PixelJunk SideScroller Review
The PixelJunk series has always delivered slick, entertaining, and even unique titles to the PlayStation Network. And if you unlocked a little side-scrolling shooting game after playing PixelJunk Shooter 2, you might be interested in the latest from Q-Games. It’s PixelJunk SideScroller, which recaptures the glory days of left-to-right space adventures like Gradius and R-Type. It feels a little light overall, but it’s a neatly desiged slice of nostalgia.
The graphics are quintessential PixelJunk. The presentation has a slick, not quite monochrome style that reminds one of the good ol’ days, only with a distinct albeit subtle modern flair. Q-Games even goes the extra mile by bending the edges of your screen to make it look like an arcade cabinet or an old tube TV. The design is excellent, as the special effects and sci-fi enemies really add to the atmosphere, and the frame rate remains smooth throughout. Like the rest of the game, though, it’s just a little…low-key.
The sound is definitely the highlight, thanks to fitting electronic and hip-hop rhythms and on-point effects. The soundtrack is always a big plus in the PixelJunk games and SideScroller is no exception; it won’t exactly blow up your speakers, but the refined subtlety is intentional and appreciated. Sometimes, the on-screen action gets plenty frantic and as you’re struggling to survive, you might hope for more prominent music. But really, this inspired score is cool.
You know what a side-scrolling shooter is; you’ve played ‘em before. We all have (provided we’re old enough, I guess). This is exactly what you’d expect: you control your little spaceship with the left analog, firing at anything that moves and attempting to avoid all incoming bullets and possible environmental obstacles. There are three stages and four levels for each stage, but if you’re not very good at these games, it’ll take some time to master every level on Normal difficulty.
For the most part, this is a very straightforward experience. Still, the developer spices it up with three weapons, which you always have access to: laser, bomb, and machine gun. All of them can be upgraded up to five times and there is some strategy involved. Because a Power Up only upgrades the weapon you have currently equipped, you can either focus on amping up one weapon, or if you’re confident in your prowess, you can try upgrading all of them.
The game is challenging but Q-Games tries to make it more accessible to a new generation of gamers. For instance, you don’t die in one hit, and you can rejuvenate by immersing yourself in water. Also, if you die, you get to keep your upgrades, and there are checkpoints. You just have to remember that if you lose all your lives, you’ll lose those upgrades (but you can still start at the last checkpoint). The level design and bosses are diverse and really keep your attention.
The only downside is that playing with another player isn’t as smooth an experience as I would’ve expected. My friend blew up but he didn’t return right away; he eventually came back, but we never could figure out why he wasn’t allowed to return to the action immediately. Furthermore, this really does feel like a slightly bland, underwhelming experience. There are only three weapons to upgrade, pickups are generally limited to the aforementioned Power Ups and a shield, and that’s about it.
The environmental stuff is interesting – fans of PixelJunk Shooter 2 will remember releasing water by eliminating pieces of the landscape – but there isn’t much else to talk about. I also think visibility can be an issue, as the bullets can easily blend into the background, and things get muddled too often. The control is fine but in some ways, I almost wanted to use the directional buttons because the analog felt ultra-touchy. That could be more of a personal thing, though.
This $10 package just feels a trifle light on content, that’s all. Otherwise, PixelJunk SideScroller is nod to the golden age of gaming; for the most part, it moves right, the design and atmosphere is a big bonus, and the soundtrack continues to set the PixelJunk franchise apart. But with three stages, not a ton of gameplay options and variety, and a two-player option that seems too frustrating, I can’t recommend this with as much conviction as I’ve done with other titles in the series.
The Good: Slick, nostalgic atmosphere. Great effects and soundtrack. Smooth control. Accessible yet challenging gameplay. Some nice environmental diversity.
The Bad: Visibility can be a problem when the screen gets crammed. Two-player entertainment isn’t as fun as I expected. Not really enough content overall.
The Ugly: “Well, it’s fun but it could’ve been more robust.”
10/29/2011 Ben Dutka