ll add “yet” after reading this), but I haven’t really been able to comment on anything this week, not having played Fez or Trials, so I just wanted to say something.

    Focussing on the game’s midpoint switch in tone, when a game can pull this off well, it can really grab you into its world and make you feel like you’re actually fighting for something.  This works especially well with games that seem more for children, like I always thought Klonoa was, and my favorite example Stranger’s Wrath.  The latter was a fun enough game but didn’t become truly epic until the twist halfway through (and playing through it again on HD, I’m recognizing some subtle foreshadowing towards that shift).  Even though it was just a game – and aren’t they all? – I actually felt like there was something at stake in a way that epic games like Mass Effect, which prepare you for the stakes before you play, can’t quite reach.

    Conker’s Bad Fur Day is another example.  It’s definitely not for kids, but it seems at first like a fun little potty/boob humor game, but turns into a lot more.

    Gameplay will always be important, but “tricking” the gamer into feeling like part something larger is a tactic more designers should employ.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Stranger’s Wrath is one of those games in my Steam library that I bought but haven’t quite gotten around to playing yet; looking forward to it now, especially since we share the same opinion of Conker’s Bad Fur Day and, more importantly, the idea that a design that “tricks” the gamer is an important one. Fiction — which is often mistakenly limited to just books, but applies to most creative art forms that tell a story — is sometimes called “the lie that tells a truth,” by which I mean that it uses something at a distance to sneak past your normal social defenses and to actually hit you with something real. The best games are generally the ones that actually care to do more than entertain you — the worst are the ones that don’t bother to be entertaining at all. (Which doesn’t make them bad, just bad games.)

      • doyourealize says:

        I’d suggest getting to Stranger’s Wrath right away if you have those thoughts about fiction in games. I went into it without a clue the game would offer a “twist”, but I don’t think knowing that will change your enjoyment. (If it does…sorry.)

  5. Should I play the PS1 or Wii version?

    • I personally prefer the PS1 version. The rough polygon backgrounds and CG intro/outros add to the surreality of the game. Some folks greatly prefer the smoothness of the Wii version though. Both play perfectly, and both can be had for around $10.

  6. Mike says:

    Kind of like FFX.

    • The Guilty Party says:

       I suppose, but FFX didn’t really make me feel much for the characters. This game sounds like they did that part a lot more effectively.

      • Mike says:

        Fair enough, but I just thought the main-character-as-dream-within-gameworld-yanked-away-from-teammates-at-the-end conceit was too similar not to comment on.

  7. Ramon Mujica says:

    It can never be as bad as my reality.

  8. Speaking of unhappy endings, is the walking dead game getting reviewed anytime soon? By all accounts it’s pretty great.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Sounds like you don’t really need a review, eh? But I’d assume that an episodic game that hasn’t yet wrapped up (only Part 1 of 5 has been released, no?) can’t technically have an unhappy “ending.” Just an unhappy “continuation” or “climax.”

  9. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    I don’t mean to split hairs over a very well-written article for a really fantastic feature, but wouldn’t it be “‘Tis better to have played Klonoa and won, then to never have played at all”?

  10. Citric says:

    I was hoping this would come up as soon as this feature was announced, not disappointed. It’s so well handled – even made me tear up, and I usually don’t do that – but also completely unexpected for a brightly colored platformer. You expect that this thing is going to end in a happy place, everyone living together, so when it doesn’t it has much more impact than you would expect. Like the game itself, it does much more than you’d think a platformer ever could.

    • Girard says:

       Are there any other games folks are anticipating being a part of this feature?
      Astro Boy Omega Factor for the GBA, in addition to being an awesome game, has a fantastic ending conceit that utterly transforms the game and extends it thematically and gameplay wise in a whole different direction.

      • Man, good one, Girard. That’s a great example. Also, I now need to go replay Astro Boy: Omega Factor.

        It’s the only one to do it well to my mind, but it also embodies an old conceit that doesn’t pop up in games very often any longer: Having to play the whole game again. Ghosts and Goblins, Contra 3. That used to happen pretty often. Are there any modern examples?

        • NFET says:

          Super Mario Galaxy made you play it again with Luigi.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          I think we all talked about during the Majora’s Mask article, but that was only relevant when arcade/arcade ports/no save games were the norm.  It makes sense in a Konami beat-’em-up; it doesn’t make sense in a 12-mission Activision shooter.

          Dungeon crawlers like Chunsoft’s, System Prisma’s, and Nippon Ichi’s are the only ones that come to mind.  Look up Absolute Hero Remodeling Project/Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger Versus Darkdeath Evilman’s conceit.

      • caspiancomic says:

         Pick any Metal Gear Solid title and you’ve got a good contender for this series. The ending to all the games follow the same sort of formula: towards the end you learn some bizarre truth about the events you’ve been participating in, then after a bit of gameplay you learn that the last truth was in fact false, and this new, crazier truth is what’s true! Then after the last boss, you find out the crazier truth was actually untrue, because the actually actual truth is even crazier! CREDITS! Then, AFTER the credits, you find out all of that stuff was untrue and the very last line of dialogue in the game flips everything else in the story on its head! Wooooah! I think my single favourite line in all of gaming is still that bone chilling “…Mr. President.” at the very end of MGS1.

        Also, I think Suikoden II has a really strong ending, and it’s one of my all time favourite games to boot. It trusts the player to remember and attach significance to something set up in the first hour of play, and allows the player to naturally seek out the payoff instead of feeding it to you (you can even choose to ignore it and get a different ending). Also, in the final moments of the game, it makes some interesting decisions with some of the gameplay mechanics that not only force you to reconsider the way the game works, but reinforce the game’s themes through the gameplay. I’d love to go into more specifics, but hell, you’d need to write a To The Bitter End column to sufficiently cover all the specific details that make Suikoden II’s ending so satisfying.

        • Girard says:

           I need to replay that game. I played through it in middle school, and enjoyed it, but it kind of faded in my memory alongside the glut of PS1 RPGs I played in that era, and I don’t recall it very well.

          As an adult, every time I see that game mentioned, it’s heaped with praise (and apparently copies of the game are in high demand), and people often cite it as their favorite rpg (or at least favorite PSX one, in the likely event they have a preferred SNES game).

          Anyway, I kind of feel like I need to come back to it as an adult and appreciate whatever elements I didn’t really absorb during a time in my life where I was pretty much non-stop grinding through JRPG after JRPG.

  11. caspiancomic says:

    Well I was planning on using this $10 to buy life saving medicine for myself and my family, but after reading that, it looks like I’m hitting PSN and buying Klonoa instead. No regrets!

  12. I remember playing this when I was around 8 or 9. It made me cry, so powerful was the punch of the ending. Fantastic game, amazing story, haunting ending.