Penguin Kun Wars
As a kid, I played a lot of Penguin Kun Wars. I was in third grade, living in Japan and had just (in the past year or two) been introduced to the wonderful world of videogames by way of my family’s Famicom system. Naturally, when given the opportunity to pick out a new game, my eyes locked onto the pink box depicting animals in a match of what appeared to be zero gravity dodgeball. Back home, I played in wide-eyed wonder, churning through match after match against friends, family or even the CPU, when everyone else’s thumb stamina faltered. Penguin Kun Wars is a nostalgia touchstone for me and I readily admit that much of my general fondness for the game is colored by the fact that I played it most when I was seven and eight-years old.
So what exactly is Penguin Kun Wars? I’m sad to say that it is not zero-g animal dodgeball. Gravity is definitely involved. Also, though the game features animals throwing balls, the goal is not to hit the opponent, but, rather, to get ten balls to the other side of the playing field (and by playing field, I mean oddly oversized ping pong table). Both combatants start with five balls evenly spaced out across their end of the table. After the match bell sounds, they have 60 seconds to furiously toss balls to the other side. The first to win two out of three rounds takes the game.
It sounds simple, and it is, but there are some subtleties to consider. First, the balls can collide with each other and bounce about wildly, which makes them hard to dodge. Avoiding these balls as they come across the table is critical, as being struck by one puts you out of commision for a few seconds – precious time that your opponent has to send more balls your way. Additionally, in the waning moments of a match, a flashing boomerang-like object appears and moves back and forth across the table, causing even more crazy bounces and occasionally sending balls right back in your face. The hectic flurry of ricocheting balls can get intense in the final seconds, which adds to the fun and fuels the desire to play just one more game.
Playing against a friend is the best way to enjoy Penguin Kun Wars, but doing so is hampered by an odd design choice. You are forced to play in a sixteen combatant tournament set-up, no matter how many human players are partaking. If you select two players, the game always puts you at the opposite sides of the tournament bracket, so the only way to face each other is by beating all CPU-controlled opponents and then meeting in the finals. Thankfully, you may select up to eight human controlled players, which means you only have to play through the first round against the CPU before moving on to player-vs-player matches for the rest of the event. The fact that you are forced to adhere to this tournament set-up is the main black mark against the game, and it’s a big one.
Another minor issue is the lack of, well, any character selection options for the player. When playing against the CPU, you will face off against a cat, panda, koala and beaver, but players will always be in control of the titular Penguin Kun (this was remedied in the Game Boy iteration and MSX sequel). Stage selection is also limited, consisting of only a standard stadium setting (think Wimbledon with fuzzy spectators) and an arena set in the middle of a green valley, surrounded by mountains. Thankfully, these environments, as well as the furry (and feathered) combatants, are all cleanly animated, colorful and generally easy on the eyes.
Penguin Kun Wars is a tough game for me to assess. On one hand, I have unbridled affection for its quirky premise, cute characters and entertaining multiplayer hijinks, due to having played the game copiously during my youth. On the other hand, it features a few glaring design flaws that hinder enjoyment at a very fundamental level – failings that I recognized, even back in the mid-eighties. If you are looking for a unique 8-bit multiplayer experience, you could do a lot worse than Penguin Kun Wars; just be prepared to deal with the foibles related to its tournament only restriction. Retro enthusiasts looking to complete their Famicom collections will be glad to know that the game is neither rare or in high demand, so copies can usually be found for five dollars or less.