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I Bought a 30+ Year Old Game Cartridge from eBay. Here’s What Happened.

Finding closure with a long-lost childhood classic

Noor Ali-Hasan
Aug 26 · 8 min read

I recently wrote about my Sakhr, an MSX based video game console designed for the Middle Eastern market that my parents bought me when I was about 8 or 9. I also wrote that my favorite MSX game was Penguin Adventure but I sadly no longer had the original cartridge.

For years I longed to play Penguin Adventure on my Sakhr. Every now and then I’d look on eBay for it but wasn’t able to find it. I figured it was too old and too niche of a game for me to ever find a replacement cartridge.

After I wrote my story last week, it felt like something was missing. I was really itching to play Penguin Adventure. What’s the point of getting my Sakhr to work if I can’t actually play my favorite game?

I needed closure.

I decided to look on eBay again to see if I could find it. Much to my surprise, several people were selling Penguin Adventure MSX cartridges! I bit the bullet and bought one from Utah.

I almost immediately regretted making the purchase.

A stream of doubt ran through my mind. Are all MSX systems and cartridges the same? What if it didn’t work? Does it matter that my Sakhr was designed to output in PAL? What if the cartridge was region locked? Did they make special cartridges for the Middle East region?

Another part of me thought all of these doubts were really irrational. The cartridge was from the 1980s — there is no way that they localized these cartridges for each market. After all, I had cartridges that I had bought in Kuwait but the packaging and cartridges were clearly intended for Japan.

The cartridge arrived as described a few days later — I decided to wait until Friday night to try it.

AND IT WORKED!

I really can’t describe the flood of nostalgia and emotions I felt when I saw that start screen and heard the game’s music. Sure, the graphics are a bit more distorted than I had remembered but it still worked. And as I started playing it again, it felt like I was back in my room in our flat in 1980s Kuwait. It was almost like I could feel the warm sunshine streaming through my room and hear the hum of air conditioning and my parents’ chatter in the background.

It was surreal how quickly everything came back — my memories, my feelings playing the game, and my gameplay skills.

The game itself was as much fun (and as challenging) as I had remembered. The premise of the game is that you’re a penguin who’s on a mission to find a magical apple to cure a penguin princess of a debilitating disease. Along the way, you encounter all sorts of obstacles like potholes, logs, and various blob-like creatures (I always assumed these were bombs but apparently they’re killer hedgehogs?!). In the boss rounds, you face off with a fire breathing lizard/Godzilla-like creature. You also collect fish along the way but for the life of me I initially couldn’t remember why the fish were important. Despite playing it for hours as a kid, I never managed to make it past the first few rounds.

I was a bit rusty at first but eventually after an hour or two of playing, I had reached a similar level of competence with the game as ten year old me.

But of course like any person who’s played games since the advent of the internet, I started looking up more information about the game online. For instance, I was reminded that the smaller potholes were special. They usually led to stores where you could trade your fish for items that improved your gameplay.

Within the stores, you can also go to a slot machine where you can bet your fish. Depending on the outcome of the slot machine, you can lose or gain fish.

My first thought when I entered the store was, “Is that fisherman supposed to be an Eskimo? This feels really racist.” And then when I started playing the slot machine mini game, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Wait, were they really encouraging kids to gamble?”

Sigh.

The rest of the game (at least the parts I’ve played so far) wasn’t as cringeworthy.

I also re-discovered bonus rounds. They seem to appear randomly at different points in the game. They’ll appear as floating angel wings in different stages. If you happen to catch one, you’ll be sent to a bonus round where the penguin is floating over the earth. You can catch more fish here and if you happen to find any golden fish, those are worth a bonus life per fish.

Like a lot of classic video games, Penguin Adventure doesn’t offer a way to save your progress. You do start the game with 2 extra lives and each time you die, you pick back up where you left off but you can’t save your progress from session to session. The game has 24 stages and I really couldn’t see how anyone could finish it with the allotted lives. I always wondered how all the people who’ve created online walkthroughs and YouTube videos for this game managed to finish the game.

Are they all that good at playing this game? Am I really that bad?

I then learned that there’s a cheat that pretty much gives you indefinite lives. When you first start the game, type “noriko” and then every time you run out of lives, you’ll have the option to get another set of lives.

Of course, I cheated. And I don’t feel one bit of remorse about it.

The beauty of using the cheat is that I managed to make it so much further in the game that I ever had. I probably could have continued on and finished the game but I decided it to stop playing at stage 8. I do have aspirations to finally finish Penguin Adventure but I’m thinking I may need a few hours of uninterrupted playing time.

All of my frantic research into Penguin Adventure got me thinking, “How did kids in the 80s learn this stuff about games?” My own personal memories is that I learned a lot from talking to my friends and cousins. If one of us discovered something in a game, then it was big news that we shared with each other. I don’t think many of these games had help menus and if there were manuals that came with the games, I didn’t read them. I’m assuming that there must have been gaming magazines out there but those would have been hard for me to access. I didn’t live in the US and couldn’t read English at the time.

I suppose that’s what’s really incredible about the time we live in today. Not only was I able to buy a 30+ year old cartridge online but then I was able to find a lot of resources to help me to play the game better.

That being said, I do think there’s a sense of suspense and discovery that the internet has taken away from playing games today. That sense of suspense and discovery might have been what I loved the most about playing games as a kid. What will the next round look like? What will happen if I collect this item or this power-up? What will the boss look like in the next round and how do I beat it? There was an element of surprise and accomplishment when I found a secret round or figured out a tactic on my own.

For a game that was produced in 1986, I’m now more than ever struck by the quality and depth of Penguin Adventure. It featured so many elements of modern video games like mini games, power-ups, and a sense of humor. The graphics and storyline are unparalleled to other games produced in that time period.

It has given me so much joy to write about Penguin Adventure and share my love for this game with you all. I hope you’ll give this classic game a try through an emulator.

But really all I want to do right now is hop on my floor and play for hours.

Further reading and exploration:

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

Noor Ali-Hasan

Written by

I’m a UX research lead at Google, where I help teams design and build desirable and easy to use products. Outside of work, I love art, Peloton, and Lego.

SUPERJUMP

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

Noor Ali-Hasan

Written by

I’m a UX research lead at Google, where I help teams design and build desirable and easy to use products. Outside of work, I love art, Peloton, and Lego.

SUPERJUMP

SUPERJUMP

Celebrating video games and their creators

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