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.
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.
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.