The plot of this visually stunning 1986 MSX adventure is a simple one – Penta the penguin must run (famous runners, penguins - like hedgehogs) across the Antarctic’s frozen snow and deserts(!), swim through Antarctica’s lush forest rivers(!!), and occassionally fly into space (!!!) all for the sake of bringing a magical golden apple back home to save the life of the penguin princess. This was also the first game Hideo Kojima worked on – something I feel obliged to mention but don’t want to dwell on for fear of diverting too much attention away from this charming game.
Like all the very best titles it’s easy to learn what needs to be done just by playing, and before long anyone with a functioning keyboard will have Penta avoiding lightning bolts from angry clouds and jumping over cracks as if it were second nature, and I found myself happily scooting along just fine until I accidently fell down a particular hole…
Oh look, it’s Santa! And he’s just sold Penta a gun – thanks Santa?!
As you would expect this unlikely accessory allows our penguin hero to shoot enemies out the way instead of having to avoid them, but more importantly it makes you wonder what else is lurking beneath the surface of what appears at first glance to be a very straightforward game, and the answer is – a hell of a lot!
On my first go Penguin Adventure felt very simplistic, then it felt as if random events were happening just to throw me off, then, at last, little things started to fall into place and I realised the different ice-crack sizes aren’t there just to give the game a bit of variety, the smaller holes are hiding secret shops! So feeling a little empowered by this knowledge I started the game again and another kink was revealed when the new crack I’d thrown Penta down didn’t contain a jolly seasonal fellow but a tsundere shopkeeper who hated me enough to rudely charge more for the same items but got upset when I had to leave.
It’s fair to say that weird secrets weren’t all that weird back in 80’s gaming, a time when kneeling at a cliff face while holding a particular crystal and investigating completely nondescript areas for vital items was an irritating but not unusual of experience, and this is where Penguin Adventure (mostly) differentiates itself from other games of the era – the secrets in Penta’s quest are obscure but as they’re easily executed (jump here, fall here, etc.) you’re bound to stumble across a few during normal play and once discovered can be reproduced at your leisure, making the game feel skewed more towards rewarding experimental and skilled play rather than miserly hording all the best content for only the developer’s friends and guide book enthusiasts.
These pro-player design choices pop up throughout the entire game – collectable fish are always launched in your general direction, making them a little easier to catch. The invincibility tune gives a little warning sound before Penta returns to his usual squishy self. All the items sold in the hidden shops are useful, from anti-bat armour to a bell that will ring if a secret warp hole’s nearby. It’s carefully considered little details like these that make Penguin Adventure a game still worth playing thirty years on, long after the thrill of seeing such smooth into-the-screen action and sending a giant monster crashing through the floor has worn off.
Penguin Adventure is a game for everyone – it’s a fun and well balanced game for those who just want to spend half an hour running, jumping, and swimming their way through a selection of colourful environments, while players who find themselves enamoured with Penta’s quest can happily spend the day being rewarded for their curiosity and keen eye with a whole host of helpful items and level-skipping warp tunnels.
If you’d like to have a go yourself (and you really should) the easiest and cheapest way is through Project EGG or Nintendo’s Japanese Virtual Console service, while those with a preference for physical releases will want to hunt down a copy of Konami Antiques MSX Collection Vol. 3 for the Playstation or Konami Antiques MSX Collection Ultra Pack for the Saturn.