Penarium is an arcade-style 2D platformer set in a brutal circus where the main attraction is you. Cheered on by a bloodthirsty crowd, you must frantically hop between platforms completing a series of fiendish challenges, all the while dodging an eccentric array of death-traps that include bee swarms and bubblegum shooters. Penarium might be as easy as custard pie to pick up and play, but when you’re stuck between a rock and a laser beam reaching its grand finale is no laughing matter.
The game’s main event is campaign mode, which allows you to unlock Penarium’s three arenas while enjoying a simple but satisfying tale with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. The story introduces Willy, a simple farm boy who is working on his father’s land one day when a mysterious masked stranger appears and tempts him into the back of his circus wagon. Willy is anticipating an adventure, but soon realises he has in fact stepped into a nightmare. If he is to escape the sadistic circus extravaganza known as Penarium, he must learn to perform death-defying feats and survive long enough to beat the game’s nameless champion.
The controls are straightforward – left, right, jump, double jump – and if you exit the screen on one side you will automatically appear on the other, adding a useful last-ditch escape route to your limited list of defensive options. Objectives are easy to grasp but difficult to fulfil. You’ll be asked to smash barrels, burst balloons, press buttons, chase spotlights, and catch precious bottles before they break. However, aside from some black humour-laced guidance given by the masked man, there is little else to aid you in your attempts to overcome Penarium’s quirky cornucopia of obstacles.
Homing missiles, fireworks, dragons, water cannons, icicles – as the levels progress the weapons aimed at you not only become wildly more varied and unpredictable, but also quicker and deadlier. In every arena your screen will be transformed into a spectacular tableau of chaos, and you can forget about planning ahead – obstacles shift their patterns with every retry.
Beyond the main scenario there are two additional modes available: arcade and multiplayer. Arcade utilises the classic one life, one run formula – you just have to go with it, prancing across platforms for as long as possible to improve your top score on the leader board. You can also collect coins that allow you to purchase power-ups in Penarium’s shop, such as increased movement speed and the ability to fly.
Meanwhile, multiplayer allows two players to battle it out in local co-op as contestants Willy and Rajiv; versus has you dodging traps and pressing buttons in a first past the post situation, while co-op has you pushing buttons together until you both bite the dust. It has its charms, but doesn’t quite capture the appealing more the merrier feel of something like TowerFall.
The highlight of Penarium is its offbeat brand of hectic gameplay, a hot mess of awkwardly arranged platforms and circus-themed stumbling blocks. Tackling wave after wave of new obstacles is unexpectedly rewarding and a nod to Donkey Kong in the final arena is a nice retro treat. On the flip side of the coin, there is not much aesthetic variety – the game’s three arenas look very similar – unlockable content is notably scarce and multiplayer mode is limited, which is a shame because this is a title ripe for expansion.
Despite a few missed opportunities waiting in the wings, Penarium is ultimately what an arcade-style game should be – fun and frustrating. Pick it up, put it down, pick it up again – it can be enjoyed at the drop of a ringmaster’s top hat by beginners and arcade veterans alike