Secret… penguin man
For anyone growing up in the mid-2000s, Club Penguin was the pinnacle of gaming when we were kids. The game got a heart wrenching (and hilarious) send-off when it was officially shut down in 2017, but for 12 shining years, the penguin-themed children’s MMO was a place for us to come together, throw snowballs at each other, and try and see which curse words we could get through the chat filter.
My own memories of playing Club Penguin are a bit scattered — I remember the sledding mini-game, hanging out in the pizzeria, and the rumors that if we got enough penguins on one side, we would actually be able to tip over the iceberg. What does stand out most in my mind, though, is how friggin’ sweet I thought the spy missions were.
If you’re not familiar, Club Penguin basically had a big overworld, with a bunch of mini-games and other interactable activities placed around the map. Once you got past the initial exploration and all that, it was a pretty cut-and-dry experience. I would log in, play my favorite games, kind of walk around and maybe chat with people, and that was it.
But then I caught whispers of a secret organization, and let me tell you, I thought that was the most intriguing thing I had ever heard. From what my little dumb kid brain could remember, I thought the initiation into the organization was a very covert process — but apparently, all you had to do is click on a badge symbol that was always at the top right of your screen.
They do make you take a test to try out your secret spy skills, like throwing snowballs, hiding, and overall cleverness, so at least it’s an exclusive club, right? What’s that? Turns out everyone passes regardless of how well they do? Yeah, that checks out for a kids’ game.
So it turns out there’s actually some lore to this whole spy agency thing that I completely missed when I was seven — the organization was originally called the Penguin Secret Agency, but in 2010 a dangerous and deranged polar bear named Herbert P. Bear destroyed the headquarters with a popcorn bomb. That’s right, it was a bomb that made popcorn go flying everywhere. For some reason this was a motif in my childhood media, but I digress.
After the destruction of the PSA, it was replaced by the EPF, or the “Elite Penguin Force.” The new headquarters were disguised in the Everyday Phoning Facility, which was just a regular-looking office building in the game. I combed through some old game footage, and I don’t recognize the EPF headquarters at all, so I actually think I was part of the PSA before it was destroyed. That shouldn’t make me proud, but it totally does.
Alright, now that the stage is set, let’s talk about the main event of this whole thing — the secret spy missions. The short of it is that they’re little point-and-click adventure games within the larger Club Penguin game. You go around to different locations, find clues, crack codes, and so on.
The art style is pretty simple, and the missions are linear as you’d expect. But one thing that really surprised me while looking back on these is that they’re… actually pretty well designed. Looking back, I always thought these missions were so fun because they made me feel smart, and now I understand why.
It’s not too hand-holdy in the way you would expect, and actually encourages you to think and figure things out. For example, in the first mission you come across a group of penguins who are stranded off-shore of the iceberg, and you have to complete a mini-game to save them.
Not only do you have to shoot the life preservers one at a time while aiming for each individual penguin, but you also have to account for the wind, as you use a flag that has been planted in the iceberg to determine the direction and speed. When I was watching the playthrough of this, I was genuinely shocked that whoever designed this thought more of its child players than these companies often do.
The rest of the missions have plenty of other varied content that feels equally as engaging, and the plot even carries through, so while each one is episodic, they often feature recurring characters and build on each other.
In doing some research for this feature, I learned that the game reopened under the banner of Club Penguin Rewritten, which is actually an unofficial fan recreation. It was a small, controversial project that was shut down multiple times since it launched in 2017, but saw a huge influx of players at the start of the pandemic. It even managed to survive the shutdown of Flash, and has over eight million registered players as of December 2020.
The fact that Club Penguin has not only been kept alive to this day, but actively played by huge numbers of people, speaks volumes of its legacy. Those of us who were lucky enough to grow up with it have a seemingly endless well of fond memories to pull from, and to me the spy missions are a perfect example of what made it so special.
Are they reinventing the wheel in any way? Absolutely not. But they have a charm and earnestness to them that can be hard to come by these days. When you already have such an engaging base game with the MMO, having these bite-sized adventures on top of it felt like a huge bonus.
Apparently, in the new EPF headquarters in Club Penguin Rewritten, you can still play all of the missions under the premise of training. As a long-time fan, I’m really glad someone had the foresight to preserve them. Kids now have Among Us, and Fortnite, and probably something else I haven’t even heard of yet, but I hope that they can look back on the games that shaped their childhoods with the same fondness someday. Times change, but something will always be comforting about knowing I can play Club Penguin again any time I damn well please.