When people hear "PixelJunk," they either think of wildly experimental experiences like 4am or simpler takes on slightly complicated genres, like Monsters or Shooter. One common theme is that they're all tons of fun and widely accepted by both critics and gamers alike. However, things didn't always start out so positively. In PixelJunk Racers, the simple one-screen racing game felt like an homage to titles like Super Sprint, but the style it was trying to emulate didn't fit as well as it would have several console generations ago. This game, PixelJunk SideScroller, also takes an established genre and dials things back a few console generations. Whether or not you enjoy it depends on what you were expecting in the first place.
Even though PixelJunk SideScroller is thought of as an offshoot of the PixelJunk Shooter series, it plays out much differently. Like the title suggests, this is an automatic side-scrolling shooter in the same vein as Gradius and R-Type, where enemies fly in and shoot according to specific patterns. Players have three weapons at their disposal, each of which can be upgraded to five different levels to increase their capabilities. The machine gun serves as the most basic weapon, and upgrading gives you the ability to shoot more bullets on-screen in a spread pattern that goes both forward and backward. The laser cuts through enemies and some materials, like ice, while the upgrades give it the ability to shoot in all directions. The bomb shoots projectiles at an arc going both up and down on the screen, and upgrading makes the bouncing projectiles go backward as well. Finally, your ship comes with the ability to ram into enemies if your ship is charged up to do so.
The team threw a few new things into the mix. Players can collect coins to improve their score and shield power-ups to absorb one enemy hit. It takes two hits to make your ship explode, though death happens immediately if you are hit with some environmental hazards — gas, lava, spiked crushers, stomach acid — or if you can't move away from an automatic scrolling wall in time. Borrowing a page from the Shooter series, water not only douses lava but also heals your ship. There are checkpoints in the game, so dying takes you back to the checkpoint, even after a continue. While you retain your weapon levels if you die and restart at said checkpoint, all of your weapon powers are reset to base levels if you lose all of your lives and continue.
If anything, the mentions of old-school gameplay and comparisons to older shooters refer to the fact that the game doesn't follow the current "bullet hell" philosophy. There are no curtains of bullets to impede your progress, nor is there the secret tactic of making sure only one part of your ship isn't hit by gunfire. The bullet hell comparison is only good for boss fights, and even then, it isn't as insurmountable as expected.
That doesn't mean that the game is easy. Checkpoints are spaced out far enough that dying anywhere in between always sends you back, even if it means facing a challenge over and over again until you finally hit that next checkpoint. Boss fights are especially hard since there are no checkpoints, forcing you to really get through the fight from beginning to end without losing all of your lives in the process. Secret pick-ups are often placed in areas where imprecise movement means death, and repetition only forces you to improve. The game feels like it is made specifically for the player who loves memorization and going after high scores as opposed to twitch gameplay. There are leaderboards and the option to record your gameplay and save it locally or upload it to YouTube.
The game was built with the old-school shooter fan in mind, so newer fans will be thrown off by a few things. There is no real narrative here. You start blasting things, and there isn't much of an epilogue once the final boss goes down. The power-ups also don't go with you from level to level, so even if you carefully make sure to boost every weapon by the end of a sector, none of it will matter since they'll be reset when you start the next stage. Finally, the game is a short experience. There are 12 levels split up into three worlds, and dedicated players will be able to breeze through them in about an hour or two. Some may balk at that, but the game is all about getting the highest score, and this comes with the territory.
Another area where the game falters is the multiplayer component. Players can play two-player co-op offline, and the extra gun comes in handy from time to time. However, both players share the same pool of lives, and when one person dies, he doesn't return until after the next checkpoint, negating any advantage he may provide. Also, unlike the other PixelJunk releases, this title doesn't support online play, so unless you can find someone to play beside you, expect to go solo most of the time.
The graphics take on an interesting aesthetic. The game retains the signature bright color palette, but it goes for more of a neon theme than a cartoon one. That neon theme works out well for the vector style, so the game is colorful while going for something simple to render and recognize. The classic look goes beyond the use of vector graphics, though, as artificial scan lines are thrown in as well as a mock CRT monitor with curved corners and bright hues around each on-screen object. However, it's difficult to differentiate the bullets from the background since the bright hues can obscure some enemy gunfire. While it takes some getting used to, the color scheme flip when playing the game at the Hard difficulty level makes these things easier to see.
Despite the old-school look, the audio is anything but. The music feels like a mesh between techno and hip-hop, and it gives the whole thing a breezy atmosphere instead of one filled with dread. It works quite nicely with the vector graphics, as it did with the cartoon color landscape of Shooter. If you have no love for it, you can replace the soundtrack with your own tunes, but be warned that any YouTube uploads you make or videos you save to the hard drive will still rock the original soundtrack. The voice work is minimal, with weapon switches and upgrades being the only things announced by a female Japanese voice. It is helpful instead of annoying since you can easily be told which weapon you have without having to decipher which ship configuration correlates to which weapon. The sound effects are probably the only thing that feel old, but they hearken back to the 16-bit era rather than anything older. While it would have seemed out of place anywhere else, it feels fine here because the audio and visual styles are already pretty mashed up.
The length of the game makes PixelJunk SideScroller one of the shortest games the team has ever made. That doesn't hurt the game very much since the overall quality is good. The homage to a classic graphic style is complemented well by old sound effects and a modern, lighthearted soundtrack. The gameplay gravitates more toward classic shooters as opposed to modern bullet-hell shooters, but the difficulty feels right for players who appreciate that classic style. While the ability to upload your playthrough videos to YouTube is nice, the game seems to be geared toward a single-player experience since it feels tougher to have a second gun by your side. If you want a classic shooter experience, PixelJunk SideScroller fits the bill nicely.
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