When a game begins by giving you a thousand lives it sets alarm bells ringing. It's either some hilarious gamer joke or a sign of terrible things to come. With Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?, the bonkers but charming PSP side-scrolling platformer from Japanese developer Nippon Ichi Software, it's a case of the latter.
Amazingly, a thousand lives doesn't feel like overkill. You die a hell of a lot in Prinny. By the time I'd reached the game's first boss fight, at the end of the first level, I'd used up fifty. Fifty. As you work your way through the game's beautifully-drawn levels, you find yourself anxiously casting an eye to the life counter at the bottom left of the screen: 950...949...948... “Nah. Nothing to worry about. I hope.”
Why do you die so much? Because Prinny is hard. Hard like Mega Man. Hard like Ninja Gaiden. The game is designed to make you lose, over and over and over again. Wait a minute. Hold on right there. This game is called Prinny? What the hell's a Prinny? And what the hell is that blue penguin thing? Explain damn it! Explain!
Calm down, it's only a Nippon Ichi game. You know, the Japanese developer behind the Disgaea RPG series? Actually, you probably don't know - the game enjoys a hardcore but small following in the west. Funny, though, that you should say penguin – it's a good spot. A Prinny is indeed some kind of penguin. With two little bat wings. And peg legs instead of little cute penguin feet. And they explode when they touch enemies or are thrown. And they say “dood” at the end of every sentence. And they have squeaky high-pitched voices. Really.
You might remember Prinnies from strategy RPG Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, where they were cannon fodder units.
Which goes some way to explaining the game's constant death gameplay. Prinnies are as expendable in Can I Really be the Hero? as they are in Disgaea – they're the souls of dead human criminals, empty beings with no flesh between their skin. To pay for their sins they have been sentenced to a life of slavery in the Netherworld – a land full of demons - under cruel Demon Lords.
The plot, such as it is, has something to do with a Demon Lord called Etna, who commands her Prinny Squad to hunt down the secret ingredients for the Ultra Desert. Each ingredient is gathered from the boss at the end of each stage (there are six main stages and a few extra). From the Prinny Base, you select the stage you'd like to tackle, in any order, and off you go.
Each stage is graded in terms of difficulty with an out of five stars system. Some stages are harder than others, but the difficulty can be further affected by the interesting passage of time dynamic. No matter how long you spend in a stage, one in-game hour will pass once you've finished it. Then, depending on the hour, the stage will be altered. Levels are much harder at night and, conversely, much easier during the day.