We've seen a number of HTML-based games come to the Wii U eShop, but few have succeeded in defying their humble code origins to stand alongside more complex offerings on the store - Construct 2 project The Next Penelope looks set to deliver new standards, however. The work of solo developer Aurelien Regard, we were naturally intrigued when he told us that titles such as F-Zero and Micro Machines, with a dash of Star Fox, provided sources of inspiration. Intrigued and, despite Regard's development experience, a little sceptical; how wrong we were.
For starters, forget the perception that games from HTML5 engines like Construct can't look terrific, as The Next Penelope is a visual treat. It gives a Super FX look as our minds-eye remembers it, by which we mean it takes advantage of modern hardware to obliterate Super NES era graphics and really pop from the screen. Sharp angles and colours will bring classics like Star Fox and F-Zero to mind, as the developer intends, but this is thoroughly modern in appearance, with clean, crisp visuals that look terrific in HD. When Regard told us he was "trying to push its limits" by developing this in Construct 2, he wasn't kidding.
That impressive visual performance is an early stand-out, a triumph of art, design and careful development that brings a range of attractive and interesting environments. Praise must also go to the audio, which combines suitable effects for weapons and a kicking soundtrack, definitely one to be played with headphones.
What of the gameplay itself? It is, as promised, a clever blend of Micro Machines and F-Zero, in particular. Your vehicle accelerates by itself, so your responsibility is simply to steer and manage a range of weapons; considering the speed and difficulty as it ramps up, that's more than enough to deal with. Best suited in the early PC build to the D-Pad for steering, you gradually unlock a host of abilities by clearing 'planets', each of which offers equipment in exchange for clearing three challenges.
There's some excellent creativity here, too. A turbo boost and cannon are there from the off, but you unlock goodies such as a teleporter, mines and a grapple as you progress. We're early on in the experience, but can envisage that it'll become quite a challenge to co-ordinate and make the most of these capabilities in a frantic race; levelling up abilities with earned XP points will be a must.
Most importantly, the implementation of these weapons feels rewarding, and offer various routes to glory. You can boost through an enemy to take them out, gun them down or simply seek shortcuts with the teleport; there's plenty of scope for variety. Much like the classic F-Zero setup, you have energy bars that also act as health that can only be charged by driving over specific areas. Using equipment and weapons drains energy, so finding a balance between self-preservation, bold racing and recouping energy is a key part of the experience.
Each planet typically introduces an ability through a track or open arena area, you then take on a race and finally face off with a boss. There's room for expansion, naturally, but this won't be a game to blast through in a very short space of time; it's pretty difficult. We found that boss fights in particular varied a great deal in challenge, with one marked as 'Hard' being relatively manageable while a 'Medium' challenge against two sizeable tanks defeated us every time. There's scope for further balancing, certainly, and we're curious to see how the volume of content will shape up.
Considering its gameplay style, too, this is going for a surprisingly full-on narrative approach, with a futuristic retelling of the Greek Odyssey, but with Penelope as a heroine searching for Odysseus. Each planet is preceded by some talking heads sequences, and like the core visuals they're attractive and relatively flashy, albeit they're largely made up of stills. Much like the core level of content, we're interested to see how this'll progress. There are also additional challenge missions and four player local arena matches on the way, but not in this early build.
The Next Penelope may not be at the top of many wishlists at present, but Wii U owners that enjoy action racing games - and relish the prospect of a Micro Machines and F-Zero hybrid - should certainly pay attention. At present this is full of promise, and proof that with application and skill even humble code-bases can deliver enticing gaming experiences.
The Next Penelope will be released for early access - with the Story Mode - on PC in late January, after which the other modes will be completed. The Wii U version will follow the final release on PC later this year.