Our first game of 1988 is this rather unusual action puzzler that can best be described as Nintendo’s Ice Climber in reverse, with a little Lode Runner mixed in. Penguin Land first appeared on some of the computer platforms in Japan then spawned a series that spanned some of their systems, with this SMS entry the only one in the series to get a U.S. release. Why Sega decided to release this on our shores is a mystery, I’m guessing they figured their console could use a good thinking game since the Master System doesn’t have too many puzzle titles to its credit, unlike the NES which is jam packed with them. Nonetheless this game did join the SMS ranks so let’s see how this game fares.
Here you take control of a penguin named Overbite who’s on a mission in space to rescue some lost penguin eggs and escort them to safety through 50 levels (though you can choose your starting level from the first 30). The object is simple, guide the egg safely from the top of the frozen cavern to the bottom without breaking it, and within a given time limit, but naturally getting from Point A to Point B is far easier said than done. Overbite can push the egg (but can’t pull it or carry it overhead) and can dig holes in the ice to drop it down each floor. However the egg is pretty fragile and if it falls too far down the screen (more than three spaces) it’ll break open, but an indicator is provided to show how far it can drop without injury. As you might imagine plenty of hazards are on hand to make your life as difficult as possible, such as polar bears prowling the cavern which will smash your egg without a second thought if they get near it. Other things to watch out for are hovering platforms, spikes that descend from overhead ledges, cracked ice that the egg will quickly fall through, trap doors that will allow only the egg or Overbite to pass through depending on its shape, gold bricks which cannot be moved and brown bricks that can only be shifted if there are open spots next to them. You also have to watch out for hidden ghosts which will “corrupt” Overbite by reversing the controls, and if you leave the egg unattended in one place for too long, a bird will fly by and drop a brick onto it. Reach the control room at the bottom of the level intact and your little buddies will carry the egg off before the next level begins.
So the gameplay is pretty simple but also mostly enjoyable. Each stage provides a good challenge for your brain and gives you multiple ways of going about your mission, enabling you to try different strategies each time. In fact you can pause the game (using the PAUSE button on the console) and scroll down through the path ahead of you, which is very helpful in planning your route to the bottom. Overbite himself can’t really die, as taking a hit from a bear or spiked block will only stun you for a few seconds; only losing the egg will force a restart. The controls do take a bit of practice to get used to, especially with jumping into narrow openings, but work decently for the most part. In addition the game includes a decent level editor that lets you craft your own stages to challenge, and you can even save your designs to the game battery (hence the ‘MEGA PLUS’ designation on the game box). It can be a bit tricky at times to make levels you can actually complete, but it’s still a nice feature.
However there are a couple of issues with the gameplay, especially with the difficulty level that seems on the high side due to a few frustrating moments; losing the egg will force you to restart the entire level from the beginning, even if you’re just a few floors from the end, and if the egg ends up trapped in a narrow space with no way to dig it out, you’ll have no choice but to smash it yourself and start over. Also only the first 30 stages are selectable, you have to play through the other 20 screens in one long trying run to see the end since you can’t save your progress. The biggest drawback is that everything you’re going to see in the game is pretty much presented up front in the very first level, the stages after that don’t feature any new obstacles or additions, just variations on the same elements. The stages all look pretty much the same, just with different-colored backgrounds, but the sprites are pretty nice with some good details and animations, such as when the bears celebrate after punking you out. The sounds consist of some ho-hum sound effects and a couple of “cutesy” background tunes which aren’t bad, just not something you’ll want to listen to for very long.
So Penguin Land isn’t the most engaging puzzler but it’s still a pretty solid title. Your problem solving skills will certainly get a good workout, especially the later levels which will really tax your brainpower, and if you can overlook some of the frustrations and the lack of variety between the levels, you’ll have a fun time.