Developer: Q-Games / Publisher: Q-Games / ESRB: Everyone [Mild fantasy violence] / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $9.99
As a massive ‘shmup’ junkie I couldn’t wait to play PixelJunk Sidescroller. I also couldn’t wait to craft a review telling you how unfathomably awesome it was, and how not buying it would be as dumb as trying to have sex with a rattlesnake.
Unfortunately, PJ Sidescroller is like one of those meals that look amazing in the pictures on the menu, but when the plate arrives the food looks like they stole it from the homeless guy by the bins out back. Trailers of its sweet TRON-like laser graphics, chill hip-hop beats, and screen-filling bosses pull you in with a giant hook that snags your nostalgia gland with the promise of 2D shooting glory. But the package you get lacks length, variety, and depth compared to shooters released over a decade before it.
If you completed PJ Shooter 2 and unlocked the bonus ‘Road to Dawn’ mini game, you’ll know where the idea for Sidescroller came from. It’s an expanded version of the 2D shooter mini game, presumably created after its resonating popularity among Q-Games fans.
You know the deal. You move a ship around the screen, dodging incoming fire while returning some bullet pain of your own. There are three stages each broken down into four separate levels – three action levels and one boss level.
Anyone who played either of the PJ Shooter games will recognize many of this game’s enemies and environments, sound effects, and even some of the music. While the gameplay is totally different to the open, free-roaming PJ Shooter, much of its DNA remains here, and is given a psychedelic makeover.
The game looks amazing, with that laser art style that’s cleverly retro and futuristic at the same time, and made cooler by the screen bending out at the edges like an old CRT arcade cabinet. It even has a high score tally and combo system like an old-school shooter, with the modern advantage of online leaderboards.
It all sounds promising then, but it doesn’t live up to expectations. You have access to just three weapons, available at all times (you flick through them with the second triggers). The machine gun sprays rapid but weak bullets, the laser is slow but powerful and the bombs take out enemies on the walls and ceilings, but is rarely useful.
None of them are particularly satisfying, and although each can be leveled-up through five grades of strength, they never get strong enough to make you feel like a badass (like when you have all kinds of crazy missiles, lasers, and barriers buzzing around you in R-Type).
Shooters that lack variety in weapons need to make up for it with clever strategy. Ikaruga, for example (my favorite shooter), has just a single unchanging gun, but is insanely clever with its color-flipping mechanics. However, PJ Sidescroller is void of any clever mechanic or unique gameplay hook to separate itself or engage the player. It’s little more than a point and shoot.
It recycles use of the PJ Shooter games’ brilliant material system and particle physics (such as lava, gas, water, ice and mud) to create obstacles of a nature unique to these titles, but with the puzzle element missing in Sidescroller, it’s nowhere near as clever, nor do all these physics play nearly as significant a part.
Mild levels of strategy come into play when the stage comes to a stop and you find yourself locked in a one-screen battle with a particularly intense swarm of enemies – positioning and choice of weapons can be crucial here. And encounters with the odd slightly-stronger-than-usual enemy also validate the presence of an otherwise redundant charge attack that sees them off instantly. But it’s not a revolution, and the option to add a second player into the mix (offline) does little to aid strategy – it just makes your shared lives cache deplete more quickly.
And my other major gripe? The game treats you like a pansy.
While it aligns itself with a genre as old-school and challenging as the scrolling shooter, it totally lets itself down with a checkpoint and infinite “continues” system that reeks of modern-game-handholding.
That’s not what shooters are about. They’re about flying suicidally into a mental stream of bullets, getting UTTERLY destroyed and being forced to START AGAIN. And then you repeat this cycle until your brain locks into the madness and you’re able to ninja-twitch your way through levels that you previously thought impossible. Then you feel like Superman. Infinite continues rob Sidescroller of this satisfaction. You just keep retrying until you finish the stage. And it insists on taking away your upgrades when you continue – which is nothing more than an added annoyance considering your infinite retries will eventually get you through anyway. This means you’ll see the ending in a little over an hour and the unlocking of Hard and Brutal modes add more challenge, but sadly no more depth.
Despite the fact that PixelJunk Sidescroller isn’t that bad, it isn’t that good either. It’s a mildly-entertaining-but-shallow offering from a studio that’s usually at the pinnacle of PSN development. Top shooters from the likes of Treasure make this seem like a speedily cobbled-together afterthought, and while it’d be perfectly good fun for two or three bucks, it’s not worth the $10 they want for it.