I'm going to guess you had one of two reactions to the title of today's article: you either read it and had no idea what it was about, or you read it and heard a strange, almost indescribable honking noise that you might transliterate as "noot noot" echo in your head. It's Tom Create's 1993 Game Boy penguin-mischief-em-up Pingu: Sekai de Ichiban Genki na Penguin!
The title translates as something like Pingu: The Most Cheerful Penguin in the World, which must refer to just this game because Pingu isn't always all that cheerful in the show. Oh, right, I should mention that this game is based on Pingu, a British-Swiss claymation show about the eponymous penguin and all the scrapes he gets into with his family and friends.
That's what Pingu looks like when he's not trapped in the blocky monochrome world of the Game Boy, although as he's a penguin being rendered in black and white doesn't affect his looks overmuch. I'm sure Pingu is familiar to almost every British person reading this, but I have no idea about how widely know he is. I'd imagine "quite widely" - he's certainly famous in Japan, or at least famous enough to have this Japan-only videogame made and released over there. The show probably travels well, too, because it's all played out in a nonsensical yet perfectly understandable gibberish penguin language and therefore there's no need for translations.
Another factor that sets Pingu up for international success is that Pingu himself is a character easily recognisable to children (and especially boys) the world over - he's selfish, naughty but not particularly tough or clever, and most of the mishaps he finds himself involved in are of his own making. Like a kid, in fact.
An example: the game begins with Pingu eating the fish that was meant for the family's dinner, the greedy little bastard. In the world of Pingu fish is also used as currency, so you could argue that it's more like he found that week's shopping money and scoffed it.
After a telling-off from his mum, Pingu is kicked out of the house and I'm presented with this screen. I'm sure it's very helpful if you can read Japanese, but I'm sure I'll be able to figure out how a Pingu Game Boy game works. I'm fairly certain I need a fish to replace the one I just ate. I imagine I have to find one, because if fish works as money in this advanced penguin society there seems little point going to the fishmonger just to exchange a fish for, erm, a fish.
Immediate impressions are that the developers did an excellent job recreating Pingu's sliding, slap-footed walk, and there's even a button dedicated to performing his trademark honk. The honk is equivalent to "press X to open" in another game, and in this Antarctic area that I suppose you could call a "hub" your task is to walk around noot noot-ing at igloos and other objects until they grant you access to the gameplay.
The first minigame I found - and really, Pingu: Sekai de Ichiban Genki na Penguin is nothing but a collection of minigames - was this fish-catching affair. Hey, I need a fish, and here there are fish literally leaping out of the water and into my waiting flippers. That's a stroke of luck. It's an easy enough game to figure out: the fish jump between the holes in the ice, so you just have to move Pingu near the fish and press A to grab them. Collect the required amount of fish within the time limit, move on to the next stage, repeat.
Speaking of reps, here's Pingu doing some weightlifting to celebrate his fish-grabbing triumph. Just don't question how he's holding that barbell with his flippers.
The fish totals and time limits get stricter and the positions of the holes change, but the only thing that really complicates this game is the appearance of the seal you can see popping up in the middle of the screen. If you collide with the seal, you spin around and lose some time. It makes sense for a seal to be poking up through the ice and trying to stop a penguin stealing all his fish... or at least it would if that seal wasn't Robby, Pingu's best friend. Robby's only purpose is to hamper his best friend's attempt to gather fish and avoid a beating at the hands of his angry parents. Cheers, Robby. You dick.
I thought this game was going to go on forever, but eventually I managed to clear stage ten and receive a congratulatory message. I collected well over a hundred fish, but these fish must be absolutely loaded with mercury or something and so don't count toward the main goal of feeding your family. Still, I'm glad I spend fifteen minutes playing this minigame, a minigame I'm sure you can tell is really novel and exciting. Of course I'm glad. It's not like I have better things to be doing.
