Take that, you dumb polar bear!
PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating
RELEASE DATE: 1985
OTHER GAMES IN SERIES: Penguin Land (Master System, 1987); Ikasuze! Koi no Doki Doki Penguin Land MD (Mega Drive, 1992; Sega CD, 1994)
Upon first glance, Doki Doki Penguin Land appears to be a cutesy puzzle game about a father penguin rolling an egg home safe and sound to its mother. The penguins’ home is found many levels below a pre-constructed igloo, levels constructed of brick, boulders and ice. Brick is dug through by the penguin a la Lode Runner, while ice and boulders are solid. Boulders are easily pushed, however, and are good for constructing platforms and crushing those who would oppose the penguin and his egg. The egg can’t be dropped beyond a certain point highlighted by a line that appears underneath it; nor can it interact with the frozen underground denizens like the Polar Bear or the Armadillo. The Armadillo will immediately destroy the egg with its claws, while the Polar Bear will bat it around for awhile before it breaks. The penguin himself can’t be killed, only maimed by the Polar Bear (just like in… real life?), but if the egg breaks, you lose a life and begin the process anew.
The armadillo’s fiddin’ to eat that egg while Papa Penguin gets destroyed by Polar Bears.
Doki Doki Penguin Land‘s challenge forces you to always think one step ahead, analyze each level, and choose your path wisely. Sometimes the penguin has to leave the egg to shoo a Polar Bear guarding a lower level, or he must dig through layers of brick in order to make a safe landing for the egg. Armadillos will emerge like wizards from the brick itself if the game feels you’re wasting too much time figuring out the best downward path. While there are usually two ways one could bring the egg down in any given level, some routes – ones with more padding and less enemies – are certainly better than others. Also, there is no option to restart the level like in Adventures of Lolo. If your egg gets stuck in a hole, you have to smash it and start over from the beginning. Accept that every level will require some trial-and-error – again, like Lolo – and you’ll enjoy the adventure.
There are twenty-five levels total, and while you only have three lives, no continues, you are able to choose any level you wish to start at from the main menu screen. While the stage selection might seem overly generous, particularly for 1985, it’s a nice concession from Sega given the game’s difficulty.
All in all, a heartwarming story, yes? Who doesn’t like the idea of a father taking responsibility for his children? It’s like “March of the Penguins 2: Underground Boogaloo” for your SG-1000. Alas, all is not what it seems in Penguin-dom. Once the egg drops into the penguins’ opulent dwelling, the mother penguin smashes it to reveal – gasp! – a king’s ransom of loot! The penguins aren’t part of a tear-jerking Morgan Freeman-narrated documentary at all, and the egg is not their child. The “egg” is in fact a case full of stolen Antarctic goods, like diamonds, pearls, and Pac-Man’s fruit. The larger the item, the more points you get upon completing the level. Sleazily satisfying, perhaps, but at the expense of the game’s initially innocent veneer.
A jewel-encrusted headband? That’s nothing. Wait until you see the blood diamonds.
Curious skeeziness aside, Doki Doki Penguin Land is one of the most rewarding games on the SG-1000. The levels are the perfect kind of difficult: just enough that you want to keep trying, not so easy or tough that the game feels pointless. The graphics are adorable, the music is appropriately tense and the controls are tight. I’m not sure what made Sega get off their duffs in 1985 and start developing honest-to-God solid SG-1000 games, but I’m glad they did.
The morally corrupt penguins went on to star in future Penguin Land titles for the Master System, Genesis, Sega CD*, Saturn*, and… Game Boy? Yes, despite Doki Doki Penguin Land being a Sega made license, a Japanese-only Penguin Land for the Game Boy was developed by Atelier Double and published by Pony Canyon. Hardcore Gaming 101 speculates that this version may have come about from a deal that also allowed Pony Canyon to publish an MSX version as well. Either way, the general consensus seems to be: stay away from any Penguin Land not published and developed by Sega themselves.
* The Sega CD version is actually the Genesis version re-released on a compilation, while the Saturn version is an exact replica of the SG-1000 game found on Sega Ages Memorial Selection Vol. 2.