Version tested: PSP
"A Prinny is a small, usually blue, pouch-wearing penguin-like creature with disproportionately small bat wings and two peg legs where its feet would normally be. When thrown, it explodes on impact." Wikipedia, whatever its other shortcomings, can always be relied upon for obsessively detailed entries on bit-part characters from obscure Japanese videogames. The above summary, concise and efficient, gives the measure of the Prinny, a bird that has in recent years become something of a mascot for its creator, Nippon Ichi.
It's debatable whether the developer planned for these creatures to become its poster-penguin when they debuted in the brilliant strategy-RPG Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. But since then, Prinnies have appeared in almost all of the studio's games, providing comic relief from the serious business of statistical battling and bringing their own sentence-closing mannerism into the nerd lexicon, "Dood!"
Still, surely not even their creators imagined the Prinny would one day venture outside the confines of the strategy RPG to star in, of all things, its very own side-scrolling platform game. After all, Prinnies have peg legs where their feet should be and, more troubling, explode when they fall over. These are hardly the kind of idiosyncrasies that make for a suitable platform game hero, where jumping and not-combusting are usually baseline requirements for consideration. Then again, a pudgy plumber and a blue hedgehog made it. Perhaps a Prinny really could be the hero...
The character's potential setbacks are dealt with early on in the game's story. Etna, the Prinnies' mistress, who fans will know as the likeable but prone-to-hysterics girl from the first Disgaea, wakes to find that her favourite pudding, the 'Ultra Dessert', has gone missing. She pins the culinary crime on her Prinnies, telling them that, if they want to avoid insta-execution, they better track down the ingredients and replace the food pronto. To help them on their quest, she ties a red neckerchief around the lead Prinny's neck, which prevents spontaneous combustion.
Historical narrative pitfalls covered over, you set about trekking across the netherworld (which looks a bit like Devon), jumping flaming ravines and avoiding being struck by the various types of demons borrowed from Disgaea et al that patrol each stage. At the end of each of the six core levels you face off against a boss (in some cases two at once) who, once defeated, will give up the necessary ingredient they're holding. So far, so Super Mario-in-hell.
The quest structure established, the game reveals its next eccentric idea. Etna's squadron of Prinnies is exactly 1000-strong. Every time the lead Prinny dies, a new one steps up to take over. However, once those 1000 lives are extinguished, it's game over. If that seems like an unusually large stock of lives to be gifted with, especially for a game with only six stages, know that this is a difficult game that will test even the most reflex-gifted. Also, unlike in Nintendo's seminal side-scrolling platform games, when your lives are gone you'll have to start again from the very beginning.
In-game, the first thing that strikes you is the quality of the visuals. Nippon Ichi games are known for their jaggy sprites and rudimentary 3D backgrounds, but here the visuals are crisp and stylish. Perform an air slash attack and the camera will momentarily shift to an isometric angle, giving the world a sense of depth that's reminiscent of 2.5D classics such as Klonoa. Less satisfying, however, are the controls which immediately reveal problems that threaten to ruin the experience right from the off.
The overbearing issue is the lack of aftertouch once you've triggered a jump. Once you've committed to the air you cannot, unlike in Super Mario or Sonic, adjust the momentum or speed of your character's trajectory. Miyamoto's genius was in getting the sense of physics just right, a combination of realism and make-believe that allows players to correct a mistimed jump, or change directions while in the air. Here this lack of control makes the character seem broken and imprecise from the very start. It's a shortcoming from which the game never quite recovers, even after your disappointment turns to acceptance.
Compounding this issue is the fact that you can't simply jump on an enemy's head to dispose of it. Rather, while mid-air you have to hit the down and X button simultaneously to send the Prinny into a hip-pound animation. Fail to make the inputs in time and you'll merely bump into the enemy. As a concession to these strict impositions, Nipppn Ichi gives your character a health bar, so you (initially at least) have three strikes before you lose one of your precious Prinnies (although, on the 'Hell's Finest' hard mode you're back to one-hit one-kill). As well as a double-jump move your Prinny can pull himself up onto ledges and can also use a pair of daggers to stab at enemies on the ground and in the air. The stab move is highly responsive and encourages button-bashing to score the most damage on an enemy. Particularly with the boss fights, you'll need to stun the enemy by hip-stomping before hammering the stab button to drain its health bar.
Each of the game's six stages also enjoy six variations depending on what time of the in-game clock they are tackled. As night draws in so each level becomes considerably tougher and, as such, careful planning of your quest's itinerary is important. The six-stage, six-variation theme also adds considerable replay value as you'll need to play through the game (using the New Game + option) at least six times to unlock everything on offer. Combined with a bonus storyline, multiple endings, a Martial tower dungeon and even the chance to fight Prinny Laharl and Etna themselves if you collect enough of the secret dolls hidden in each level there's a lot to do here after your basic run-through.
This collect-'em-all compulsion will see a certain type of gamer through, as will the charm and comedy of the Nippon Ichi fanboy. But for many gamers the infuriating platforming and a combat system that rewards pattern-learning and slow progression over fast, reaction-based advancement of Nippon Ichi's off-kilter design decisions will be insurmountable obstacles to true enjoyment. For a minority of hardcore gamers this is, like the series from which it originates, a playground for impressive showboating. But where this game differs from Disgaea is that the barrier to entry for newcomers is so much higher, and this is something that no amount of kooky dialogue and cutesy character design can conceal.
6 / 10