Videogames are wandering across the Junk Fields, attempting to reach some exciting new destination. Then a videogame journalist appears, loading Videogames up with words and memories. “It’s retro. It’s old school. It’s Micro Machines meets F-Zero crossed with Ulysses 31. It’s all right here. Everything you’ve ever cared about is all right here.”
It’s all junk! Let’s not do that. Let’s instead create a space in which The Next Penelope can stand aside from its easy descriptions and rise above its obvious influences. This isn’t a game that feels retro; it feels alive, bursting with colour, fizzing with energy. I played it at this year’s Gamescom and its pleasures are simple. That means I don’t have a lot to say about it, but I still feel the need to bring it to your attention.
The story goes (at least based upon my cartoon knowledge) that Odysseus is missing for twenty-years, trundling around the universe in his search for home. His wife Penelope is left behind. What does she get up to? Well, she races in wicked-cool neon-coloured space races at the whim of intergalactic greek myths. Each of those myths have a different track type for you to master and a different power-up ability you earn for doing so. The minotaur, for example, makes tracks full of dead-ends which require the use of a short-range teleportation device to navigate. Like some sort of labyrinth.
I watched the Ulysses 31 cartoon as an adult, stumbling through and loving its odd mash-up of ancient gods and French sci-fi. The Next Penelope does just enough in its between-race cutscene chats with those pesky gods to capture some of that style, and some of my residual affection for the series. Sadly I didn’t see anything quite as weird as The Hidden Truth.
The races themselves are quick and deadly. Your ship hovers above the track and swings around corners with the glide of an air hockey puck, and you have a boost ability which is fueled by the same energy source that acts as your health bar. Use it too much to overtake your opponents and even the slightest knock might cause you to explode. You can, of course, make those opponents explode, as many of the abilities you unlock involve different kinds of weaponry – heat-seeking missiles and mines are two of those I played with – which you can use to outright destroy your fellow racers. Eventually you’ll take what you learned in each race and apply it to a boss fight against the god itself; or at least a mechanized avatar of that god, as in the case of the sirens’ twin tanks.
In other words, my first paragraph wasn’t wrong. If you spent any time at all in the ’80s and ’90s playing racing games – Skidmarks, Overdrive, Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing, and on and on – then you’ll have encountered these mechanics a thousand times. Games like these haven’t been revived like some of their peers though, so my second paragraph wasn’t wrong either. I sat and played The Next Penelope during Gamescom for a full half hour, and it was one of the most breezy and fun games I played during the entire show.
Breezy, yeah. Let’s go with that. For its style if not its substance, The Next Penelope feels completely fresh. And anyway, every now again in your life, for no reason at all…
The Next Penelope is due out around the end of the year or early next.