Year: 1986 |Publisher: Konami |Developer: Konami
Original format: MSX | Version played: MSX
Unless you’re an avid player of MSX games then Konami’s Penguin Adventure is perhaps best known as “the first game Hideo Kojima worked on,” or maybe “that game with the penguin from Parodius”. It’s often relegated to a footnote in a wider retrospective, or a piece of gaming trivia. Rarely do you actually see a description of what the game actually is or why it’s so good. Well, I’m here to tell you… Penguin Adventure deserves better.
I first discovered Penguin Adventure in the late Nineties after seriously getting into the MSX and realizing that Konami’s mix of arcade conversions and original works were among the crown jewels of the obscure system. But as a cash strapped teen, most of Konami’s rare and valuable games would be out of my reach until much later in life – were it not for the Konami Antiques MSX Collection on Sega Saturn.
This magic CD contained 30 assorted games, just a fraction of those Konami made for the system between 1983 and 1990, and offered an affordable taster menu of the venerable developer’s computer hits. Among a few too many sports games and a plethora of arcade shoot-‘em-ups, clearly pushing the MSX to its creaky limits, it was Penguin Adventure that really stood out as something very different and special. More original than its stable mates, more technically accomplished and packed full of surprises, this little curiosity was one I found myself returning to so often that it became not just one of the most played in the collection but one of my most played Saturn games too.
The basic gameplay of Penguin Adventure can be traced back to its 1983 predecessor, Antarctic Adventure, a far simpler but equally impressive release in which the player marches Penta the penguin across various icy levels, avoiding seals and speedily waddling from one research station to another. Its smooth 3D-like scrolling effect must have been astonishing in ’83 and is no less so in the sequel. Yes, there were other games of the era with similar viewpoints, such as Sega’s Hang-On, but to see it on the humble Z80-powered MSX feels nothing short of a miracle.
So much of Penguin Adventure’s appeal can be credited to this same simple gameplay premise. As the world scrolls ever forward and throws sharp turns, obstacles, pitfalls and the occasional enemy at you, your range of commands – horizontal movement, speed and jumps – demand a level of concentration that’s as absorbing as it is challenging. It’s a pitch perfect platform game only viewed from a 3D angle rather than the side – and a full decade before Crash Bandicoot pulled off the same trick in reverse – and I dare say it unintentionally foreshadowed rhythm action games like Guitar Hero, too, in its relentless delivery of well timed dexterity hurdles right into the player’s face.
Where Antarctic Adventure limited its stages entirely to icecaps and its obstacles to the occasional gurning sealion, Penguin Adventure is peppered with such a variety of variables, so adeptly mixed across 24 stages that its combinations can feel unlimited. On his quest to retrieve a curative apple for his bed-ridden girlfriend, Penta traverses not just ice but forest paths, caves and deserts. By stage 4, you’re thrown one of the game’s earliest surprises – a swim down the river – and by the following stage you’re underwater entirely.
I can’t understate the impression these now seemingly small changes made on me when I first played Penguin Adventure. What initially seemed like a primitive yet charming retro game, quickly starts to reveal something much more. In addition to the stage variety, obstacles and enemies abound… There are boulders to avoid, walls that grow from the ground, bouncing black slimes that skip toward you from the horizon, squid that blind you with their ink, birds that swoop, little clouds that shoot lightning, and more. For a while it feels like each stage introduces something new to contend with and then, eventually, the game begins to mix and match its elements, heaping on yet more challenge. It’s a real test of skill and I don’t think I can accurately convey the combination of admiration and frustration I feel for the design whenever I stumbled on an obstacle, rendering Penta uncontrollable for a second as he helplessly staggered right into the path of an oncoming baddie.
If this was all there was to Penguin Adventure, then it would still be one of the MSX’s greatest games. But the fundamental gameplay is only the beginning…
If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you’ll be familiar with the section at the end of each post that lists a handful of incidental elements that stood out to me while playing. Some may call these trivial, but to me these are the little things that make a big difference, that lend a game its personality and stay with you for years to come. Honestly… Penguin Adventure is an entire game of these brilliant little moments.
Intermission… Since I prefer to play on original hardware, it’s often tricky to take screenshots for this blog, and I usually end up taking photos of the screen. However, for this post I used the Konami Game Master cheat cart, which also allows you to save lovely, crisp screenshots to floppy disk. I was then able to use an Amiga 1200 to duplicate a disk image and then load that into an MSX emulator to retrieve the screens. Which kind of begs the question, Why not just use an emulator to begin with? But where’s the fun in that?
As you discover the first one or two secrets, you might easily assume that you’ve seen them all. The standard number of easter eggs you may reasonably expect to find in any game. No! Penguin Adventure is all about the easter eggs. You might even say that the real objective of the game is to discover them all. It’s certainly the case that if you’re going to try to complete this game by its conventional standards, then you’re going to have a rough time. Such is the brutal combination of threats and obstacles by the latter half.
Even using an infinite continue cheat, I’ve only been able to get to the half way point, and I’ve only been able to see the credits by using Konami’s Game Master cartridge to add 99 extra lives. But who cares about finishing a game like Penguin Adventure when you can have so much fun replaying any stage and discovering all the fun it has to offer? As early as the first stage you might notice that of all the holes you’ve been leaping over to avoid, some of them look conspicuously smaller than the others. Whether you accidentally fall into one, or curiosity gets the better of you, inside you’ll find a hidden trader who will sell you useful items, even weapons, in exchange for the fish you’ve collected on your journey.
