Monday, September 12, 2016

Unearthed Treasures: Doki Doki Penguin Land (SG-1000)

I remain fascinated with the SG-1000. Everything about it arouses my curiosity. I can't help but look upon it with perpetually inquisitive eyes. I can't as much conjure its mental image without wondering about where it's been hiding all of these years. Reading about it calls into question the vast gulf between what I imagined the medium's history to be and what it actually is.

"How could it happen?" I come to ask myself every time I see the SG-1000's name in print. "How is it not common knowledge that Sega launched a console on July 15th, 1983--the very same day the Famicom arrived in stores?" You'd think the gaming media would speak with exuberance about the day two consoles released simultaneously, as if such an occurrence constituted a monumental event, but it doesn't! There's only silence born from ignorance.

It blows me away.

That Sega's humbly designed, unassuming little box did its damnedest to elude my stare for almost 25 years is more proof that still too many of history's branching paths are all at once obscured by foggy mist, covered in decayed leaves, and cloaked by the foresty shadows of neglect. For me, it's a worthwhile endeavor to plow through the muck--to dig through the overgrown foliage and lay sight upon the road's surface as it was originally paved. And discovering wonderful little consoles like the SG-1000 is what happens when I dare to follow the trail as revealed.

Judging by my experiences with it so far, the SG-1000 seems to be an ideal platform for the types of games I used to love in the mid-80s: Arcade-like platformers that sprinkle in action or puzzle elements. It makes sense that the console's catalog is stacked with games of this sort considering that it was created by Sega, whose DNA is deeply quilted into the fabric of arcade history.

So I have every reason to believe that Doki Doki Penguin Land for the SG-1000 will be a logical result of the legendary arcade company's continued efforts to infuse its plucky console with the unmistakable spirit of those lovingly remembered arcades.

Beyond a base mental rendering of its opening moments, I'm largely unfamiliar with Doki Doki Penguin Land. I was made aware of its existence when it was briefly referenced in a retrospective (either Chrontendo or Game Boy World, I think), which showed only its title screen and a few seconds of gameplay. The fleeting snippet offered only the tiniest morsel of visual conveyance, yet something about the game's general appearance caught my eye; seeing it instantly brought to mind images of Trolls and Tribulations, Eggerland Mystery, Nuts & Milk, and all of those old games whose simply drawn brick-pattern aesthetic always prompts me to reminisce about how things used to be. That was enough to land it on my list of potential treasures.

Now, I have an idea about how Doki Doki Pengiun Land might play (win by pushing an egg down to a stage's bottom level), but I'm guessing that there's a whole lot more to it. I'm hoping that it strives to continue building upon its basic premise and allows itself to blossom into another one of my all-time favorite arcade-like games.

Will Penguin Land deliver upon that expectation--earn its way into the ranks of the aforementioned classics--or will it crack under scrutiny and find itself in the wastebasket with the rest of gaming's rotten eggs?

Come have a look with me, won't you?

It feels weird seeing the classic Sega logo in this ColecoVision-resolution, pre-8-bit (4-bit? 2-bit? We've never really settled on a satisfactory labeling convention for machines from the 2600 era) form. For someone who grew up knowing only the company's bold, sharply edged blue logo, as displayed in high-powered arcade and Master System games, the sight of this primitive incarnation seems almost blasphemous. It reminds of when I'd boot up one of those late-era NES games and entertain feelings of confliction upon seeing a muddy, washed-out version of Capcom's modern yellow-and-blue logo appear on the splash screen as accompanied by a depressingly downsampled version of the company's corporate jingle. "Something's not right about this," I'd think to myself. I guess I'm just programmed to fixate over such trivialities. 

The title screen's activities are typical of games from this era: Cheerful music plays as buoyant characters scamper about in chase of one another. In Penguin Land's case, our rapidly waddling protagonist pushes an egg across the screen while an angry beaver fruitlessly pursues him. Following a third revolution, they pause in anticipation of a demo.

