Aptenodytes forsteri likes Shantae, too.
I’ve never really liked the Happy Feet movies, mainly because I find it disturbing that Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) can tap-dance and make their bodies do things that their skeletal systems would not allow. It’s also strange to see a group of penguin hatchlings singing Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back.” The overarching message in the first movie (overfishing) is relevant but handled poorly. I don’t really know what the second movie is about other than it involves Mumble (the star of the first movie) trying to find his son, Erik, who has been taken in by a Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) claiming to be a penguin who knows how to fly. En route, skuas (Stercorarius) and leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) attempt to kill everyone. Happy Feet Two, the game, was developed by WayForward (who I have a massive crush on) and is shockingly good—I’d go so far to say that it’s one of the more impressive platformers on the aging DS. And it seems to stick pretty close to the source material.
The game starts out with Mumble trying to find his son, Erik, by running, hopping, and dancing through large, distinct stages, collecting musical notes and golden rocks on the way. At the end of each stage, you are graded based on how many notes and golden rocks you found. For the first several areas, you won’t grade very highly. But that’s okay, because on his journey Mumble will accrue Erik (eventually) and his friends—who all have special abilities. This is basically a Metroidvania game in distinct stages. Mumble can dance and swim, but can’t fit through the small, icy crevices that his younger conspecifics can. Boadica can double-jump and wall-jump; Atticus can destroy certain ice blocks; and Erik can hover through the air like Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2. Interestingly, you can’t use the chicks for an unlimited amount of time—once you switch from Mumble, a countdown timer starts, and you only have so long to accomplish whatever needs accomplishing before control reverts back to Mumble. Luckily, there’s no downtime, so you can just retry right away. It adds an element of puzzle-platforming to the game.
As you revisit previously cleared stages with all four penguins in tow and start collecting more notes and golden rocks, you’ll unlock new strategic dance moves for Mumble. You see, Mumble’s dance steps are useful for activating geysers (which launch him sky-high), breaking ice structures, and defeating enemies. Although he doesn’t transform into other animals, the dance mechanic reminded me of my much-beloved Shantae series in that it’s integral to the gameplay. Players must press the Y button to dance in time with the stage’s music to be really successful at defeating enemies or bosses—a feature I really like, as it makes you feel like the background music is also a part of the action. The music has a hip-hop flavor to it with a strong beat, perfect for picking up the rhythm.
But it’s not all wine and roses in Antarctica—Happy Feet Two includes a few annoyances that keep it from greatness. For starters, the occasional horizontal forced-scrolling stages (featuring, I assume, Euphausia superba) are slow and tedious, where players dodge electricity, fishing hooks, and hungry fish. There is no exploration or golden rocks to find, and these sequences, while rare, seem completely out of place in the game. Boss fights can also drag on too long.
The game looks great, employing the same kind of pixelated character models that drove the SNES Donkey Kong Country games. Although each level is ultimately set in the ice-covered wasteland of Antarctica, WayForward has done an admirable job of differentiating each stage, either through background objects or focusing on different modes of travel (belly-sliding, swimming, platforming). There aren’t very many enemies in the game—usually just penguins who forgot how to dance (and thus are ill-tempered) or the odd skua or pinniped, both whom, once successfully dodged, can be used to further traverse the environment.
I doubt it will make anyone’s Top 10 of 2011 lists, but you’d be remiss to completely discount Happy Feet Two on the DS. As that system slowly dies, it’s easy to think that nothing but shovelware will come down its once-lauded pipe. WayForward has proven that not to be the case, and platforming fans would do well to give this game a shot.