Several hidden shops exist throughout. Some are run by an angry fisherman and others by a happy one, each varying the cost of goods, while a very rare number hide a Santa, who will give you an item free of charge! Discovering one of these shops is at first a pure act of joy, sparked by the dawning realisation that Penguin Adventure is much more than it seems. With subsequent visits, joy gives way to relief as you peruse the wares. There’s a seemingly unending list of curious, useful items to be discovered, and with only a handful available in each shop, it always feels like there might be more you still haven’t seen.
Perhaps because of hardware limitations, or maybe design intention, none of the purchasable items feature names or descriptions. So not only can it be tricky to know which ones to buy, you’ll also have to figure out what they do by playing. It’s possible the manual features full descriptions, but I’m afraid I don’t have one and can’t find a scan online. Instead I made use of the guide in the excellent Konami’s MSX Legacy book by Wim Dewijngaert. Some of the items boast such specific uses that I’m not sure I could have ever figured them out or even completed the game without a guide.
The most egregious examples of these are the two stages that infinitely loop unless you find a certain secret shop and buy the map. Since progress through a stage is noted by a numerical distance counter, it might be a while before you even notice it’s looping, let alone what you need to do about it. I imagine this all sounds rather infuriating on paper and if there were a modern day remake of Penguin Adventure I imagine this particular puzzle would be removed or smoothed over, but for a game from 1986 it feels rather cunning and a great example of how much extra depth there is below the deceptively shallow surface.
Some more examples of Penguin Adventure’s quirky secrets…
At times you might notice a flying red heart pass across the screen. You can collect it instantly for a few points but if you wait a little you’ll see it change colour. Collect the green heart and you’ll get more time, while the yellow heart grants invincibility but it’s the blue heart that’s the coolest. Touch it and you unlock a cloud that Penta can ride through the air. At the right times this cloud can feel like a lifesaver, at others it’s just another source of joy!
Some of Penguin Adventure’s secrets feel like they appear at random, but they’re actually tied to such ultra specific player behaviors that you might never notice that you can in fact control whether they’re triggered or not. For example, if you jump at a precise location in certain levels then a pair of golden wings will appear and float across the screen. Jump up to collect them and Penta will miraculously float all the way off the top of the screen and reappear in space! For a brief period he can fly above the earth, collecting floating space fish and avoiding asteroids before dropping back down to continue his mission. What a moment!
Likewise, if you defeat one of the game’s boss battles – giant dinosaurs that must be plunged into the sea by jumping on pins to break the ice beneath them – and the game clock ends on an even number, then Penta’s victory dance will see him joined by two to eight cheerleader penguins just to make the celebration more spectacular.
In some respects, I think not knowing why certain things happen exactly the way they do could add to the enjoyment. If you don’t know how to trigger something, then these moments can feel entirely unexpected and surprising. Like, for example, the brief moments Penta takes to daydream at the end of each regular stage. Upon reaching a checkpoint, our penguin hero will bend over to catch his breath and mop his brow during a well-earned rest. As he eventually stands up tall and triumphantly extends a flipper to the sky, a thought bubble will appear to show you what he’s dreaming of. On most occasions it’s his girlfriend, Penko. But ever so occasionally he’ll dare to dream about something else including a can of beer, Gradius’s Easter Island statues or even the Konami logo! It turns out Penta’s dreams are not all that different to mine!
With this rich variety of secrets as well as a genuinely fun and compelling platform gameplay, Penguin Adventure is, in my humble opinion, the quintessential MSX game. It’s one that rewards repeat play and exudes so much charm and personality that I don’t believe it could ever grow old. It’s no exaggeration to say I consider it the Super Mario Bros. of the MSX and if it had been widely released in the US, I like to believe it would be more celebrated today.
But perhaps it’s entirely fitting that it wasn’t. Penguin Adventure is a game of secrets and surprises. Over three decades after release, its mere existence is still a secret to most, but for those who stumble upon it or seek it out, its rewards are as bountiful as buried treasure.
FIVE LITTLE THINGS ABOUT PENGUIN ADVENTURE THAT I RATHER LIKED
1. Penguin Adventure’s title screen is amazing at setting the scene in just a couple of tiny animations. As Penta looks off into the horizon, an image of his girlfriend appears in a heart and a single tear rolls from his eye and wells up. Ah!
2. Each secret shop also houses a little fruit machine, where Penta can gamble his fish. It’s a simple mini-game that offers a fun opportunity to buy one last helpful item. As well as the usual fruit images you’d see on a machine like this, you can also line up three little penguins or the Konami logo. I haven’t yet lined up three skulls, so I’m not sure what dark secret it triggers…
3. The bosses are a real showstopper, exactly as they should be. Although each one plays identically, I still love the goofy animation you get when you make the dinosaur drop beneath the ice.
4. The map screen, in between levels and lives, tracks your progress through the game and offers a variety of fun little Penta animations. If you lose a life it will also offer some general words of encouragement, including this mildly sexist morale booster.
5. Why is this trader so aggressive? If you’re lucky enough to find a happy seller, not only is he nicer to you, his prices are also much lower!
Finally, how about some music from Penguin Adventure…