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Penguin Wars Review Rewind

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On 03/10/2022 at 09:00 AM by Jamie Alston

When Animals Attack

If you’re looking for a quick and straightforward sports game with cuddly creatures, you’ll probably enjoy this one in short bursts.

In the gaming days of years yonder, there seemed to be no limit to what developers could dream up as a basis for killing some time. And when they couldn't create a game revolving around humans playing sports, saving the world, or destroying aliens in space, they could always turn to the animal kingdom for inspiration. So in 1985, Ascii Corporation made a little ditty in the arcade called Penguin-Kun Wars. The player chooses one of several animal characters to fight it out using dodge balls in a small arena. It was a unique idea as no other game like it yet existed.

Ascii saw fit to release this relatively simple game on the Game Boy (among other platforms) in 1990. But this time, it saw life beyond Japan’s borders, receiving releases in the US and Europe. The name was changed to simply "Penguin Wars" for the American market, but otherwise, not much else had changed about the game. It wasn't one of the more impressive Game Boy titles, being more of an extension of the original game than a full sequel. No matter, it's hard to deny the fun of cartoonish animals hurling dodge balls at each other.

What I find interesting about the game is the lack of animal representation in its title. I mean, considering that you have character selections that go well beyond just a penguin, you'd think they would have given the game a slightly more universal name like "Animal Wars" or "Skirmish Involving Mammals vs. One Non-Mammal." At any rate- mass animal misrepresentation in the title or not- Penguin Wars features a modest assortment of animals battling it out in a game that amounts to equal parts dodge ball and air hockey.

Opponents face off by throwing dodge balls across the table. The main goal is to have the least quantity of balls on your side when the timer runs out. Part of the strategy involves stunning your opponent by hitting them with a ball. Assuming you successfully barrage them with a few hits, you can unload your arsenal on the opposite side of the table and end the match early. If the round lasts long enough, one of several varieties of objects will zig-zag across the table, creating a blockade that can deflect the ball(s) in play- adding a somewhat frantic element to the competition.

As can be expected, every character has their strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly, there are no visible stats of the characters within the game itself, but you can determine how strong or weak they are by their size. For example, the rat can move quickly, but is an open target should it get hit. On the other hand, the cow can rapidly recover from a hit but has the lowest agility. As the star character, the penguin is the most balanced of all the selectable characters.

Each character can also launch a charged shot by holding the A button for a second or two when you have a ball in hand (or hoof, wing, paw, or flipper, if you prefer). It can be super effective in knocking down your opponent long enough to deplete your cache of dodge balls over to his side. But it can also be your worst nightmare if they hit you with a charged ball as well. From what I can tell, it's much easier for them to land a hit than it is for you.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the gameplay mechanics is very flawed. It is especially apparent when you start doing repeated matches after winning the game once. On the second go-round, your opponents are miraculously able to throw multiple charged shots with deadly accuracy. So if you get hit just one time, chances of recovering quickly enough to tip the battle in your favor are slim to none.

Adding insult to injury, you can inadvertently get hit by a wayward ball rebounding from your end of the table since inbound objects bounce off the wall behind you before coming to a complete stop. So you’re forced to maneuver between the ball thrown at you as well as the ones behind you. It often becomes nigh impossible, especially if numerous projectiles are darting all over the table. I found it downright irritating since the game's difficulty can quickly become quite ruthless.

The game's visual quality doesn’t impress much. Like many other early Game Boy games, it's a downgraded version of the Famicom original (the only new gameplay addition being the charged throw). Besides the two competing characters, the dodge ball, and the table they're thrown across, there’s not much to see to make the game look a little more interesting. It would have been nice if the on-looking animal audience in the Famicom version could have made it to the Game Boy port. Sure, the characters and playing field would need to be reduced a bit, but adding the crowd would have made the graphics a little less bland.

The characters themselves are well-drawn and look relatively impressive for an early Game Boy title. Some comedic value is added anytime you compete against the rat. If you hit him, the words "Help! Give up!" appear above his head, as if he expects you to have mercy on him. It would have been nice if every character had a personalized quip.

There's not much to write home about regarding the audio aspect either. There are only two main tunes for the game. One for the main matches and one for the bonus rounds. Even so, what’s there works well enough for the game. After all, there are only four matches per game, and they're all relatively short. So it's no actual loss when you think about it. The same goes for the minimal sound effects in the game too. Again, there's not much feast your ears on, but it still suits the simplicity of the game.

While there are far worse Game Boy games out there, Penguin Wars could have used a few improvements before release. After a few lost matches, the lopsided difficulty becomes an irritating thorn in the side. And the barren, clinical look doesn't exactly fit the context of the game’s competitive nature. However, if you’re looking for a simplistic game to help pass the time, you might find something to like here.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



Cary Woodham

03/10/2022 at 09:23 AM

I reviewed a remake of Penguin Wars on the Switch a few years ago.  it was actually pretty fun!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

03/10/2022 at 09:37 AM

I discovered the existence of the remake last night when I was searching for a source for the front page banner. I really want to try it on the Switch.

Cary Woodham

03/10/2022 at 09:56 AM

It's a lot of fun, and way better than the original.


03/10/2022 at 10:49 PM

Seeing Penguin Wars honestly makes me wish we could get Pengo on modern consoles. That game hasn't been seen in the US since it had a Game Gear version in the early 90s.


03/26/2022 at 09:11 PM

Looks kind of fun. The animal animations are pretty good for the Game Boy. This could be a real-life bar game. 

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

03/29/2022 at 05:16 PM

Yeah, it would make for a great bar game. Especially if you've had a few drinks in ya.

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