You know it's getting towards the school holidays when the obligatory kids films start to show up in cinemas. This year, one of the options is Penguins of Madagascar, a film which follows the madcap spy penguins from the much-loved Madagascar franchise on their latest mission, following on from the events of 2012's Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (and its somewhat disappointingly rubbish tie in game). As is often the case with these sort of things, it wouldn't be a proper kids film release without a tie in game to go alongside it - and so here we have the imaginatively titled Penguins of Madagascar, for the Nintendo 3DS, Wii and Wii U.
Of the things that likely pop into your head when you think of penguins, we doubt cheesy wotsits is one of the first. But, if the Madagascar penguins are to be believed, a particular brand, 'Cheezy Dibbles', are like catnip to the dumpy birds, and they'll go to some extraordinary lengths to get their flippers on a packet. And so, with the penguins' trademark military precision, the game follows the crew as they set about procuring as many packs as they can, sneaking into various high-security places and raiding their vending machines, hoping to score the almighty elusive and cheesiest of the cheesiest, the legendary Golden Dibble. At the same time, there's also been a bit of an epidemic of penguin napping across the world, with a group of octopi being the main culprit. Luckily for you, they also seem to have been tasked with guarding the Cheezy Dibbles, so it's up to you to get your hands on the cheesy poofs, and dish out your own form of penguin punishment to the cephalopods.
Vaguely stealthy, each level sees the four penguins, Skipper, Kowalski, Private and Rico, sneaking through air vents, dodging lasers and avoiding the tentacled guards as they recover the cheesy snacks and save their flippered kin. In a similar vein to the Lego games, each penguin has their own unique skills, and you can switch between the four of them when needed during the levels - brainy Kowasaki can hack into computers and hover for a short time, while chubster Private is the only one that can fit in the air vent pipes and can disguise himself up as a plant pot to trick spotlights and guards. Skipper meanwhile, has a punch/flipper slap at his disposal which is great for stopping snooping octopi in their tracks, and muscle man/bird Rico is the demolitions expert, setting up explosives to blast through locked doors, and charging head first through timed sections with his dash.
Levels are fairly straightforward jaunts from one end to the other, mixed in with some light puzzle and stealth elements along the way. Waddling around, you'll need to stay out the way of searchlights and avoid the octo-guards, sometimes making clever use of Private's flower disguise to slip past them. Often, you'll come face to face with lasers or electric floors that need switching off, or require you to go round the long way, using the updraft from fans to float through air vents, shimmying along walls and pushing crates through octopus patrolled areas to reach buttons to switch off the offending obstacles. Certain actions have short minigames attached to them, such as Kowalski's hacking puzzles, where you simply need to rotate hexagons until each lights up, and Rico's bomb-setting-up memory game, which involves repeating back a sequence of five button presses.
Each level also has seven optional objectives to complete on top of simply reaching the end. First and foremost is collecting all the packets of Cheezy Dibbles in each stage, as well as finding the single Rare Cheezy Dibble, which is, somewhat hilariously, usually kept locked up in a high-security vault somewhere in the level. Finding and freeing all the stuck penguins from their vending machine prisons is another 'collectable', while activating all of the checkpoints in each level is another bonus objective - even if it is a matter of course anyway, as they're mostly located in the mission-critical areas. More challenging are the goals for not getting caught by the octopus guards, and a time trial, in which you need to complete a level in under an hour (which is harder than it sounds, given the length of most levels). The final objective, meanwhile, is for completing all the above challenges in a single run through of the level. For completionists and OCD collectors, there's certainly a fair bit to do if you want to grab every trinket and complete every objective, at least.
But Penguins of Madagascar does have a few technical troubles. Slowdown and stuttering does happen from time to time, and the octopus guards can get caught on walls occasionally, sometimes making it hard to sneak past without getting caught - although none of these spoil the game too much. What can become a problem, however, is the positioning of some of the game's checkpoints, which tend to be too far apart during the more complex sections, which ends up forcing you to go back and replay a fairly lengthy chunk of the level, just because you happened to misstep near the end and run into an octopus. Unfortunately, while walking into a laser or treading on an electric floor panel will simply respawn you a few steps back, running into an octopus sends you right back to the last checkpoint you crossed - which can be upwards of fifteen to twenty minutes earlier.
The other biggie is that there's only four levels in the entire game, each an hour or more long. Such lengthy levels in a game intended for kids - and on the format we reviewed, on a handheld - is asking for trouble. Shorter levels, or at least the option to resume mid-level, would have been much better - instead, you have to finish these in a single sitting. Assuming your child is of the patient variety, a determined enough kid could blast through the whole thing in under five hours, perhaps a little longer if they go back to find the remaining collectables and such, making Penguins of Madagascar seem a bit on the short side. While younger kids will often happily replay a single level over and over, this is likely too tricky for them, while the big gap between checkpoints, and need to sit and finish the level in a single sitting make it awkward for older kids too. A lack of voice overs is also disappointing, especially considering the younger audience this game will undoubtedly attract, and, when coupled with the short length, makes it feel a bit too much like a budget release.
But, all in all, Penguins of Madagascar is a fairly by-the-numbers adventure that should keep the more patient Madagascar penguins lovers happy, if only for a short while. More levels and more logical or frequent checkpoints would have been nice, but as it stands, this is a tie-in that does its job. Just don't expect anything particularly revolutionary - but be prepared for plenty of cheesy wotsits.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS