PixelJunk SideScroller review for PSN

Platform: PS3, PSN
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Q-Games
Medium: Digital Download
Players: 1-2
Online: Leaderboards

Writing a review for a game that’s great is harder than it seems, because while people are ready to pay attention to a warning and egregious nitpicking about a piece of content, praise can come off as contrived marketing or reading like a well-formed press release that’s either boring, derivative, or best of all hyperbolic.

Also I never know what to say except that you should just be playing it and enjoying for yourself all the things that I got to find out first-hand before any impressions or demos were available.  PixelJunk SideScroller falls into this category because even though you know exactly a sidescrolling shooter is (like the title, get it?), you don’t know what clever twist Q-Games has come up with to validate a subversive extension to the two Shooter titles and follow up their finale in PJS2– a section that broke the mold which twin-stick games had been cast over with since Project Gotham Racing 2 brought us Geometry Wars in favor of classic sensibilities. Not only did it step back at least a generation, but it felt great.

What I’m saying is that you’re stupid if you waited as long to read this review for an opinion on PixelJunk SideScroller as I did to finally write it.

Q-Games makes us all feel smart, however, by providing 13 levels of challenging shmup levels to conquer for a low price of “affordable and reasonable” that we can buy, own, and play to our heart’s content.  More importantly, it’s another successful entry into the PixelJunk series, which means that I don’t have to start questioning the future of the PJ pedigree like I did last time when I said that the Shooter franchise was about to run out of steam right quick without some fantastic reasons to make a third.  As it turns out, the most fantastic reason yet was to stylize it so far back into the 70’s that it looked like an old arcade machine with some modern conveniences.

This is where reviewing the came becomes tiresome, because I’m bored myself even talking about the gameplay– there’s nothing new here in any form.  It’s got hidden collectables, high scores to beat, trophies, enemies, mini and regular bosses, and weapons to level up and rotate between just like you’d expect.  Everything about the gameplay is exactly what you’d expect.  It’s awesome.  You don’t need to know anything more than that.

More interesting are the visuals, which are a refreshing neon take on the Shooter franchise without drawing too much of a comparison to other games that I already mentioned once, or twice since I’m about to say Geometry Wars.  There’s also Super laser Racer, and Geometry Wars 2, and Bullet Candy, and Gravity Crash, and some of Beat Hazard.  Oh, and a game called Scoregasm.  And also Pac-Man CE, and Pac-Man CE DX, and Geospark– but who’s keeping track? The important thing to notice is the CRT curved overlay laid down to simulate an older tube screen.

The real star of the show is one of the chillest soundtracks you’ll hear all year.  The audio work is not only stand-out in PixelJunk SideScroller, but touches like the female V.O. that announces the status changes lines with intentional pronunciations of “levelu” serve to set a stage of some haunted Japanese arcade machine that had been long forgotten.  Modern sensibilities in sound design, coupled with a tongue-in-cheek direction for the game as a whole play a large part in building this stylized world that SideScroller is supposed to exist within, and works on a level that I’ve never appreciated more in a PixelJunk game.

Enough about all the stupid stuff that I liked.  At this point you should be playing SideScroller, because despite it walking a well-worn path down shmup lane, it’s just as compelling as any of Q-Games’ more experimental titles.  SideScroller should actually be an easier sell, being more traditional, since all you need to know is how much of a baby you are about challenging games and what you can handle.  I don’t mean games that challenge you to think differently by the way– this isn’t one of those articles.  What I mean is that it’s not going to be the walk in the park that these arcade revival shooters tend to be, but if you’ve played one PixelJunk game then you’ve played them all; each one exercises a simple control scheme which is versatile enough to be tested under an at-times steep difficulty curve.

I still have a lot to play this year, but the few hours that it took to wrestle out SideScroller’s trophy for completing all of its levels are one of my fondest memories of recent in 2011.  That should at least count for something, if not anything.

Grade: A-