Initially one could be forgiven for thinking that Q-Games have taken a few steps backwards with PixelJunk SideScroller. After all, this is a PSN titles that's essentially based on a minigame contained in another of Q-Games' PSN titles: the excellent PixelJunk Shooter. Indeed, at first glance, there are a number of signifiers that suggest a PJS aficionado would feel right at home with this latest title. The art style is the start of things, the neon, retro-flavoured scenes instantly reminiscent of SideScroller's parent, levels spitting out similar gases and liquids that shook proceedings up nicely in the older game.
But while Shooter was a trademark slice of innovative arcade stylings, with an emphasis on manipulating the environment around you, solving the puzzles that the planets threw at you in order to rescue a bunch of stranded scientists, SideScroller is a wholly simpler proposition. This is an old-school SHMUP: one stick, three weapons, a host of powerups, difficulty spikes and a checkpoint system that sometimes seems actively designed to mock you should you fail.
But hey, at least it's fair. It's also a retinal banquet and an excellent homage to titles like Defender, R-Type, Raiden and, of course, Gradius.
The first thing you'll notice is the lovingly rendered menu screen. The convex edges of the display evoke coin-op arcade monitors, the simplistic neon visuals harking back to an era when playing games and seaside towns went hand in hand. The words 'Insert Coin' even pop up invitingly, although no attempts to wedge a 50p somewhere inside my PS3 really did anything no matter how much I wanted it to.
The Gradius comparison has been widely made, and with good reason, as PixelJunk SideScroller takes much from its 26 year old progenitor. A side-scrolling, firm-but-fair, SHMUP in a similar mould, it keeps things tight and simple. You get three weapons throughout the whole game - machine gun, laser and bombs - easily interchangeable at the tap of a face button. Naturally, powerups will be flung at you from time to time, increasing damage dealt, blast area, projectile number and spread.
The machine gun is best deployed when faced with swarms of fast moving enemies. Pump it up and the angles and rate of fire increase dramatically, until you're spewing bullets every which way and filling the screen with as many bright strips as Amsterdam at night. The laser is your cannon: ponderous yet powerful, it can be upgraded to dish out more punishment as well as burst forth in four directions, useful against other heavy hitters and sticking it to enemy bosses. Finally, the bombs provide some of the most entertaining action to be had in the genre. Firing from above and below your ship in an arc, these badboys bounce along the walls, dishing out higher damage to ground targets and providing some serious satisfaction after you pull off a
purely accidental well worked skillshot.
As in Shooter, you don't really take damage. If you get hit, you'll start glowing, and you'll start Overheating. Get hit again and you're screwed, so you'll need to hunt down some precious water to help cool things down a bit, whether that means submerging your vessel in a welcome oasis of healing or simply ducking underneath a waterfall for some handy respite. The two hit system lends some real urgency to proceedings, which is exactly what you want in a game such as this. It's an adrenaline-fuelled gauntlet from start to finish, getting through by the skin of your teeth, taking a split-second to exhale deeply after a wonderfully traumatic tunnel run navigate through expert bomb usage providing much of the satisfaction you'll need.
Q-Games always imbue their titles with a few aesthetic treats, and SideScroller is no different. The minimalist retro feel may put some people off, but engaging gamers will pick out little visual flourishes, background details and morphing vistas that only get better as the game goes on. The soundtrack, one of the concessions to modernity exhibited here, is all pulsating bass and techno ecstasy, and it's brilliant.
This is a SHMUP, so occasionally the game will simply throw projectiles at you, and the spaced checkpoints to make for some frustrating restarts at times. Moreover, your score resets to the point at which you flew through the checkpoint no matter how massive multiplier you ratcheted up before you blew it. On top of that, checkpoints, like powerups, can be missed - something we only realised one our first run through Sector 1-3 a little too late.
It's a short game, shorted than the Shooter titles from which it draws a fair amount of inspiration, but no different in that respect to the pillars of the SHMUP legacy. At £7.99 that makes it something of a niche title, to be sure, but it's a fine one. Stick with it at Normal difficulty and you'll be rewarded at the end, trust me. Move up a gear to Hard and the game's entire colour scheme shifts, with the palette changing again on Brutal to a black and white display that can make enemy projectiles fiendishly difficult to pick out. Needless to say that we died a lot. Never fear though, as to top everything off, you can plug in another controller for some spiffing local co-op action, although the game doesn't actually let you know this.
SideScroller won't appeal to everyone, and it's value at £8 really must be determined at how much you enjoy SHMUPs. But if you are a fan, and especially if you have a buddy to enjoy these games with, then this will probably be an essential purchase. It's a feast for the eyes and ears, responsive, demanding and occasionally overwhelming, but never less than fair, and it's an absolute blast to play.
- Smooth and responsive controls
- Local co-op
- Aesthetic brilliance...
- ...Although it can sometimes be hard to make out enemy projectiles
- Too 'pure' a SHMUP for some, perhaps
- Value really depends upon genre love
The Short Version: Simple, responsive controls, excellent aesthetics and challenging gameplay make for a title that certainly stands up well next to the long line of classic SHMUPs that provided its inspiration, but PixelJunk SideScroller's biggest strengths are arguably to be found in mirroring those games too closely, offering up a pretty short game that won't appeal to many outside of genre fans. That said, Q-Games have proved that the PS3 can do great SHMUPs just a well as the Xbox 360.