Pooyan: pigs vs wolves battle royale

Ahh, Pooyan. I game I remember playing quite a bit on my Atari 8-bit thanks to DataSoft’s excellent port — and a game I always felt a bit funny about playing because it had the word “poo” in the title for what, at the time, I felt was no apparent reason.

Supposedly the game’s unusual title stems from a Japanese phrase meaning “little pigs”, though finding an authoritative source to actually back this claim up has proven more challenging than you might think. It does, at least, make sense, however, since what we have here is a fun arcade game based loosely on the children’s tale of the Three Little Pigs.

Pooyan

In Pooyan, first released to arcades in 1982 by Konami, you take control of a pig named Mama, a seemingly single parent who is trying her best to ensure that the pooyan which sprang from her pork loins don’t get barbecued by the strictly limited supplies of Big Bad Wolves that live in the neighbourhood.

Fortunately, Mama is a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and the Pig family’s house is equipped with an elaborate contraption that allows Mama to sit in comfort while she is raised and lowered with a winch operated by her children, firing off arrows at the wolves which are descending from the treetops in an attempt to invade their happy home.

The wolves descend on balloons, so in order to drop them to the ground you need to shoot the balloons rather than the wolves themselves; wolves have notoriously thick hides, after all, so a glancing blow with an arrow will simply cause said projectile to drop harmlessly to the ground. Should a wolf reach the ground, it invades the Pig family’s house and climbs up a ladder behind Mama Pig, occasionally poking its snout out of a window to knock her down from her contraption from behind — so you’ll need to pay attention to these “rear attacks” as well as the rocks the frontal wolves throw if you let any through.

Pooyan

Besides Mama’s arrows, you can also occasionally obtain a lump of meat — presumably beef or lamb rather than pork — which can be thrown at the wolves; being stupid carnivorous idiots, they will, without fail, let go of their balloons in order to grab it if it comes close enough, so you don’t need to be as accurate as with the arrows. Throwing the meat causes it to fly out in a graceful arc, so with proper timing it’s possible to hit multiple wolves at a time with it — and, indeed, in true ’80s arcade game tradition, pulling off a skill shot like this is how you score more substantial points than the basic mechanics provide.

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There’s a sign in the corner of the screen that counts down how many wolves are still to come, and when this reaches zero — either through you killing all of them or the last ones landing — you move on to the next stage, where Mama and her children invade the wolves’ hideout with their contraption, intending to slaughter the rest of them and rescue the pooyan who have been captured.

This “rescue” stage unfolds slightly differently. Instead of floating down from the top of the trees, here the wolves inflate helium balloons from the ground and float upwards to the top. If they reach the top, they will push a rock a short distance forward — and if enough wolves reach this rock, it will fall on Mama, make for a thoroughly unpleasant day and the sad production of another group of orphaned pooyan.

Pooyan

The twist in this stage is that not only are there unmanned (err, unwolfed?) balloons floating up to get in your way, but the balloons which are carrying wolves sometimes (read: quite often) require more than one hit to puncture effectively. This makes for a greater focus on target prioritisation — and an increased importance of the meat when it appears. Successfully pull off this round and Mama rescues some of her pooyan; you then get to play one of two bonus stages, in which you either need to defeat wolves using nothing but meat, or shoot fruit that wolves are throwing at Mama.

After that, the game repeats at a higher level of difficulty — though to be honest given the overall challenge factor of the game you’ll be lucky to make it to a second loop at all when you first start playing. It’s fun, though, and a number of features make it stand out.

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Firstly, the simple theming of the game gives Pooyan a very different feel from other fixed shooters of the era. While cutesy, colourful and family-friendly, there’s also a deliciously sinister undertone to it all that it’s hard to ignore if you’re playing through adult eyes — just like real children’s stories and fairy tales. You know that a “game over” in Pooyan implies a seriously grisly end for everyone involved, even if you never see it.

Secondly, the fact that the game layers numerous other mechanics atop the fixed shooter formula means that there are a lot more things to pay attention to than in other games of this type from the period — be it the “rear attacks” from the invading wolves, the light physics element with the way the meat behaves or the multiple hit requirements in the “rescue” phases. Despite only requiring two directional movements and a fire button, Pooyan can start to feel surprisingly complex after a while, what with all the things you need to focus on simultaneously!

Pooyan

Thirdly, the presentation of the game is wonderful, featuring not only the aforementioned cutesy, colourful graphics, but also a selection of musical numbers that help the game stick in the memory long after you’ve finished playing it. The intro sequence is accompanied by a rendition of traditional camping song The Other Day I Met a Bear, gameplay in the “protect” stages features the Desecration Rag by Felix Arndt, which in turn is an adaptation of Dvorak’s famous Humoresque (itself probably best known to retro gamers as the theme to Russ Wetmore’s Frogger-style Atari 8-bit game Preppie!) and sometimes you get a brief bit of Oh Susanna! when you clear a stage. Thoroughly pleasant.

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These days, Pooyan is pretty easy to enjoy legitimately, since it’s had a release through Hamster’s excellent Arcade Archives series on Switch and PlayStation platforms. It was also available for Xbox 360 at one point, though that version appears to have been delisted at the time of writing. And it’s also available for a number of retro platforms, including NES, Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit.

So what are you waiting for? Bacon’s on the menu, and only you can keep the pooyan safe!

Screenshots from the Switch version.

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