True to its arcade-like brethren (Ice Climber, Wrecking Crew and the like), Penguin Land allows me to choose my starting scene. Flipping through the list reveals that there are 25 levels in all, which to me seems like a rather small number. So I'm hoping for one of two possibilities: The stages are really long, or the difficulty curve is such that its later scenes provide hours-worth of challenges.

Now, it's my personal preference to go into a game's appraisal without first reading through its manual (though, even if it weren't, I doubt I could even find manual scans for the SG-1000 version of Penguin Land--a rare, Japan-only release), but I'm not averse to extracting knowledge from its demo sequence.

So how does the demo frame the action? Well, let's see: The demo is rather short, and it cuts off about--I'd guess, say--a quarter of the way into the stage. Though, from what I gather, I have to manipulate stage conditions and find a way to maneuver the egg down to the stage's bottom portion, carefully dropping it down through gaps and generally working to keep it out of the enemy critters' grasp. Our penguin friend possesses the innate ability to create his own gaps, Lode Runner-style, which in accessory serves as a handy method for pulling the rug out from beneath foes and dumping them down to the lower levels. He can dislodge those wedged-in red bricks by poking them from above or head-bopping them from below, after which he can push them around and use them as makeshift platforms. I'm guessing that I'll also be able to squash those pesky critters by dropping red bricks on their heads.

I like what I'm seeing here. I am, as you know, a big proponent of Sokoban-style mechanics in my arcade platformers. Pushing boxes around in video games is one of life's great pleasures, I say. (Have I mentioned that I spend a lot of time indoors?)

I'm not surprised to find that Penguin Land's soundtrack has no designs on deviating from the infectiously cheerful fare. I mean, unrelenting ebullience is a hallmark of these types of games after all. Scene 1's hyperactive tune is certainly catchy, yeah, but I don't need to sample more than thirty seconds of it to conclude that it'll likely drive me mad if I have to listen to it on loop for over an hour. I get that an arcade game's music has to be brimming with energy early on--has to do its best to set an urgent tone and work in tandem with the level design to hastily immerse the player--but I'm hoping that this one begins to introduce slower-tempoed, more-relaxed pieces as I get deeper into it. I suspect that it won't.

The game was nice enough to pan down and preview the entire stage, Ice Climber-style, before handing control off to me, which I can appreciate as an obsessive route-planner. The stage's vertical is roughly equivalent to those in Ice Climber, coincidentally.

The penguin's slipping about on turns had me worried that the game's ground movement would be hindered by ice physics, but my fear is quickly assuaged. Rather, the animation of such is purely a cosmetic touch; the penguin can instead switch directions with little in the way of hesitation. Jumping controls are pretty smooth, shockingly (old-style arcade platformers tended to have stiff, clunky jumping controls), the entire elapsement of the penguin's aerial maneuvers freely manipulable.

When there's no surface directly above him (no tangible surface, at least), the penguin can execute high jumps, but he's relegated to a short hops when tunneled in; the latter's restrictive movement is actually more desirable whenever I'm attempting to collide with the egg or negotiate my way around it without touching it. Attempting to propel the egg using the momentum of high-jumps, which are more difficult to measure, can lead to unintended outcomes (like the egg rocketing off in an undesired direction)--particularly when you're trying to hit just left or right of center.

I must have been messing around too long for the game's liking, because a creepy mole has begun to continuously ascend onto the playing field from random locations. At first I was expecting the mole to operate like Evil Otto and make a B-line for me, its purpose to promptly end my life and warn me about lingering on a given level for too long. But it's not that serious--it's simply that the mole gravitates in the egg's general direction until I thwart its march with direct contact or until its path to the target has been obstructed, at which point it gives up and burrows into the ground.

So, really, there's no rush. There's no timer and no real deterrent to standing idly by. The moles' purpose is to keep me alert--break my concentration when I'm attempting to spend long periods of time analyzing the stage's layout. That's a pretty clever design choice.

