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Pengo (Arcade) artwork

Pengo (Arcade) review

"Squarish penguins are always cute, even in tough games!"

It's a bit mean of Pengo, really, to be that cute, sucker you in, and get REALLY tough. When I played it as a kid, I figured I just wasn't much good at games, but it was still fun. I know better now. It's legitimately and unfairly frustrating at times. But there's a lot of strategy in this game where you control a little red penguin through mazes of ice blocks it can crush or push, avoiding blobs called Sno-Bees who will crush the maze walls to get to you. It's a game I can't play for very long, due to various annoyances, but I still always come back to it. Every year or so I want to see the after-even-level interludes featuring dancing penguins or one even trying to play a cocktail-cabinet game.

And when it's fun, it's fun. Each level cuts through a grid of ice blocks to make a maze, plops you in the center, and off you go with a cheery little tune. Pushing an ice block with another behind it crushes it. Otherwise, the block goes flying and crushes a Sno-Bee in its path. Each level has a fixed number of Sno-Bees, which bust out from ice blocks after another is killed, and you can even kill them pre-emptively, since the blocks also flash. It's a nice small award for memory. But you probably get more points long-term for smashing a couple Sno-Bees at a time with an ice block.

This all seems straightforward until the Sno-Bees start going faster than you. They start eating up the ice blocks quickly, which is a problem. The maze protects you from a direct charge. The Sno-Bees are smart, but not enough to be really mean and just start crushing ice blocks all over. The maze collapses quickly enough on the higher levels, and you probably need to use the strategy of going to the side of the board and joggling it to stun any Sno-Bees there. Of course, they're too smart to hit the side of the board immediately, and they seem to know if you just camp out there. So you have to plan ahead not to get stuck there. It can get annoying how smart they are, but if they weren't, the game would be a bit trivial.

Pengo would just be an exercise in passive defense if this were it. Because its real stroke of strategic genius is the three star blocks in each level. They're placed randomly, and if you can push them so they line up vertically or horizontally, you get a nice bonus and even stun the Sno-Bees on the board. It's a big gamble, and you need to learn when it's practical to line them up, and when it's impossible. This moves Pengo up from just a game of survival. Other early video games had gambles, e.g. letting Galaga capture your fighter, but Pengo forces you to think quickly to see if flinging and crushing a few ice blocks can maybe get you big points and a quick way through a level.

Now this isn't easy. It took me a while before I got a lineup right the first time. My intuition let me down. And the Sno-Bees can mess it up for you. But I still feel accomplished whenever I connect three in a row--especially if they're not lumped closely together. But I've also chased an illusion and lost two or three lives trying to put together a lineup that was impractical. In these days we have plenty of match-three games, but Pengo gave us so much more, much sooner.

Unfortunately, it also gave us bad controls. You see, you have so much you have to time right. When a Sno-Bee hatches from a block, you can't crush it right away. You have to wait until it's almost fully grown. The pause needed here is just enough to kill the flow of the game, but even worse is that sometimes you can try to time things so you squash a Sno-Bee as it moves into the path of an ice block. Somehow, it can go through the block and turn towards you if you time it wrong. Or worse, you have two Sno-Bees lined up, and they are crushing a row of ice blocks to get at you, and you push the ice block at them--and you crush it instead. I don't think this is solely a matter of my own klutziness, and while my impatience isn't strictly the game's fault, the timing issues ruin the strategic fun.

But the worst part is that the game's inconsistent about being able to move back. Part of this can't be helped. As opposed to Pac-Man, where you have narrow passages instead of a wide-open board and it's pretty clear where you can make a turn, Pengo is more arbitrary. If you go, say, a little up and try to go back down, you have to go to the next square. You can't make a quick retreat. With fast and smart Sno-Bees, this is fatal, especially since you can't ever stay put and it's too easy to wait a split-second too long. So bunkering down is often the only practical strategy, and still, a smart or lucky Sno-bee can leave you helpless. Oh, and sometimes, connecting the star blocks doesn't stun all the enemies. Again, this seems random, and it's a bummer when--yes! I got it! The enemies are all stunned now...oh, rats. Except the one nearest me.

Which is too bad. Pengo is still playable through the entire sixteen-level loop, with practice. It maximizes pastel palette-swaps to make you and your enemies even cuter. And when the final Sno-Bee develops legs like a sad muppet after a bit and flees in fear to end the level, well, it's adorable enough. How many enemies got scared of YOU in early video games? Well, part of it is, the game doesn't want to allow you to line up the three star blocks easily, but still.

The music works, too, from the interlude skits (Ode to Joy) to the death music to, well, either soundtrack. I remembered the game's catchy little tune at my local ShowBiz Pizza, and years later I googled and found it other people found it catchy, too. I even caught the name: "Popcorn" by Hot Butter. But when I installed MAME, it turned out to be something different. The "old" tune still stuck in my mind--until I re-downloaded a different set to a new computer. While copyright issues necessitated the change, the original tune helps keep Pengo fresher.

So Pengo does a lot right, but like many early video games that relied on quick quarter consumption, it can be arbitrary. Perhaps it's best it's not too addictive, and I can get back to what I need to do a bit quicker. Or move on to another game that's not perfect, but it has its fun bits I don't want to forget. It's maddening, sometimes, when I lose a life due to controls, or the Sno-Bees are too smart, but it's got much more thinking and action than you'd think for such a cute game.


aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (August 07, 2016)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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