No series of games is more synonymous with PSN than Q Games’s PixelJunk series. Spanning across numerous genres, each game in the PixelJunk series is a unique, creative take on an established genre — PixelJunk Racer was a fun (albeit hard) throwback to 2D racers on the NES, Monsters was an excellent tower defense style strategy game, and Eden was an indescribably beautiful take on 2D platforming. 2009’s PixelJunk Shooter was perhaps the most innovative in the series so far, marrying elements of a twin-stick shooter, a Metroid-style adventure game, and a physics based puzzle game into one amazing package. Now, Q-Games has given us their take on the traditional side-scrolling shooter, and while the result isn’t as fresh or innovative as their previous products, it’s still a solid game in it’s own right.
While at first glance it may resemble the free-roaming PixelJunk Shooter, Sidescroller is, as it’s name suggests, an on-rails, sidescrolling shooter, in the vein of classic horizontal SHMUPS like R-Type and Gradius, but while Sidescroller is a horizontal SHMUP, its shooting mechanics are most closely ties to Treasure’s acclaimed Saturn vertical SHMUP, Radiant Silvergun, in that you don’t collect new weapons as you progress, but rather have access to all 3 of your ships different types of shots (a standard rapid-fire machine gun, a multiple direction, penetrating lazer, and a bomb that’s useful for dealing with enemies above or below you,) from the start of the game. It’s obvious that the team at Q-Games are fans of classic shooters, and they managed to cull the very best ideas from these classic games; just as in Radiant Silvergun, knowing when and where to use each weapon adds a layer of depth and skill to the game’s otherwise simple mechanics, and like Gradius, the scrolling environments are filled with all sorts of obstacles and traps that make navigating the linear environments surprisingly engaging.
While Sidescroller draws lots of inspiration from the classics, it also manages to establish it’s own identity. Like PixelJunk Shooter before it, Sidescroller rewards players who make clever use of their environment: the laser weapon can shoot through ice for instance, allowing you to carve your own path through certain levels, while other levels use the same clever lava/water physics that Shooter did. You’ll never have to solve any puzzles a-la Shooter’s, but the added element of being able to alter the environments adds some depth to the otherwise linear, constantly scrolling stages. Also, despite the stages constantly scrolling forward on a fixed path, Shooter still has an element of exploration: numerous collectibles are hidden in the nooks and crannies of every level, providing rewards for players who’re willing to fly through some tight spaces or go off the beaten path. It’s this level of environmental interactivity that separates Shooter from it’s arcade predecessors, and finding everything in the game adds a lot of replay value.
Sidescroller also manages to set itself apart from other shooters with it’s aesthetics; like other PixelJunk games, everything has a simple, unique style to it that, despite the pretty frantic gameplay, feels relaxed,laid back, and cool. The music is, as expected, excellent, and the soundtrack is an example of the rare kind of videogame music that’s still worth listening to outside of the game. Visually, the game is a cross between Shooter’s cartoon style and an 70’s, monochromatic arcade game, complete with a slight bevel to the game’s screen and some screen blur. It’s restrained use of color and shape will likely make any design majors out their cream their jeans, and unlike most modern SHMUPs, doesn’t try to overwhelm you with a billion things on screen, but shows how creative minimalism can be used to create visuals that are just as memorable as those in games with million dollar budgets that require brand new graphics cards.
But as much as I loved Sidescroller, it still has it’s flaws. Like PixelJunk Shooter 2, I found the game to be too hard at times; now, before you go and accuse me of being a “noob,” I don’t mind difficulty in games. I’m a veteran of old-school Mega Man games and Demon’s Souls, and I love a fair challenge, but at times, Sidescroller simply seems way too demanding. You simply need pixel-accurate precision movement and lightning-quick timing in order to get past certain parts of the game, and while I think I’m pretty good at video games, it seems like parts of Sidescroller were designed with SHMUP savants in mind. There’s a casual difficulty for less skilled gamers, but I found that mode has the opposite problem– It was too easy and I blew threw it in less than an hour, so easy mode was too easy for me while normal mode seemed to hard at times. Again, I don’t mind a challenge, but it just seems like Sidescroller’s difficulty curve could use a bit of balancing.
But despite the occasionally frustrating spike in difficulty, Sidescroller is still a solid, old-school shooter that’s undoubtedly worth the game’s low ten dollar price-tag. Between finding all the secrets, going for high scores and the leaderboards, mastering the game’s nuanced weapon-switching, or simply playing for the purpose of hearing the game’s exquisite soundtrack, there’s a lot of reasons to keep playing Sidescroller after you finish your first run through the game’s single player campaign… and if you get tired of doing it by yourself, there’s a co-op mode as well. PixelJunk Sidescroller is definitely worth your time and money, and while you may chuck your controller once or twice in frustration, you’ll almost always pick it up again and keep playing.
Final Score: 8/10