When Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came out in 1997, I read a review of it in one of the major game mags. The reviewer speculated that we might well be looking at the last hurrah of the traditional 2-d sidescroller. It seemed a pretty reasonable guess at the time, but of course prophecy is a slippery business. As it turns out there’s room in modern gaming for both 3-d and 2-d; high-budget projects and quirky, cult classics. The latest round of the console wars has been about nothing, if not diversification.
This diversity has also included a certain retrofication, a return to classic gameplay for many titles. One of the new old kinds of game I’ve been hearing about lately is the “ultra-hard platformer”. This is a reference to the days when games were not only simple, they were also really, really hard. Hard like Super Mario Bros 2 without warping (I’m referring to the real Super Mario Bros 2, originally not released outside of Japan because of its difficulty), or like trying to get all the way through Double Dragon with only three lives. No endless continues, and no saved games.
If you describe Prinny 2 as a really difficult platformer, you’ll have done a reasonably decent job of summing up the gameplay. From Japanese company Nippon Ichi, brought stateside by NIS America, this Disgaea spin-off is so difficult you get a stock of 999 prinnies (not lives, actual individual prinnies) to get you through the game, in addition to the option of saving in-between levels. On normal difficulty, a prinny can only take three hits before he dies. On hard mode, a single hit is death. It very much hearkens back to the days of precision gaming, where you would play a level over and over, trying to get through that one section that haunted your dreams.
However, it would be a disservice to describe Prinny 2 as a straightforward resurrection of one of those games of yore. The developers have done a good job of focusing on the best aspects of this kind of game, which appeals to the obsessive-compulsive in all of us, while striving to keep it from becoming frustrating or boring, as some of those classic games often were.
Unnecessary repetition and unnecessary waiting are the traditional bugbears of this genre, and the developers have taken pains to eliminate them. Checkpoints throughout each level allow you to focus on one section at a time, sparing you from having to go through them again after successful completion. When you do die, you’re returned to the last checkpoint within seconds, allowing virtually continuous play, no matter how many tries a section may take.
I have to imagine the creators of this game well remember the irritation of waiting for a level to reload after slightly mistiming a jump, when all you want is to try it again right now. This might seem like a minor point, but when you die 50 times on a level, it makes a tremendous difference having the transition be as quick and painless as possible.
This sequel also offers something the original Prinny did not, an additional concession to those who just want to get on with it: an easier difficulty mode, with health containers strewn throughout the level and less difficult jumps (there’s no health containers in normal or hard mode). Of course, they have to stick it to you a little if you use this mode. Your character will be wearing a diaper. (Another refreshing change from other titles is the ability to change the difficulty level at any time throughout the game, when between levels. So if you’re really stuck on a level, you can always lower the difficulty.)
The game mechanics are a lot of fun, your prinny (a penguine-type character who says “dood” a lot) has a number of moves at his disposal. A ground stomp move doesn’t normally do damage but can stun an enemy, increasing the damage they take and opening them up to other attacks. Filling your combo meter can put your prinny into an overdrive mode, increasing damage and opening up some special moves. Both of these strategies prove indispensable in boss fights.
In addition to the addictive gameplay, the story is hilarious. An evil overlord, Etna, has had her panties stolen. She sends her not-so-evil minions, the prinnies, to retrieve it. She doesn’t care how many of them have to die in order to get the job done. In fact, given how casually she disposes of them, it almost seems like more might be better.
For their part, the prinnies have a certain fatal resignation to their task. After all, they walk around with bombs strapped to their chests; they’re used to being entirely expendable. So as the game begins, the only goal is to retrieve Etna’s delicates before all 1000 of the prinnies are killed.
All dialogue is voiced, and voiced well, and though the story is typically Japanese, the humour is right on target for English audiences. Chalk it up to good localization. (The constant use of “dood”, for example, is pretty American.)
From the beginning, levels can be tackled in any order, but the more levels you complete, the higher the difficulty (marked by number of stars in the level description) in all levels increases, keeping you constantly on your toes.
Etna gives you 10 hours to complete your mission, and as you beat each level, the count decreases. Eventually, day turns into night, and levels may be significantly different. In some cases, going to a level at night may even lead to a different boss than is present during the day. Repeated trips to the same level can also yield up yet more boss fights and different rare items to collect. The challenge of getting a better time and a higher ranking on subsequent playthroughs are further incentives to revisit a level, giving this game high replay value.
There’s a lot to like about Prinny 2. I’m having trouble putting it down, just as much because of its inherent fun as the obsessive perfectionism it inspires. It’s great strength is refusing to be easily mastered, and thus turning the game into a pointless slog through easy levels (or the RPG equivalent, endless gimme battles where all you do is click the attack button). But the flip side of this challenging gameplay is that casual gamers may quickly hit a wall and quit.
I don’t want to call this a weakness. The developers made a conscious choice to make this kind of game, because there are plenty of “inclusive” platformers that anybody can pick up and muddle through. But it is important to emphasize that certain gamers will like it, and others will not. Even in diaper mode, the game can be unforgiving. If you’re not sure which camp you fall into, I suggest downloading the demo from the PSN store before deciding whether to buy it or not.
Prinny 2: Dawn of Operation Panties, Dood! is rated T (Teen) by ESRB for Language, Mild Fantasy Violence and Suggestive Themes.
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