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074 - Pengo

Best Games - Pengo

When I was a kid I would go over to a friends house to play games on his Commodore vic20. I would arrive under the pretext that we were going to play street hockey. Most of the time we actually would play street hockey, because hey, street hockey is fun. The entire time we were playing there was a tune playing in the back of my mind. It was popcorn, and it goes like this.

During the 80s there were about seven thousand computer and game systems that you could port your game to. A lot of games were written for dedicated arcade hardware that could easily cost 10 times what a home computer sold for. The code and hardware were so closely tied in a lot of the arcade machines that the circuit boards were usually one offs. A massive, expensive, collection of chips, wires, and printed boards would be used in one game and that would be it.

Due to this level of specialization, porting a game from the arcade to home computers was more often than not, a ground up rewrite. You might have noticed that the video above was of a game titled ICE and not Pengo. If you could ground up rewrite a game faster than another developer, or better than another developer, and you couldn’t, or didn’t, get actual legal approval to do any such thing, you would put it out under a different name. That’s just how it went. Once in a while a developer creating a clone of a popular game would have the decency to change the art or music as half lidded shrug toward copyright law. Cymbal Software, the creators of ICE, were about as brazen as you can get. This was the version of Pengo I would play at my friends house.

I was aware of the arcade version of Pengo, but the only versions I had played at the time were the ones that were re-creations for the Tandy computers, Atari Computers, and of course, the Commodore vic20 and 64. They were much thinner clones of the original game. Still, I could tell that there was something more going on with Pengo than your standard maze chase game.

All through the early 80s maze chase games, like Pac-Man, were common as dust bunnies. At first glance Pengo seems to be yet another in this genre. I’ve even read it referred to as a maze chase more than once. Of course if you play it you will find that the Pengo shares very little with Pac-Man. First off, the maze isn’t really a maze at all. Pengo’s movement isn’t really restricted in any way. If there is a block in your way, just push it and it will slide until it collides with another block or the edge of the screen. If another block is behind it, smash it and walk right through. It’s not really a maze if you can make your own path. Pengo is action, puzzle, and strategy all at once.

That’s the really fascinating thing about Pengo. All of it’s levels are randomly generated, so while you can create strategies, there are no patterns for winning the game. Planning, and reaction matter in equal parts. The game is a series of interlocking systems that you have to learn and exploit to be successful. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there are many examples of unconstrained, systems based video games, like Pengo, from the early 80s. Pengo may be the earliest example of random level generation where the environment is actually a gameplay element. I could be wrong about this too, but I couldn’t find any other strong examples aside from Rogue, but in Rogue the levels are fixed in place after they are generated, and not really subject to player manipulation. For it’s time, Pengo is pretty unique.

While doing some research on the game, I came across this gem. It seems that some folks have been reverse engineering the original game code to port it to different platforms, emulated and otherwise. While doing this conversion work one guy came across a bug in the original maze creation algorithm. I could go into all sorts of nerdy rambling about how he found that the code is self modifying so the program is actually changing itself as it runs so that the programmers can pack everything more efficiently into the limited memory and processor cycles available. Suffice to say, if you are the sort of person that would be interested in such a thing you should read this.

Otherwise you should probably just watch these really cool videos of mazes being randomly created.

And just in case you missed it, here is Pengo and Popcorn again!Best Games

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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