Here's the actual method you need to use in order to catch dinner. It's a fishing minigame. I probably should have seen that coming.
There's not much to it. Dangle your hook in front of a fish, mash the buttons to haul the fish up when it bites, try to avoid Robby as he swims back and forth, trying to eat your bait. Did I mention that Robby is Pingu's closest friend? No wonder the little penguin acts out so much.
The most bizarre thing about this game is that you have limited bait, but the count doesn't go down when you catch a fish. Thus, the assumption has to be that Pingu re-uses the bait by plucking it out of the fish's mouth and re-hooking it. That's kind of gross, Pingu.
Robby is redeemed! Pingu drops the fish he caught into the water, but Robby fetches it back for him. What a game, you get a couple of fish-catching minigames plus one seal's gripping story of personal atonement.
That's the first stage complete - or the first episode, I should say, because Pingu frames each stage as an episode of the show - but there's no rest for the wicked as Pingu is once more turfed out of his house, this time for listening to his music too loud. His parents tell him to go and play outside, and in a move that will be familiar to any of you with younger siblings they force him to take his little sister Pinga with him. Pingu's looking after an infant. This is very unlikely to go wrong.
"I only looked away for a moment!" cries Pingu as his sister is swept away on an ice floe. For once, he's telling the truth. He really did only look away for the moment, and his shocked reaction elicited a genuine laugh from me. I'd say it was probably Pingu: Sekai de Ichiban Genki na Penguin's high point.
The mission to rescue Pinga takes the form of a simplistic platformer, with Pingu jumping between the sliding sheets of ice. It's surprisingly difficult - Pingu has a very fixed jumping distance and unless you launch yourself from the back of the platform you'll more than likely overshoot your target and end up in the icy water. Landing in the water costs you a life. Wait, what? Going into the water costs you a life? But I'm a penguin, spending time in icy water is my entire deal. It's such a bizarrely inappropriate reason for failure that I have to believe it's less about physical suffering and more about having to endure the opprobrium of the other residents of Penguinland. They've evolved, become advanced, grown into a proud race that uses tools and lives in buildings and has set up a banking system around fish. Such primitive penguin behaviour is below them, and it brings their entire civilisation into disrepute to see a penguin swimming, like some common beast. Imagine the flak you'd get if you stripped off all your clothes, killed a cow with a sharpened flint and paraded its head around town. That's the kind of judgement Pingu faces after an unauthorised swim.
"It's okay Pinga, I've got you. But if you tell anyone about this you'll be back on that ice floe faster than you can say "noot noot," capisce?"
Before I move on to episode three, let's take a look at the other minigames you can play. This one is a falling-block puzzle game that's called Pingtris despite being much more similar to Puyo Puyo. Faces drop down from above - the faces of Pingu, a snowman, Pinga and what I first thought was a grey alien that's having its own rectal probe used against it before I realised it was Robby - and if you line up four faces horizontally or vertically they disappear. The goal is to make a line disappear when it's touching the ice blocks that litter the stage. That makes the ice block disappear too, and when you've cleared all the ice blocks you've cleared the stage.
It's not bad, if a bit too easy... but then this is clearly a game for very young children, so I can't hold that against it. Instead I will once more register my disappointment that it's called Pingtris and not Puyo Pingyo.
Nope. No, I'm not doing it. I hate sliding block puzzles with a passion that you might consider excessive, but if I wanted to play a crappy and infuriating picture puzzle I'd work through a box of Christmas crackers until I found one. At least that way I'd get a paper hat to wear.
You're damn right "bad play".
This is hide-and-seek, Pingu-style, and in the clustered tenements of the igloo slum three of Pingu's friends hide in a random house. You pick three houses, and the game tells you which of the three friends (if any) are hiding within. What it doesn't tell you is which houses they're in, so you have to work through a process of elimination until you know which of the three buildings are occupied. It's okay, although I'd enjoy it a lot more if Pingu didn't waddle between the houses at such a leaden pace. Alright, maybe "enjoy" is a strong word, it's hardly Doom. Pingu Doom would be called Pingoom, naturally.
