Review: PixelJunk SideScroller

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I grew up in the foothills of a small town in Arizona in an era when arcades mattered.  The town had three arcades at one point, and there was always a giddy level of nervous joy when we would drive into town and I would get a chance to spend my hard earned quarters on the various units in the mall arcade. We didn’t get into town as often as my arcade craving hands wanted so it felt like every time we would go there were new joys to behold.  Lines were always too long or too many folks would crowd around the Street Fighter, TMNT or Simpson’s units, and that meant the titles that didn’t draw all the attention were the games I would have to play.  Time was always limited so as a kid if I wanted to play an arcade game, I’d have to play the ones that no one else seemed to be around.

Enter R-Type.  One seriously mesmerizing game.  Bullets, lasers, enemies everywhere.  Wicked looking art. I had to try it.  I put in a quarter and started through the corridor of bullets.  Boom.  Dead.  Hrm, maybe just a fluke death.  Put another quarter in.  Travel a little further.  Boom.  Death again.  One more quarter. Still only a few paces into the game death confronted me once again.  It was then that I made up my mind that bullet hell shooters (as I would learn the proper name years later) were fascinating to watch, but ones that I could not enjoy playing.  The sheer waves of mass bullets seemed impenetrable, and having nowhere to dodge just put me off.  Why waste quarters on something that caused so much stress so quickly?

I have avoided bullet hell shooters (AKA shoot ’em ups or shmups) pretty much ever since.  That was way back in 1988.  Then along comes Q-Games’ PixelJunk Shooter.  Mind you, that isn’t a bullet hell shooter, but it was the tipping point that slowly, stealthily endeared that which I had sworn off.  PJ Shooter was a fantastic game that ended with such a wonderful cliffhanger that I couldn’t wait til the inevitable sequel was released.  PJ Shooter 2 was released earlier this year and I was again enamored by the beauty of the gameplay.  Liquid physics crossed with a twin-stick shooter.  Wildly new liquid types that brought the first title’s ideas to a whole new level.  I was blissfully playing away and then found myself at the second boss.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.  I’ve been duped.  I’m playing a damn bullet hell shooter while playing this boss.  Ummm… What though, I’m really enjoying this.  Holy crap the waves of bullets are a pattern.  Shit, this is easy!

It clicked.  I realized that bullet hell shooters aren’t evil.  You just have to be mindful of the bullets.  Doh. Of course.  That was my problem so long ago.  I was focused on the enemies and not the bullets.  Suddenly I found myself sinking in and becoming zen like with the bullets, dodging just enough all the while firing away assuming/hoping my bullets would hit the mark before the enemies’ bullets did.

Fast forward a few months and Q-Games announced the next PixelJunk title: SideScroller.  At first there were many folks who dismissed the game, because it looked too much like the Shooter titles.  But there were some very subtle changes that Q-Games were quick to point out.  Sure the game uses some elements from the Shooter titles, but this would be a traditional shoot ’em up.  Plus they were going to add some touches to make the game feel like a true retro arcade, by making the screen feel rounded as if you were looking at an old cabinet tube screen.

I started the game upon release last week with a little trepidation.  I’ve enjoyed all of the past Q-Games titles, but if they were going to go full on bullet hell, how much of their “Q touch” would be replaced by vast swarms of bullets?  I didn’t want to play the game thinking I would enjoy it and then find myself hating every second.  Starting the game, the menu prompts offer Casual, Normal and Hard (which is locked) difficulty options.  I didn’t want to start on Casual, because I felt it would be too easy.  So I began on Normal.  Three stages, but only the first one is unlocked.  Stage one, sector one unlocked.  Let’s do this.

Traditionally, PixelJunk games have had a branding decal with the PJ logo and game version centrally located at the bottom of the screen during gameplay.  Over the years folks have complained on forums how this little decal would eventually cause burn-in on ravenous fans’ TVs due to playing the games so much.  The first thing I noticed in playing SideScroller is a subtle thumb biting to all those complainers.  The white box with the PJ logo is now gone, replaced by a faint burned-in logo that now quietly sits along the bottom of the screen.  I love it.

