For some reason, indie developers really have it out for children. If you’re a bright-eyed youth in a storybook world tinged with danger – especially a pixelated one – then it may already be too late for you. As sure as the sun sets at night, some tragedy will befall you and force you to jump through hoops (often literally) on a futile quest to reclaim your lost innocence. Also, there will probably be a lot of gruesome deathtraps – that’s just how these things go.
Penarium is exceptional in that it cuts straight to the chase. You play as Willy, a young, pudgy farm boy who visits a travelling circus and within seconds finds himself cast into a gauntlet of deadly hazards, watched by a bloodthirsty crowd braying with amusement. Willy’s only hope of making it back in one piece (and that isn’t a metaphor) is to complete the ringmaster’s seemingly arbitrary tasks while dodging explosions, cannonballs, and countless other dangers. And you thought clowns were the scariest part of the circus.
A distinctly arcadey game, Penarium takes place almost entirely on a single screen consisting of five wooden platforms. On its own the arena is pretty unassuming – you die if you fall off the bottom, and the sides wrap around Pacman-style, but that aside it’s a very standard map for this sort of game. At least, it is until the deathtraps start coming out of the (literal) woodwork. Buzzsaws whir around the edges of platforms, homing rockets hunt you down from the top of the screen, machine guns rain bullets down from every angle, and all you can do is run and jump and hope you don’t get caught off-guard. This is classic Mario Bros. mixed with bullet hell, and it is brutal.
Unless you’re some sort of savant, you’re going to see Willy die – like, a lot. Even the game’s earliest stages are hectic, throwing multiple traps at you very quickly and challenging you to adapt on the fly. Even when you’re just dealing with spikes and guns it can be hard to keep track of everything on screen, but you almost always have an out, and when you do die, it always feels like your fault. Pixel-perfect controls and smooth gameplay mitigate any frustration you might feel upon losing, and it helps that the death animations are really, really funny.
If you’re not up to task Willy can be burned, skewered, drowned, crushed or gibbed in a dozen different ways, leaving plenty for the ringmaster to clean up. It’s a lot like Super Meat Boy, except with a fat Dutch child instead of an adorable anthropomorphic burger patty. The challenging stages might play to masochistic tendencies, but each death will give your inner sadist a chuckle. Penarium doesn’t have any pretenses of deeper meaning like other games that do terrible things to children – it’s all about good old-fashioned fun.