For those of you who are fans of the PixelJunk series, in particular the Shooter titles, Q-Games’ switch to a more simplistic and restrictive format with PixelJunk SideScroller might come as a bit of a surprise. However, SideScroller is just as much an innovation and work of gaming art as any of the other PixelJunk titles, albeit perhaps more focused upon reviving the glory of a gaming era gone by than on puzzling or playing with physics.
Drawing heavily on both retro side-scrolling shooter classics such as R-Type as well as the bonus level ‘The Road to Dawn’ from PixelJunk Shooter 2, SideScroller brings together classic shoot-em-up goodness with the artistic flair and quirky liquid physics of the preceding PixelJunk games.
Visually, the game is as impressive in its attention to detail as the other PixelJunk titles, yet with its own futuristic charm. Neon colours, detailed projectiles and the lovingly-created liquids of the Shooter series contrast well with the deliberate touches of retro. The faux burn-in of the PJ logo at the bottom of the screen, distorted scan lines and the curved CRT-style monitor effect add to the monochrome interface to bring a sense of arcade authenticity to the title, yet don’t let the retro look fool you – SideScroller features frenetic action at 60fps throughout.
The gameplay itself in the time honoured tradition of arcade games is very accessible, allowing you to pick up and play the game with relative ease, yet SideScroller offers a surprising level of challenge. Even on Casual, each stage will have certain parts that require fast reflexes, good timing and more than a little tenacity to get past. On the higher levels of difficulty, enemies take even more damage to down (and explode into bullets when they’re destroyed), and are happy to blanket the whole screen in bullets and lava.
However, we recommend playing on normal to get the full experience, as there are certain scenes and an extra unlockable 4th stage available after finishing the game. Enemy designs are borrowed heavily from other areas of the PixelJunk series, called by Q-Games Studio Head Dylan Cuthbert a “re-imagining of fan favourites”. This combined with some of the staple side-scrolling enemy types provides the player with a significant variety of enemy ships and bizarre alien life forms to blow up, not to mention the bosses.
Speaking of blowing things up, the player has access to three weapons - the machine gun, bomb and laser, as well as a charge attack that allows the player to blast through obstacles and evade potentially lethal enemy attacks. The above three projectile weapons can be upgraded in true retro style with collectable pickups in the levels, and a shield power-up is also available to make surviving the cascade of brightly coloured explosives a little easier.
As mentioned above, the many viscous and in certain cases highly dangerous liquids and gases from PixelJunk Shooter make a return, and allow for some very interesting interactions with the player. Bombs and lava will set the flammable gases of a few of the stages on fire, while the laser weapon will allow the player to cut through ice, effectively forging their own path through some of the trickier stages. Water not only nullifies lava but also cools down the player’s ship, restoring it to a stable condition from critical health.
The boss battles will seem more than a little familiar, too. Like a highlight reel of the type of boss typical to a side-scroller, they offer all the same transforming and pellet-spitting frustration that gamers have come to expect. Defeating some of the later bosses however requires careful management of the upgrades and shield power-up, and the use of the right weapon at the right time – all while under fire from all sides and probably with the inclusion of some of the aforementioned lava or flammable gas. All in all, it makes for an intense and enjoyable experience, albeit sometimes frustrating.
The frustration is tempered however by the propensity of checkpoints and the light penalty for death, with losing all of your lives only costing you your score, which is kept on an online leaderboard via which you can compare yourself to your friends. Even better, if you have a second controller handy you can sit down with a friend to co-op, doubling the action but increasing the frustration accordingly, as both players share lives and one move by a player can jeopardise the whole progression of the pair.
An honourable mention goes to the soundtrack, which asides from the expected lively sound effects features more work by the artists of the Shooter backing tracks, High Frequency Bandwidth. The fusion of hip-hop, techno and in some cases even a little touch of dubstep with the retro-style chipset soundboard makes for a memorable and addictive soundtrack, even if some of the tracks don’t quite suit the feel of the stages.
Perhaps the biggest caveat to all the positives is the sheer brevity of the game. PixelJunk SideScroller is at best a 4 or 5 hour adventure unless you really feel like plumbing the depths of the harder difficulties and pushing to beat the high scores. The variation in environments and enemies however allows for a solid few hours of clean retro fun before the game starts to feel repetitive, and if you find yourself harkening back to the days of Galaga and Gradius PixelJunk SideScroller is well worth a look.
Review by Matt Whisker
-The Final Word-
Familiar boss battles and a few frustrations don't cloud this typically addictive and visually outstanding PixelJunk shooter.