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Pengo (Arcade) artwork

Pengo (Arcade) review

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

Pengo shocked me when I first saw it in Chuck E Cheese or wherever. It was a maze game, like Pac-Man, but not only was it randomly generated (what COULDN'T computers do?), the little red square penguin you controlled could push the ice blocks around to crush the enemy Sno-Bees that chased you. Oh, and it had skits every other level, which was even more than Pac-Man. I still come back to them every year or so, even though I've memorized them.

And it's not perfect, but 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. You can destroy an ice block if another one, or the maze wall, is behind it. If you remember which blocks flashed at the start of the level, that kills a Sno-Bee before it hatches. Or you can make a block fly until it hits another block or the edge, crushing enemy Sno-Bees in the way.

Sno-bees crush ice blocks, too, which ruins extreme bunkering strategies, but sometimes they just go crazy and make it hard to complete the level. This is potentially unfair, and if it happens, you'll have to lure them to the side of the board, which you can shake. Then you can step on the stunned Sno-Bees. This isn't quite as satisfactory as smooshing them 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, and though they start in the corners and you're at the center, it can quickly be(e)come a problem, because they're pretty smart. They can often play prevent defense when you're on the edge, following you from one lane inside. With the maze collapsing quickly on the higher levels, you probably won't be able to crush all the Sno-Bees with an ice block. It can get annoying how smart the Sno-Bees 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 form a small line, you get a nice bonus and even stun the Sno-Bees on the board. This is a big gamble, and learning when it's practical to line them up, and when it's impossible is nontrivial. 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 by crushing that one block you saved that would align things right. But I still feel accomplished whenever I connect three in a row--especially if they're not lumped closely together at the level's start. Of course, I've also chased an illusion and lost two or three lives trying to force things. In these days we have plenty of match-three games, but Pengo gave us so much more, much sooner. Also, in the "annoying but sensible" department, you can't just kill off all but one of the Sno-Bees and then bring the star blocks together. The final Sno-Bee develops legs like a sad Muppet and flees in fear to the corner before disappearing, which I'd always found cute and powerful (I always feared ENEMIES in video games) until it cost me ten thousand points.

The music works, too, from the interlude skits (Ode to Joy) to the death music to, well, either soundtrack. The tune I remembered wasn't the tune I heard on MAME years later, but it turns out copyright issues forced the developers to bowdlerize the original tune ("Popcorn" by Hot Butter.) I like both. It's nice to have that option. And I like the skits too. At first there are dancing penguins, then penguins who side-eye you and WON'T dance this time, and then the game gets meta with a penguin playing at a cocktail cabinet.

Unfortunately, parts of the game are a bit wobbly. When a Sno-Bee hatches from a block, you can't sling an ice block at 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. Even worse, I've aligned the star blocks and a non-stunned Sno-Bee wound up surprising me. Collision detection and its variants are a problem in modern games, and it was back then, too. I imagine it was much harder to test back then. But it still dents an otherwise very good game, because too much strategy gets fiddly.

It's a bit mean of Pengo, really, to be that cutesy and sucker you in, and get REALLY tough. But then a lot of video games back then were unfairly tough, and with Pengo the unfairness doesn't feel deliberate. Still, as a kid, I threw quite a few valuable Chuck E Cheese tokens into it and figured if I can't beat a cute game, how could I tackle the more serious shoot em ups? I can pick apart the unfair bits now, and though they drive me up the wall after a few plays, maybe that's not so bad. I don't find myself wasting TOO much time. Slinging the star blocks together is such a neat, natural puzzle, and the random mazes make for fun thinking on your toes. So I always enjoy my time re-playing Pengo, and I bet you will too.

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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