Everyone loves penguins! Even before Morgan Freeman anthropomorphized their desperate survival techniques and turned their evolution-defying life cycle into a warm, heartfelt tale of love, people were way into penguins. What’s not to love? They’re big birds that swim rather than fly, they look like they’re wearing tuxedos, and they waddle amusingly.
The penguin boom of the ’80s (what do you mean, you never heard of it?) led to many wonderful waterfowl-based works. Of these, surely Berkeley Breathed’s Opus (of Bloom County fame) was the most famous, enjoying a decades-long run on the funny pages, the constant of quality in comic strips of varying value. But let’s not allow Opus’ fame on T-shirts and in plush form blind us to the merits of Japan’s penguin game boom.
Sega’s Pengo may not command the fame of Konami’s Pentarou, but that’s no reflection on the character himself. It’s not his fault that Sega has let him languish in obscurity, while Pentarou helped launch Hideo Kojima’s career and keeps popping up in the Gradius satire games that somehow seem to have outlived Gradius itself. When it comes down to brass tacks, Pengo’s game—eponymously titled—more than matched the quality of any of Pentarou’s starring roles. It was a simple arcade action title with hints of puzzle elements, but there’s value in simplicity.
Like so many games to crop up in the wake of Pac-Man, Pengo took place in a top-down (more or less) maze in which the hero found himself pursued by roaming monsters. Neither Pengo nor his antagonists could match the Pac-Man cast for cuteness and appeal (delightfulness of penguins notwithstanding), but the game mechanics put a new twist on the maze chase genre.
Rather than turning the tables directly on foes by eating them or stomping them or whatever, Pengo took things to the next level by turning the maze itself against the bad guys. The walls of the play fields consist of ice blocks which can be kicked toward enemies to crush them. If a Namco comparison is in order for all games of this vintage, it’s not entirely unlike Dig-Dug (excuse me, Taizo Horii) loosing rocks to smush a Pooka, except more direct and in all four directions.
It’s a pretty fun game—fast-paced and challenging, but not overwhelming. Who knows why Sega only ever gave it a half-sequel on Genesis; the only real successor to Pengo that comes to mind is Irem’s Kickle Cubicle, which cranked up the puzzle-ness of the action. Godspeed, Pengo. Yours was a brief light in our dark reality.
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Pengo