Penarium seeks to bring you back to the golden era of arcade games, back when one single setup brought hours of entertainment by simple variation. It tells a story about a farmer's boy who is abducted by a circus of the macabre to engage in bloody sports for the entertainment of the masses, but that's just an excuse to throw ever more deathtraps at you without leaving the confined space of the circus stage.
Penarium confronts you with seemingly simple goals. The most basic one is smashing barrels as they spawn one by one. Other times you need to pop baloons in a specific order and with a strict time limit. Catching parachute potions from the air and putting them in the cauldron of the same color is a bit trickier. There's also a game of Simon that forces you to step on colored buttons in the prescribed order and a task that demands you stay within a moving spotlight for a prolonged time.
Sounds easy? Well, of course you don't have to do just that, but also avoid traps that the masked ringmaster throws at you. Of course these include cannons, rockets and lasers with various movement patterns, but also environmental obstacles like glue on the ground, water cannons or little flame throwers at the sides to prevent you from taking advantage of the wraparound feature, which usually offers a more than welcome escape route. The most fun traps are the flying chinese dragons, the flying birds who spirit away barrels, and the laser that blasts parts out of the platforms.
You never have to worry that a stage gets messed up too much, though. There are never more than two traps active at once, and when you reach a certain number of targets, the stage is reset to its original state before the new hazards spawn. The controls are also much more flexible than any arcade game that's actually from the early eighties. Despite the fast pace your jumps are very controllable, and you even get a double jump in case you missed.
The campaign mode spans 30 stages divided into three episodes, each of which has one dominant platform setup throughout and one or two deviations for a special stage, like a recreation of the first stage from Donkey Kong (minus the ladders). But despite the many combinations of traps and goals, things start to feel a bit repetitive towards the end. The balancing is also a bit uneven, and sometimes it feels like you lost just because a trap happened to spawn at a particularly mean random starting position. The balloon catching technically is the hardest of the goals, but you'll likely die most at the spotlight challenge, just because it takes so damn long.
The campaign can entertain for about two or three hours, and after that there's the arcade mode left. Unfortunately, it is simply an endless mode for what is perhaps the least interesting task, namely the barrel smashing. Here the barrels contain coins, which can be used to buy "cards". These in turn allow you to catch power-ups during the game, ranging from jumping aids like additional platforms and a jetpack to weapons like a laser-shooting mask. Each campaign chapter has its corresponding arcade stage. The difficulty differs distinctly between them, but there's not much of a curve within a stage, so it turns into a pure endurance run once you've mastered it. Penarium is a fun distraction for a little while, but don't expect the score hunt to become a life-long hobby.