Review: The Penguins of Madagascar: Dr. Blowhole Returns Again!

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There’s no doubt that the suits at DreamWorks animation have gotten much more mileage than they could ever have hoped for out of Madagascar, a franchise that began its life in 2005 as a fish-out-of-water answer to Disney’s Lion King and a trendy animated vehicle for Hollywood voice talent (hello, David Schwimmer!) I’m just not sure Jeffrey Katzenberg expected that the original movie’s comic relief, the ship-hijacking penguins and that ring-tailed loon King Julien, would be the ones to really move it, move it.

But there they are, six years later, riding high with their own Nickelodeon TV show, a big-screen return coming up next summer with Madagascar 3, and, now, star billing in their third video game. The wordy The Penguins of Madagascar: Dr. Blowhole Returns Again! is the first to grace the Xbox 360 (it’s also on DS, Wii and PS3), and it’s about what you’d expect from a title like this one—light-hearted casual fun that does a decent job of stretching the Kinect sensor’s abilities.

They call you Fresh Fish, and that’s what you are: You’re cast as a new penguin recruit to the squad that features Skipper, Rico, Private and Kowalski. There are only three main missions—finding a cursed artifact for King Julien, collecting parts to make and then capture robot penguins and, of course, thwarting Dr. Blowhole, the Penguins’ cyber-enhanced dolphin nemesis. And yes, he’s kinda tough to take seriously, even on the video game screen. The Bond reference is totally lost on the target demographic, and his name’s a scatological softball joke. But hey, he has a hovercraft, so at least he has that going for him.

Many of the gameplay mechanics are going to feel awfully familiar to anyone who’s ridden a few rounds with Twisted Pixel’s The Gunstringer. Once the game starts, you’re literally off and running—around the zoo, around a factory, around an office building, trying to jump and steer one of the four penguins to collect ice cream cones, invisible chameleons and other goodies while dodging various types of enviro-obstacles. The action feels very much like you’re on the rails of a very speedy amusement park ride, especially since you’ll spin around the same environment several times until you can successfully execute whatever moves you’re supposed to nail.

These run the gamut from punching your arms to hit cardboard boxes and float-jumping into the air to clear gaps to balancing on beams and crouching down to belly-slide though holes. Sometimes, the Kinect sensor responds perfectly to your bust-a-moves. As the game goes on and the moves become more complex, that becomes less true. Private’s “strike-a-pose” move demands that you pull off an aerial jumping jack to duck through oddly shaped gaps in fences and walls, and that ends up being harder than it oughtta be. Luckily, the only penalty for face-planting is the loss of a few cones.

Each of the four penguins has three particular actions that you’ll have to trigger when a colored action zone pops up on the ground. (In an extra helping of hand-holding, there’s also signage to let you know what’s coming.) How well you execute and time your moves in the action zone determines how many ice-cream cones you’ll get as well as how high your level score will climb. Mis-time tossing your arms into the air to signal the penguins to climb over a wall and they’ll smash comically into it instead, costing you several precious rainbow sherbet cones and ensuring another loop. Ouch.

Kowalski’s sections are the silliest, as they stop the action for rounds of ridiculously easy “maze” puzzles that have you locking onto one part of an object and moving it across the screen with a wave of your arm past a single wall to unite it with the other part. Not even the young ‘uns are likely to be impressed by the simplicity. As you’d suspect of a game whose primary audience includes the kids who love and watch the TV show, the achievements rain down like mackerels from the bucket at zoo feeding time. Simply executing one of the games’ 12 specific Kinect moves lands an achievement, as does hitting the cutscenes that introduce and involve the show’s other characters (Marlene, Maurice, etc.)

And man, are there a lot of them. Nickelodeon junkies may appreciate the copious number of cutscenes, but I grew to dread the appearance of the director’s icon hovering in the air up ahead, a clear signal that the action was about to stop, again, for some more comic exposition and comedy relief. Or trivia questions. Shudder.
The story mission in Dr. Blowhole Returns Again! breezes past in the span of just a few hours, raising the question as to whether it’s a better investment than just DVR-ing a few TV episodes to get your Penguins fix. You can extend the fun if you’re the sort who has to land a gold medal on every level, or if the idea of busting a move with King Julien in the mini-games section sounds appealing. Just don’t expect a ton of depth.

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Pros:
+ Kinect controls are easy to grasp, responsive
+ Cartoon penguin hijinks good for family laughs
+ The easiest set of achievements you’ll see this season

Cons:
– Short mission campaign is over in a literal breeze
– Kinect camera doesn’t always register the two most complex moves
– Maze and matching puzzles are too simple

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360 Kinect; also available for DS, Wii and PS3
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Griptonite Games
Release Date: 9/13/2011
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.