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.
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.
Still, fussing over what stage to take on isn't really the point with Prinny. It's the platforming within the levels that forms the meat on this most Japanese of bones. It's a kind of mash-up between traditional side-scrolling platformers and button-bashing hack and slash action. Left and right on the d-pad governs movement and square governs the Prinnies' ultra-fast sword slash attack. On the standard difficulty you can absorb up to three hits before you'll actually die. On the appropriately named Hell's Finest difficulty, you're dead, or you explode, as soon as you touch the enemy. This is not negotiable. Touch an enemy and boom, you're dead.
Death is odd in Prinny. Because it happens so often, and because the game instantly transports you back to your last "Revive Point" (thankfully they're generously splattered about the levels) without a loading screen, death doesn't have the same impact as it might. There is a degree of frustration at the more difficult moments - some of the bosses are ridiculously hard - but on the whole you don't mind.
Instead, it's the controls that annoy. Jumping will simply send your Prinny upwards a predetermined amount. Press forward then press jump and your Prinny will jump forward a predetermined amount. It's the same for backwards and jump. The length and height of the jump is always the same. Momentum, unlike in the Super Mario games, has no effect.
It's incredibly fiddly and rigid. You can't adjust where you're going to land mid air, as you can in so many platform games. Each and every jump is the same. Most of your deaths are the result of this - you press forward then jump and you hit an enemy, or you fall off a platform, or you fall into a pit. Gah.
There is some help. The double jump allows you to do a three-point hop, but this works in the same way - you can't affect the trajectory of the double jump mid-air. There's a dash jump, which allows you to travel much farther, but again, the height and length cannot be altered after the input. Then there's the Hip Pound (press down and X while in the air), which is mainly used to stun enemies (crucial for boss fights), opening them up for mega damage from the anime-inspired Air Slash. But, because of the robotic jumping, I used the Hip Pound to help with successful platforming. You can end a jump with it, sending your Prinny crashing down to the ground. It's awfully cumbersome, overall.
You do find yourself getting better at the game the longer you play it, and there's a decent level of satisfaction experienced when you beat a boss - it's all about memorising attack patterns rather than speedy reflexes. The thing is, most will be scared off by the game only 15 or so minutes in. They'll die and die and die and think, I'd have more fun punching myself in the face. Dood.
If you can get on with the controls, and you like hardcore platformers, you'll thoroughly enjoy Prinny. It's got an other worldly, Tim Burton-esque look and sound that impresses. The graphics are crisp and vibrant. The voice acting, while annoying at first, does start to win you over (although the Prinnies' constant use of the word 'dood!' often feels like pulling teeth). And the levels, while never spectacular, are designed well enough to keep you going.
There is a question mark hanging over the game's replayability. There's a hell of a lot to collect, so much so that Prinny often feels a bit like a collect-em-up - orbs needed to release residents' souls, Lucky Dolls and torn letters are all hidden throughout the game's levels. And purists will enjoy trying to get the highest ranks and scores possible. But, with only six main levels, it's a game that feels lightweight.
It's not just Nippon Ichi fans who will love Prinny. Masochists will too. For them, the endless death and difficult platforming will taste as good as a vanilla milkshake on a summer's day. The controls, though, really do have the potential to put everyone off. So be warned: know what you're letting yourself in for before forking out the £25 or so Prinny will cost you. Dood.