I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but I’m going to call out a certain other review to begin my own. A popular publication wrote that PixelJunk SideScroller feels likes a mini-game and one that “nails the arcade experience perhaps too well”. I’m sorry, but that’s simply wrong.
PixelJunk SideScroller is a brilliantly realised digital offering, and one that nails what it sets out to do with the kind of confidence and flair that even the most experienced of developers struggle to muster. How one can do that “too well” is beyond me.
Q-Games’ biggest achievement here is that they’ve managed to make one of gaming’s oldest genres feel fresh and vibrant once again. The shooter has evloed over the years, made popular by 1978’s Space Invaders and continued through the likes of Gradius, Space Harrier, Geometry Wars and Ikaruga. Despite that long heritage, though, this is a genre that nowadays finds its appeal rather niche, as opposed to popular.
If it’s only a niche audience that indulges in PixelJunk SideScroller then a whole lot of people are going to be missing out. Taking the form of (surprise!) a side scrolling shooter, the magic begins in traditional PixelJunk fashion with eye-catching aesthetics; visuals and sounds marrying to create an intoxicating whole.
The flat neon visuals have had their glow dialled back slightly from other PixelJunk outings in an attempt to create a look more akin to an aging arcade cabinet. Furthermore, the corners of the frame have been curved and blacked out to give your beautiful HD widescreen telly the CRT look. When combined with the funky, electro soundtrack (ranging from minimalist beats to raging techno) the effect is spellbinding and refuses to wear thin over the course of the game’s three multi-sectored stages.
Most of these sectors are set within the boundaries of a cave structure. This adds a bit of a platforming edge to the gameplay in that you’re often required to time your dodges of falling/erupting obstacles and make it through crushing pillars without a scratch. You’ll also need to judge risk against reward as you decide whether or not a power up is reachable before the relentlessly moving screen traps you in a dead end.
The core gameplay is that of a good old fashioned shooter, though, complete with weapon upgrades, bullet hell sequences and fights against ridiculously designed bosses. By mixing areas of relative calm with those of explosive intensity, SideScroller’s pace is one that keeps you guessing but rarely feels overwhelming.
Most sectors house a bonus points area which challenges you with dispatching the spawning enemies and/or avoiding the environmental debris as quickly as possible. The faster you complete the area the more points will be added to your score. These sequences represent some of the game’s most difficult moments, not only because of the often unique nature of the enemies you’re asked to duel with but because the high-score whore in you is rushing to finish as quickly as possible.
To aid you with the destruction of your foes you’ve got three weapons at your disposal; a machine gun, a laser and bombs. As with all games of this ilk, each weapon is designed to work in a very specific manner. The machine gun is your run-of-the-mill method of attack, taking about five or six bullets to end the existence of most bad guys. Your laser is slow to reload but will take out almost everything in a single hit – multiple enemies if they’re in single file. Bombs are great for taking out enemies directly above and below you as a single shot sends a trio both up and down. All three can be upgraded multiple times to increase their effectiveness in battle and ‘looking cool’ factor.
By mastering each of the separate weapons you’ll be in good shape to progress through to the finale. That being said, I didn’t find SideScroller an easy game by any means. I don’t consider myself a master of this genre (so I may not be the best judge) but some moments were incredibly difficult to beat and took ten to fifteen attempts. The frustration levels are reduced by fairly generous checkpoints – a feature made even more helpful by allowing you to restart from a mid-level checkpoint even when you run out of lives and come face to face with the ‘Continue?’ screen.
Despite the difficulty, this is not the longest game you’re ever going to see (12 sectors over 3 stages), but it’s comparable to other downloadable offerings. Plus, for the asking price, there’s little to complain about in that regard.
Overall this is a wonderful addition to the PixelJunk stable and the pick of the bunch in terms of executing a single minded approach. The likelihood is that the ‘old-skool’ shooter genre will always remain niche, despite the qualities it possesses. Hopefully the PixelJunk name will be enough to convince more players to take the shooter test, because this is a game that deserves to be experienced.