As I played through the first level I spent more time looking at the level art and recognizing various enemies from the first two Shooter titles, and the next thing I knew the stage was complete.  Wait, was that a bullet hell game?  And I beat the level?  And I didn’t die?  OK.  I can do this! I rather quickly battled my way through the first sector of the game.  Sector Two and Three were unlocked.  I proceeded to move through the second set of stages without any real challenge.  Sure, I died along the way, but the checkpoint system Q-Games implemented throughout each stage lessened the frustration.

Some enemies drop power-ups that boost your weapons, and when you cross a checkpoint the state of your ship is saved. The ship you fly has three distinct weapons: Machine gun, laser and bombs.  Leveling up through power-ups adds more directional shots and more power bursts to each weapon.  The weapons can be swapped out on the fly to help defeat different types of enemies as they appear throughout the stages.  Cross a checkpoint and the weapon levels remain if you lose a life.  This is an awesome idea.  What is also awesome is that if you die completely the game lets you continue from the last check point.  Restarting from a checkpoint resets the weapon powers, but that only challenges you to not die so that you keep your weapons powered as fully as possible for the end of each stage.

Going from stage to stage, your weapons reset back to basic, but there are enough power-ups that drop that leveling them up becomes an incentive to keep moving through the levels.  Artistically, each Section feels a bit different, either the hues change or the wire-frame vector art changes in the background to give a sense of new unexplored areas.

As with prior PixelJunk titles, Q-Games has included a feature for recording gameplay and uploading videos to YouTube.  I’ve always enjoyed this feature and found myself recording pretty much every moment of my gaming experience. (Watch my SideScroller gameplay videos here.) Typically my footage on YouTube gets very little traffic, but I’ve found that this week’s gaming has garnered more views and even comments.  The best part, though, is all of the comments are basically about how bad I am at playing the game.

I admit I’m probably not the top player, but my rankings per stage aren’t at the bottom.  That’s the other key point to SideScroller.  This game is designed to feel like an arcade game.  Scoring is key and the leaderboard is what keeps drawing me back for more.  I played for a while the first night it was released and found my name constantly in the top 40.  In the world.  How awesome and humbling is that?  I fire up the game on Saturday and already my score has been bested numerous times over and my ranking has quickly fallen.  I want to be back at the top.  Points are based on how many enemies you can kill in a row to keep a combo going.  The longer the combo, the higher the points.  Additionally, throughout the levels are three hidden crowns. Collect all three to earn major bonus points.

The game oozes charm and style which extends out to the titles for the trophies.  The titles for the trophies are some of the best cultural references I’ve seen applied to any game.  After beating the final stage, the trophy “So Long, and Thanks for All the Bullets” pops.  “You are the Pris to My Roy” is a loving nod to Blade Runner.  “You Make Me Wish I had Three Hands” is funny nod to Total Recall. Or “Great Kid, Don’t get cocky” is earned for beating the game on Brutal, which doesn’t unlock until you’ve finished the game on Hard. There is so much replay to this game, but by the time the hard stuff really kicks in, the charm and beauty of the game will have won you over and the stiffer difficulties won’t feel so overwhelming.  One final thing to note is after beating the final stage a wonderful little sequence unfolds paying homage to the ship from the Shooter series, giving it an almost “Was it all just a dream” sorta vibe.  For a bit of a spoiler click here.

Typical to PixelJunk titles, SideScroller offers co-op in the form of local couch play.  Even playing with my son on casual with local co-op the game is fun (I didn’t want to completely turn him off from playing and enjoying bullet hell shooters at the same age I was turned off from them).  Aside from a shared pool of lives, co-op adds to the chaos as more bullets or lasers fly about the already frantic screen, which adds another layer of enjoyment to the game.

PixelJunk SideScroller is a game that should be experienced.  Many subtle touches bring out a true arcade experience from the comfort of your own couch, and the tight controls meshed with the bright wire frame graphics bring bullet hell gaming to the masses.  Difficulties slowly ramp up to bring players unfamiliar to the genre into a world that pulsates with fantastic music performed by High Frequency Bandwidth, with an abundance of replay value and leaderboard challenges to keep the diehard shmup fans coming back for more.

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Pros:
+ Unique wire frame art
+ Checkpoint system removes much frustration
+ Music adds another layer of awesomesauce

Cons:
– Shared lives in co-op
– Restart from death means powered up weapons are gone

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 via PSN
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Q-Games
Release Date: 10/25/2011
Genre: Shoot-‘Em-Up
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-2
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.