Saturday 31 July 2010


Sega surprised me today. Apparently they're bringing Pengo to the arcades... again. He was last there 28 years ago, pushing ice blocks to crush sno-bees. Now he's coming back with identical graphics to do exactly the same thing but is this time joined with seven other players sharing similar goals. It should be amazing.

But it could be quite a while away, so why not let your uncle Squirrel teach you about the easy-to-emulate original?

A lot of people won't believe this but Sega are very much the kings of the arcade... sort of. Sega's arcade selections during the 80s and 90s were some of the best games around, frequently appearing on their home consoles too (and served to keep them in business when faced with competition from Nintendo or Sony). 1982 wasn't their greatest year, but they did come up with a few brilliant games, such as Pengo. Pengo is a red(?) penguin who spends his days pushing blocks to flatten creatures known as "snow-bees".

Like many things of the 1980s, the graphics haven't really aged well, so rather than try and make sense of these bizarrely coloured characters (like the 1990 Japanese-only Mega Drive attempt) it makes sense to keep them looking weird. And of course that draws in the retro crowd. At the time, Pengo was brought to home platforms that struggled to do much better - the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Commodore 64 and Game Gear (which could have done better, but chose not to). Clones have since appeared on other systems, because like many of the arcade games of the time, the gameplay was easy to re-create.

Pengo's soundtrack is also almost identical to Popcorn, that synthesizer tune from 1969 that pops up now and then. It'll be interesting to see what a modern day Sega does with that, since there's bound to be licensing issues somewhere down the line. It's not the best representation of the tune you're ever likely to hear, but that's a hardware problem. Don't forget, games in 1982 weren't supposed to have soundtracks - Pengo stands out for having one.

Anyway the game is simple. You control Pengo, a penguin capable of moving in four directions. Go up to a block and you can push it. If there are two blocks next to each other, you'll slowly destroy the first one and push the second. You can wobble the edge of the screen in your attempts to triumph over the snow-bee menace, and by aligning all three diamond blocks you can get some more points. Snow-bees also eventually gain the ability to destroy blocks, and will follow you around the room until you silence them. It's good clean fun.

Pengo was a reasonable success for Sega but for one reason or another it just isn't remembered (at least compared to things like PacMan). Granted, it hasn't aged well, and sure it was never brought to a console such as the Sega Master System which could have used something short and simple in its early days, but that isn't a good reason to ignore a game. The only time Pengo has been re-released was part of Sega Ages Memorial Selection Vol.1 for the Sega Saturn in Japan with Flicky, Head On and Up 'n' Down.

Even Capcom's 1991 Three Wonders arcade compilation which contains a game strikingly similar to Pengo called "Don't pull" has seen more love.

But either way, it's worth giving it a go. I only discovered it for myself a couple of years ago and I enjoyed it.

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