A buddy and I restarted one of the first levels for at least the third time in 15 minutes. He’d gone past the point of simply cursing at the moving labyrinth of bullets that would slide across the screen and tear his ship apart if he didn’t move with gentle precision.
Now he was pleading with me. “Can we just switch it to easy?” he asked. “No!” I said, moving my ship awkardly through enemy fire while cutting through ranks of enemy ships with my laser fire. I was trying to recall the muscle memory of my younger days in the 90s when I’d play hellishly difficult 2D sidescrolling shooters for hours on the Turbografix 16.
Q-Games’ Pixeljunk Sidescroller, a “small” three to four hour sidescrolling spaceship shooter, was unapologetically backhanding us with bullets, spikes, mortars, and lava every time we’d take our eyes off of any moving part of its game world.
I didn’t care. I felt like a kid again.
After I went back home and delved back into the game in solo play, I started getting the hang of all of the tools. Like many old games from the 80s and 90s, Sidescroller trusts that the player will learn on their own when shown a few simple rules and behaviours; the machine guns are great for filling areas with moderately damaging bullets, bombs fire upwards and downwards simultaneously to take out the many wall-hugging enemies, and lasers charge up and fire straight through rows of foes.
One-time use powerups pop out of enemies to enhance your weapons, often with the end result of having each of your weapons cover large sections of the screen with projectiles after each shot.
Although I was able to stick with lasers as my dominant favorite, the levels smartly reward you for experimenting with your abilities by mixing up enemies and level design; ice can only be cut through with laser shots, rocks are most easily blasted away with machine guns. One level had me stuck inside of a rolling ball of metal as it plummeted down a hill while being sprayed with lava; by switching to my under-used bombs, which roll around on smooth surfaces, I was able to keep the inside of my tumbling shelter clear of enemies.
Even after making it through the whole game on normal difficulty, I still didn’t understand the point of the one additional ability, the dash. After holding down the dash button for a little over a second, you’re able to jolt forward and plow through several enemies. Because you aren’t able to fire your weapons throughout that whole process, I found that I could be much more effective if I just avoided using the ability entirely in favour of just relying on my weapons. In fact, the only time I found the dash useful was when I was taken out by a surprise appearance of one of the stronger enemies, so that I’d just have a charge ready for it after respawning at one of the game’s several well-placed checkpoints.
I can appreciate figuring out nuances of abilities on my own, but there are also additional periods of invulnerability after the dash move that, even in the in-game manual, aren’t even mentioned. It doesn’t really seem practical to bother exploring those nuances when the standard weapons work so well, but the game should provide some sort of resource for players who want to learn about those tricks.
The weapons are a big part of what defines Pixeljunk Sidescroller‘s gameplay, but the striking way that the game looks and moves is what everyone’s going to notice when they see it for the first time. Hard angular lines are illuminated in fluorescent primary colors straight out of glow in the dark bowling alleys, and the environments pulse and change with their characteristic hazards and fluid dynamics. While many developers of sidescrolling shooters are still busy recycling old development philosophies involving filling screens with bullets, Sidescroller recolors the adventure flavoured environments of Pixeljunk Shooter with its own visual flair and sidescrolling shooter sensibilities.
The visual treat of Pixeljunk Sidescroller isn’t executed perfectly. Co-op play makes it extremely hard to keep track of every player’s place. While I managed to do so because of years of experience in scrolling 2D shooters, my co-op compatriot had a hell of a time doing so even after we turned on the ‘ship identifier’ menu option, which simply changed the color of our ships. Games don’t have to cater to every denomination of player, but it’s odd that an option intended to help players discern their ship doesn’t even go so far as to put a small number or indicator in a noticeable place.
The visuals are definitely the most striking element of Sidescroller, but the music is what stuck with me even after I’d begun to sit down and write this review. I feel like the mild notes of puffs of explosions and pops of gunfire are quiet in order to make room for the soundtrack. The odd mix of heavy bass, subtle vocals, and crackling pseudo-chiptune riffs had me dialing up several parts of the amp for my headphones on several occasions. In fact, I stopped writing this review during the third paragraph to scour the internet and the Playstation Network for any sort of digital copy of the music for this game. Q-Games definitely knows their electronica.
It probably says something about Sidescroller when I say that I don’t want to mention the last level of the game or any of the later bosses. It doesn’t matter that the length of a single playthrough of Pixeljunk Sidescroller can be completed in a few hours. The richness of the surprises that the game offers in its creative use of established environments and unique late-game bosses justify the manageable $10 price tag.
I spent the majority of my time past the completion of Sidescroller trying to think of anything in the game that could be justified as a negative. Even the reuse of enemy types and environmental themes from the Pixeljunk universe is a part of the end game surprise and the overall clever and reverent nature of the game. Sure, the last chapter of the game is unavailable to anyone who plays through the game on easy, but anyone patient and tough enough to figure out the puzzling mazes of bullets and hazards will appreciate why I wouldn’t switch to easy difficulty, co-op buddy be damned.
-Clever end-game finale for people who complete the game on Normal or higher
-Enemy placements and environmental hazards keep gameplay fresh
-The three weapons provided are incredibly useful
-Ship identifier option should’ve made each co-op player easier to differentiate from one another
-Dash attack could’ve been explained better in the in-game manual