Okay, back to the game proper and Pingu has broken his mum's vase by playing football in the house, an event that has shocked him so deeply he's pulling the same face I'd imagine he'd pull if you punched him square in the solar plexus. I'm not suggesting you punch a penguin in order to discern the truth of that statement, but, you know, if the pictures are out there then we could clear this mystery up.
An adult penguin is selling an identical vase not twenty feet from Pingu's front door, a set of circumstances so convenient that if it turns out this penguin engineered the whole broken-vase fiasco for his own financial gain I won't be surprised. The penguin shopkeeper wants a fish in exchange for the vase, but Pingu can't replay the fishing game and instead has to win the fish by beating three local ice hockey players.
It's Pong, and if it wasn't for the inclusion of the sliding block puzzles this would be Pingu's lowest ebb. Like Pong you have to get the puck into your opponent's goal, with the added wrinkle that you have to press a button to launch the puck when it comes close because if you let the puck hit you without swinging at it you fall over and are paralysed for a few moments. The problem is that this game is almost entirely dependant on luck. You have very little control over your shots, and unless there's some gameplay mechanic I'm missing - which is entirely possibly, because I'm both currently too ill to concentrate much and as thick as the proverbial two short planks - all you can really do is smash the puck towards your opponent and hope it goes in. Then do it another eight times, because there are three opponents and you have to score three goals to win. My advice? Play Arkanoid instead, or get outside and smack a tennis ball against a wall for a while, you lazy sod. That last bit might have been directed at myself.
I didn't even need to win, because Pingu's dad bought the vase while I was off playing winter sports. Hopefully the fish I won will buy his silence.
Finally, there's a snowball fight. I don't think this one is predicated on anything bad that Pingu did, he's just out having a snowball fight because what else is he going to do in the Antarctic? He's already been ice-fishing and played ice hockey, there's only so much you can get up to without electricity or opposable thumbs.
I rather enjoyed the snowballing, a simple game of holding the button to charge up your throw and trying to aim in roughly the direction of the other penguins. You have to stand still while powering up, however, so just remember that discretion is the better part of valour and if you see a penguin taking aim, release your shot early and get to cover. If you're really accurate, you can even hit the penguins behind the walls at the back with a perfectly-lobbed snowball, something I was very pleased to discover because waiting for your enemy to stick their heads over the parapet could have become very tedious otherwise. This is probably the best of the games, and while that's hardly saying much it provides at least a few moments of distraction.
After a long day of faffing about, night falls on Penguinland and Pingu retreats to the arms of his mother. Aww, that's sweet. I guess she didn't find out about Pingu breaking her vase or nearly getting his little sister killed.
By most metrics, Pingu: Sekai de Ichiban Genki na Penguin isn't a very good game. A collection of basic tasks, many of them culled from pre-existing games and none of them all that engaging. You could bring up the "oh, it's it just for very young kids" argument but that doesn't hold water thanks to the strange difficulty balance - most of the games themselves are pretty hard, even if there's almost no punishment for failing them.
I can't fault Tom Create on the design front, however. This is a very Pingu-y game, from the cheery, bleepy recreation of the show's theme tune, to the immediately recognisable characters (no mean feat given that this is a Game Boy game) to the fact there's a button to make Pingu honk whenever you like. Granted his honk sounds more like a car horn than anything else, but it's such a weird noise in the first place I'm impressed they even attempted to get it right. All the mischief you get up to fits so snugly into - and I can't believe I'm typing this - the Pingu canon that I wouldn't be surprised if it was taken from actual episodes. So, I can only recommend this one to hardcore Pingu fans, and if you're not a hardcore Pingu fan then I suggest you watch the episode where he drinks too much and pisses all over his bathroom. That might change your mind.