Time for the first Christmas-themed game, then, and I’ve chosen something quite recent to start us off. Pen Pen Xmas Olympics is a retro-styled indie title published in 2007 for Windows-based PCs and was written by Black Cat (Tomaz Kac, Gary Lucken and Matt Simmonds) for Retrospec.
The plot is simple stuff – Ice Town in the Arctic holds Winter games after Santa and his elves have finished their present-delivering shenanigans (and presumably after Santa has recovered from the hangover all those “warming” nips of whisky have given him – he shouldn’t be in charge of a sleigh really) and Pen Pen, the cute penguin of the title, is one of those competing. The events themselves are all ski-based and include downhill skiing, slalmons, ski-jumps, coin-collecting and the potentially rather-dangerous “elf-jump”. These events are ordered into levels, becoming more and more difficult as the game progresses. So, Pen Pen begins by having to do relatively-easy downhill skiing and slalmoning before moving onto harder and harder variations on these events as the game progresses, the difficulty generally being decided by the lengths of the tracks, the number of obstacles and the time he must cross the finish line by in order to qualify. Failure to qualify loses Pen Pen a credit and once all his credits are gone it’s game over.
Pen Pen is a classic highscore game; on each level there are different ways to gain points with some needing our penguin hero to simply jump as far as possible for the maximum points whilst other levels have goodies scattered around the piste for Pen Pen to collect for bonus points on his way to the finish line. There are numerous jumps and logs on some of the slopes and when Pen Pen successfully leaps over these his score multiplyer goes up means the bonuses he collects are worth more; if he crashed, though, his multiplyer is reduced to zero again. In addition to this, on the coin-collecting levels, if he successfully collects all the coins he recieves a score bonus and an extra credit making it worthwhile negotiating these often tricky pistes to collect all the coins.
Pen Pen Xmas Olympics is a great game lovingly put together. The feel in both graphics and sound is shamelessly old-school recalling the design of the Japanese 16-bit console titles of the early 1990s flawlessly and even the background is full of detail with animated penguins, elves, a jolly Santa and other Japanese-ish creatures cheering Pen Pen on in his endeavours (although I can’t help but think that the abominable snowman’s nipples are a bit much). It helps that gameplay manages to live-up to the looks, this is tremendous fun to play with a real sense of achievement when you get the “feel” of the controls and manage to negotiate Pen Pen down a piste without crashing. Be aware, though, that if you’ve become used to the hold-your-hand gameplay of a lot of modern games that this title’s old-fashioned learning curve and difficulty level might take some getting used to.
I can’t really find much bad to say about this game. I think my main criticism would be that all the events are downhill skiing based and it would have been nice to see a couple of other Winter sports such as bobsleigh and biathlon. Nonetheless, this is a jolly, entertaining little game and there’s little to complain about when it’s been published for free. Download it and make Christmas that little bit more, erm, penguiny.