Surf's Up
| Surf's Up

You can't deny penguins have been enjoying a lot of exposure recently. Documentary March of the Penguins kicked off the procession and was followed by animated films Happy Feet and, most recently, Surf's Up.

What's with the fascination? Well, it could have something to do with their smooth, blubbery bodies, fat little wings that look like stumpy arms and Charlie Chaplin waddle. They also seem to be having a good time, sliding around the ice on their bellies and swimming about in the water (assuming there are no sea lions, sharks or killer whales about, of course). And their ball-of-fluff babies are like cuddly, uncoordinated candyfloss.

Essentially, whether in adult of chick form, they've got more cute appeal than Bambi and Babe rolled into one.

Surf's Up puts you into the flippery feet of Cody, a multi-talented penguin good at everything you'd expect – sliding around on the ice, dodging walruses and swimming underwater – as well as one thing you wouldn't necessarily associate with an arctic flightless bird: surfing.

Levels alternate between being on land, underwater and atop a surfboard: the latter requiring you to pull off stunts off ramps and dodge rogue pieces of driftwood. It's a nice mix of action, with the land sections more typical of your average platformer, centred around skillful jumping and working out how to reach new areas, and the surfing more reaction-based, like an on-rails penguin racer.

Underwater events, on the other hand, are slower and floatier – even relaxing, were it not for the angry fish, dangerous jellyfish and formations of spiky creatures that get in your way. With only three hearts to lose and one gone for every bad encounter with an enemy, you need to take things easy or risk being penguin-punched back to the last checkpoint.

At least these checkpoints are well placed – there's normally one thoughtfully included just before a tricky section. Yet, despite these and the relative shortness of the levels, Surf's Up remains a challenging game (especially if attempted on the higher difficulty levels, of which there are three).

Easing your stress levels are the humourous Antarctica-based props and characters that appear throughout the game. For instance, walruses poke their heads out of ice holes for you to jump up and down on to gain extra height. (Sometimes they go for a little wander out of their holes and need stunning before being kicked back into place.)

There are also icy curves and ramps, which can be slid along to get up enough speed to clear gaps. Or there are even enemies you can ride, such as a circus elephant balancing on a barrel, which has the added benefit of squashing any preying creatures as you roll.

More creatures unrelated to the South Pole pop up too. There are, erm, chickens flying about, which you can jump to grap hold of, then repeatedly press '5' to fly higher.

As an added challenge, you have shells to collect as you go – every 100 p-p-p-picked up awards you an extra life. And if that's not enough, the letters 'S-U-R-F' are hidden on each level – finding them unlocks a bonus level to play.

Aside from the accomplished content, Surf's Up is an extremely polished game that looks pleasingly close to the film it's related to. The backdrops are colourful and very pretty, while the characters are well animated. But don't let docile appearances fool you. For one, you're certainly kept on your webbed toes by obstacles that constantly evolve and the new ideas introduced in nearly every level.

Some underwater segments, for example, see you cling to a squid and ride it like a jet engine, cutting through the water at speed and knocking fish into a dizzying spin. Meanwhile, glaciers can be brought down to form bridges or just used to glide across the ice at a penguin land speed record-breaking pace. New objectives at the start of each level give you varying goals, such as surfing levels where you have to out-surf an opponent.

There are disappointments, though. The bonus mini-games you unlock turn out not to be much different to a regular shortened level, albeit with lots of shells. Which means replaying levels to try and collect all their hidden letters is more a test of commitment than something you'll want to do to obtain the mini-games.

Even so, Surf's Up is highly entertaining and more challenging than you might expect. Every level offers something new and the game gives you a variation of action with its mix of platforming and surfing sections. Kicking crabs along the ice and slip-sliding at top speed through levels (which remind us of the ice levels of the PSP's LocoRoco) never fails to raise a smile.

They might traditionally have been popular because they're cute, but there's clearly more to penguins than just blubbery appeal. Turns out all you need to unlock their fun side is hand them a surfboard.

Surf's Up

An excellent, cute penguin platformer with fun action surfing levels. Expect loads of variety, from chicken flying to walrus pounding
Kath Brice
Kath Brice
Kath gave up a job working with animals five years ago to join the world of video game journalism, which now sees her running our DS section. With so many male work colleagues, many have asked if she notices any difference.