From Left To Right
Thrown out there to face off against mammoth projects such as Skyrim, Modern Warfare 3 or Batman: Arkham City, just to name a few, PixelJunk Sidescroller is in need of some serious firepower under its tiny hood in order to not be ignored, or worse, forgotten, but instead to stand tall among its incredibly fierce competition. It's a good thing the small but exceptionally successful Kyoto, Japan-based indie developer is more than up to the challenge.
I'm not going to pretend I'm part of the older generation of gamers that'll instantly recognize Sidescroller as a Gradius clone (though “clone” probably isn't the right word for it), as I was born almost four years after Konami released the original. Therefore this review is written entirely from the perspective of someone who hasn't really had much interaction with the side-scrolling space shooter genre (though come to think of it, one of the first console games I ever obsessed over was Contra as an emulated bootleg back in the day on some sort of unofficial SNES clone I got my hands on as an 8-year-old – a time when me and my family inhabited a small suburb in India's North-West). However, despite its obvious game design templates, PixelJunk Sidescroller manages to feel incredibly fresh and modern, and perhaps most surprisingly; original.
While Sidescroller is far from being an easy, or worse, “casual” game, it's not quite as hardcore as it's archetypes usually were – or that's what I initially thought. You start the game on either the “Casual” or “Normal” difficulty, with “Hard” being locked away. Beating the game's 13 stages and four cleverly and artfully designed bosses on “Normal” will then unlock “Hard,” while beating “Hard” will give you “Brutal.” And bruuuuuutal it most certainly is. In fact, even on “Normal” I've encountered moments where I was ready to throw my Dual Shock 3 through my closed window – in a good way.
PixelJunk Sidescroller will make you furious, but it will never make you hate the game for its punishing difficulty. Instead, it'll make you curse yourself for being such a weak and incapable whiny little baby with reflexes of an 80-year-old. Fortunately each stage contains a series of handy checkpoints that'll prevent you from entirely going insane, especially on the higher difficulties. But, yes, this game will make you want to become a better player, and it won't let you go until it has achieved just that.
The great thing about playing through Sidescroller on its four different difficulty levels is that the playing experience won't just get more challenging with more numerous and different enemy-types shooting a higher number of bullets at you at a much faster pace, but the game also changes its visual style dramatically as you progress from “Casual” to “Brutal.” Without spoiling things too much, the higher the difficulty, the further you move back through time (and space). Yes, Sidescroller features what I'd describe is a modern, high-gloss, “games are art” take on the audio/visual style of 80s 8-bit classics. It's a presentational choice that's incredibly addictive and that'll keep you coming back for more, even if the core experience doesn't change all too much really – ignoring the much higher challenge, of course.
The most fascinating aspect is that the game is made almost entirely from PixelJunk Shooter 2 assets. And yet, with the exception of the familiar enemies and basic control scheme (you can spin-attack enemies when holding down L1 – just like in the Shooter games), Sidescroller never even gets close to feeling as if it were merely a smaller side project that evolved from the creation of those other games – though in all fairness it must be said that it most certainly is just that.
I could go on and on about how beautiful this game is, but something that certainly more than deserves a mention is its fantastic sound-design. The PixelJunk series has a history of featuring some of the most unique and greatest ambient-/electro-/hip-hop-/techno-/somethingelse-tunes to go along with its unmistakable visual style, often times creating an audio-visual experience that could easily just run in the background at some fancy night club. It's not hard to imagine some VIP lounge engulfing everyone in its fascinatingly mysterious digital form of art that just so happens to be a videogame - a videogame you owe it to yourself to have played. Go buy this game.