I can indeed squash enemies by dropping red bricks on them. That's good to know.

And, of course, the first thing I do is recklessly charge ahead, failing to survey the levels below, and drop the egg into an untenable position. Observing the layouts and planning my drops is going to be paramount. Oh, and it appears that I can't drop the egg down more than one level without it cracking open upon impact, which is instant death. Thankfully, the egg doesn't become trapped when pushed into a corner, as the game allows for me to jump onto the egg's affixed half and nudge it away from the wall.

Contact with the patrolling beavers doesn't kill me, though; rather, they'll strike an approaching penguin with a hammer blow, knocking him back and temporarily incapacitating him, which is no real punishment, really. Well, OK--it can be a big problem if a mole is out stalking about and I'm far away from my egg, but it's not a death sentence on its own.

I can't dig gaps into the ridge-patterned platforms, which appear to be indestructible. I can already see the potential for becoming trapped above one of these.

There's a screen-wrapping mechanic (another standard feature in games of this type), but it's curiously implemented. That is, you can warp horizontally from one side of the screen to he other but only by accessing the empty space that comes to engulf the upper levels as you descend; it's as if the upper levels are wiped out of existence once you scroll them off. Also, screen-scrolling is locked specifically to the egg, so you can't shift the level downward merely by having the penguin roam near the screen's bottom portion. And if the penguin drops off a bottom-level platform, into the dark abyss, he doesn't die; rather, he'll somehow find himself dumped back at the screen's uppermost level! I've found that it's actually a mechanic that works to my benefit whenever I obliviously drop down to the screen's lower levels and realize that I've lost access to the egg above me.

Allowing for top-to-bottom screen-wrapping a considerate gesture on the designers' part, but much about how the mechanic is applied just feels weird.

I mean, you really have to take your time and strategize here. There are so many ways to permanently trap the egg and generally screw yourself over, and I've already encountered about a dozen or so unsalvageable scenarios. The game is kind in that it'll allow you to gently nudge the egg forward by jumping into its edge portions or bopping it from below, sure, but the margin of error is so slim. I'm not complaining, though. In fact, I like that they've designed it this way; doing so has enforced the idea that I'm playing a thoughtfully constructed puzzle game that has no tolerance for impulsiveness or carelessness.

A big part of successful advancement entails not creating an excessive amount of clutter--that is, digging too many gaps, which can potentially eliminate any safe landing for the egg, or unnecessarily dislodging multiple red bricks, which can result in the unforeseen creation of impenetrable obstacles.

I don't even mind that I've Game Overed three times already (you only get three lives per play); these early moments have been more about experimentation anyway. But for right now, it's time to get serious and finally clear this first stage!

I can dig through platform tiles that are currently acting as support for the egg, but it won't let me do the same for red bricks. This could become troublesome.

Since the screen absolutely won't scroll until the egg is dropped down to at least the second level, I won't be able to preemptively get the drop on some of these beavers. It won't allow me to dig holes on the platform nearest to the screen's bottom, which means that I can't dump beavers into the abyss. I have to hope that they charge into gaps voluntarily when I bait them.

There are some variables here, yes, like the random mole appearances and the timing involved in squashing patrolling beavers with dislodged bricks, but on the whole, completing stages is mostly a matter of trial and error.

The hearts I saw in the demo are confirmed to award points for their procurement, which would matter to me if I cared about such things as "earning a high score." I certainly don't, but I'll probably make the effort to collect them all, anyway, because, well, I'm an OCD nutball.

You got a problem with that?

Interestingly, I discover that I can drop the egg through the yellow sections of the otherwise-impenetrable ridged platforms. I figured that this was the case when there was no safe drop-off point for the egg and the ridged platforms had suddenly become the dominating visual.

The stage's midpoint introduces a new enemy--a darkly colored, slumbering beaver that promptly springs to life the moment I draw near. These are its only distinguishable features; it otherwise functions exactly like its pasty counterpart.

