Released in 1991 in Japan only for Nintendo’s Famicom, Yume Penguin Monogatari needs to be played to be truly appreciated. It is the marriage of an outrageous concept with complementary gameplay mechanics and colorful visual design that makes Yume Penguin Monigatari a truly bizarre and unique videogame experience. You play as a fat, happy little penguin named Penta. When beginning the game you are promptly dumped by your penguin girlfriend, Penko. She in turn shacks up with a pimp hat and sunglasses wearing (and thus, evil) penguin named Ginji. Penka makes it perfectly clear that in order to win her back you must shed some blubber and get your flabby self into shape. And so begins your bizzarre adventure.

Yume Penguin Monogatari’s action is split between platforming levels and side scrolling schmup-type sections. Paramount to the games chief mechanic is a gauge located at the bottom of the screen indicating your level of fitness. Through out each stage you must carefully maintain a benchmark level of fitness. As seen in a close-up of the gauge below, the minimum level of fitness is indicated by a heart. If your fitness level is below the heart and you reach the end of a stage you must replay it. As you progress through the game, the minimum fitness requirements become harder to achieve and maintain.

Depending on your level of fitness, Penta controls and his sprite appear differently. At the lowest fitness level, Penta is very fat and moves slowly with limited jumping ability. Your only attack at this level is a slow belly flop/bounce. At the mid-level of fitness you can run and jump at a fairly decent speed and height, and can also use a kick attack against enemies. At the highest level of fitness you can move very quickly, jump far and high, and you also gain a projectile shooting attack.

You build your fitness level by defeating enemies and collecting vitamins. On the flip side, getting hit by an enemy projectile depletes your fitness level. Ironically, given that you are a penguin, falling into water reduces your fitness to its lowest point regardless of how high you’ve built your gauge. You are also racing against a timer, and must counter the ticking seconds by collecting clocks dropped by the baddies you defeat. However, coming into direct contact with an enemy also reduces your timer, so perfecting the stages and memorizing the enemy patterns go a long way towards successfully completing the game.

The shmup stages are reminiscent of Twin Bee or Parodius in that Penta pilots at little plane and the screen scrolls vertically. The same rules apply as in the platforming stages; a delightfully cute cycle of building your fitness level and avoiding the enemy onslaught.

As if this bizarre  “measuring your worth by your weight” theme wasn’t enough to make you want to play this game, Yume Penguin Monogatari also boasts some of the most amazing art direction and level design on the Famicom. The overall look of Yume Penguin Monogatari is highly imaginative, and also representative of some of the best 8-bit Japanese sprite artwork of the era. Just look at the map you are shown in between levels… fantastic:

You must face off against a boss at the end of each shmup stage. Fear not if your arrive at the boss battle below the target fitness level; dealing damage to the boss in specific ways causes them to throw out vitamin bottles, giving you the chance to recoupe your gauge. This adds a fair bit of strategy, as you must carefully avoid each bosses attacks, while still collecting enough vitamins to assure you are a high enough fitness level once the boss is defeated.  The bosses do not, however, yield clocks, so avoiding the enemy’s non-food attacks is also crucial to avoid running out of time.  If you are under the fitness level after defeating the stage or the boss, a humorous scene is shown in which Penka tells you that you are too fat to continue and you must redo the level.

The only unfortunate aspect of Yume Penguin Monogatari is the games length. With only six stages, although they are all completely fantastic, you will be able to blow through this game in 25 minutes easy. Those won’t be a particular tough 25 minutes, either. For example, when I got the game in the mail I had 10 minutes to spare, so I popped it in. I thought initially that the game to be a little bit on the hard side. I made it just to the second level, at which point I had to shut the Famicom off and go do some other things. Later that night, with a couple hours to kill, I revisited the game. On just my second play-through ever I beat the game…. and a little later on that same night I beat it two more times.

Yume penguin Monogatari is a shining example of a Japanese exclusive gem, and this type of game is the fundamental reason way I got into collecting for the Famicom in the first place. You just didn’t see this type of game make it past the Draconian censors at Nintendo of America, and the high concept gameplay mechanics and stylized visuals intertwine to make Yume Penguin Monogatari a can’t-miss experience for Famicom collectors and videogame fans alike.