If two red bricks are stacked together, I'm allowed to push the bottom one; the game provides me a two-second window to clear it out before the one elevated drops down. More thoughtful design there. Getting crushed by a brick doesn't actually kill our penguin friend; I'm relieved to find that he instead phases out of existence for only a moment before respawning on the screen's top level. Though, there's a potential penalty for getting crushed; if you hesitate while moving the bottom brick, it might work out that the top one winds up landing right beside it, making it now impossible to move either one. It doesn't help that the brick-pushing mechanic is a bit glitchy in that there are times when your forward momentum won't register as such and the bricks will refuse to move until you back up and try again.

I'm just learning now that the game doesn't afford the penguin any invincibility frames, which means, annoyingly, that the beavers can trap me in corners for indefinite periods and continue to incapacitate me (in order to escape, I have to hope they randomly decide to forgo pounding on me). They can't kill me, no, but they can pin me down long enough to ensure that a mole reaches the egg before me and shatters it.

This game is rough--as unforgiving as it is joyously imbued. I can just as well pause the game and survey my surroundings unhindered--and in addition halt the emergence of the stress-inducing moles (and maybe prevent the music from driving me insane)--but I'd feel guilty about doing so. I'd know I was taking the cheap path to victory. For as long as I've been playing games, I've been consistent in the application of the principle that taking shortcuts is effective only for robbing myself of the experience.

Besides--I like how Penguin Land provides a sense of ballooning tension. The moles' proliferation forces me to stay alert as I carve my path through the stage; it adds an interesting paranoia factor and keeps me engaged where usually my mind would wander.

Active sprites elements flicker like crazy when there are more than three of them are placed along the same row. The game hits maximum slowdown when five or more characters are on screen (a problem that arises when the beavers from up above follow me down to the lower levels). It becomes obvious why the designers chose to limit the amount of beavers present in each scene. But hey, man--what're we to expect? It's a thirty-year-old game! We used to call this a "feature."

And wow--the egg can't survive even a three-block gap. I thought for sure that the game would allow at least as much, since three blocks looks to be the average distance between levels. Add another concern to the growing list. I didn't even realize until now that a persistent reticule--a guiding line--tracks beneath the egg and gives me a visual display of how far the egg can drop without cracking. Though, I have a bit of an out in that the reticule is normally obscured by the foreground graphics.

And I still haven't cleared the first scene! I've Game Overed about six times now, and I believe I've only gotten as far as the scene's three-quarters point. You know--I don't even have to execute a GameFAQs search to confirm that Doki Doki Penguin Land is likely a port of an actual arcade game. There's no chance that it isn't (until now, I had it pegged as an "arcade-like" game made specifically for platforms like the Master System and the MSX). It proudly advertises up front its punishing coin-op values. (I looked into it; the original Penguin Land did indeed begin its life as an arcade machine.)

After way too many failed attempts, I finally clear Scene 1. The stage's bottom level accommodates a cozy-looking apartment whose lone resident, a frantically sprinting purple penguin, is obviously our protagonist's significant other. I drop the egg down into her care, at which point she cracks it open to reveal a slice of pie--our dinner for the night. For my effort, I'm awarded a 5,000-point bonus and conventional access to Scene 2.

So I think I have a good grasp of what the game is going for. Now it's time to find out whether it strives to constantly introduce new concepts or resigns to rigidly stick to the established formula.

Scene 2 yields more of the same, though its puzzle element has greater complexity. Not only do I have to find a viable path through the brickwork; I kind of have to predict the layouts of the levels resting below the screen's stare. I can forge on ahead heedlessly and attempt to bulldoze my way through--dig up whole sections of the stage and compensate for poorly considered construction work by shrewdly relocating the red bricks--but for convenient navigation, it's more beneficial to keep intact as much of the stage as possible.

Scene 3 changes up the aesthetic a bit with green-colored tile surfaces. The prizes for successful egg delivery change, and the bonuses increase in value, but nothing about the gameplay has changed. It doesn't look as though the rest of Penguin Land will have any surprises in store, which is definitely a letdown.

I'm getting the hang of it, at least. I haven't suffered any deaths in a long while. I manage to make it all the way to Scene 5 before I succumb. But I'm not worried about that. As long as I can my starting scene, I'm free to experience the entire game without restriction.

Progressing normally confirms that Penguin Land is set in its ways. The environments change color--from green to yellow to red and so on--but everything else from the music to the enemy cast remains static. 

So since the parameters have been set, and Penguin Land has shown all of its cards, I'm going to play on ahead, enjoy the game without interruption, and then come back with my final thoughts. I doubt that I'll play through all 25 scenes--at least not right now--but I'll check out enough of the game to form my final judgment. Though, for curiosity's sake, I'm going to finish the final scene to see if the game has an ending of any sort.

And nope--there is no ending, unsurprisingly, as completing Scene 25 simply loops me back to Scene 1. That's about right for arcade-like platformers of the era. Penguin Land is as pure as it gets in that regard. That's what it is: A monstrously challenging arcade game that clings tightly to its cheerful veneer, deceiving those who would be apt to determine that its cartoony, lighthearted aesthetics were an advertisement for an easily conquered kids' game. That's all it longs to be. That said, Penguin Land certainly isn't impenetrable; if you're able to attain a strong grasp of its concepts, then it's possible that you'll be able to clear multiple scenes in succession before suffering a Game Over. Just don't expect to walk away without a few bruises.

It's an arcade game not adjusted for the tastes of a console audience. It doesn't strive to be anything more than that, and I'm OK with its decision. I mean, at first I was disappointed with the fact that it had no desire to regularly introduce new mechanics and enemy types, but I realize now that focusing on such isn't giving the game enough credit for what it's actually doing. There's a lot of good stuff going on in Penguin Land. What it does with its egg-pushing mechanic, for instance--how the egg's physics boast both a complexity and nuance beyond what I've seen in even some top-tier 8-bit classics--is pretty impressive for such an old game.

Its level design is thoughtful. Its enemy interaction is unique. Its Lode Runneresque digging mechanic has multiple applications. And there's even an underlying science to how the penguin is allowed to move about the screen; being studied in the art will take you a long way.

Now, I admit that it frustrates in how it chooses to punish failure: You're given three lives, sure, but there are no checkpoints, so it doesn't matter; any death sends you all the way back up to the scene's starting point. That's just outdated Japanese philosophy in practice (punish the player for repeated failures by making him or her wait through a Game Over sequence).

Also, the game is kinda glitchy and a bit unpolished, which is something I can honestly forgive. I mean, they were asking a lot of an arcade port on the relatively limited SG-1000.

That I was growing fatigued on Penguin Land after long stretches wasn't a sign of dissatisfaction but rather an indication that it had succeeded in giving me my fill. I consider that an important distinction; it's what makes Penguin Land a true arcade game. You don't have to feel obligated to finish it. You can play it whenever you want. See how far you can get this time. Come back to it whenever you get the itch.

I feel enriched every time I dig up a game like Penguin Land and allow its historical aura wash over me. Sega is an arcade company; its earliest console creations reflect as much, and that's why I'm so eager to discover all of them. Their proliferation on the SG-1000 is one of the many reasons why I'm so fascinated with the console, whose technical limitations demanded that Sega show up in its purest form.

The SG-1000 was long absent from my consciousness, yet I can still feel nostalgic for it. I know where it came from; I was there. Unfortunately, I just didn't have the same zest for knowledge that I have now. I've been atoning for that error. Hell--these days, I derive the most joy as an enthusiast by unearthing gaming's antiquities--its long-lost gems--and spending a few hours with them.

Doki Doki Penguin Land is another of those whose acquaintance I've been happy to make.

There's nothin' like old games, man.

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