Ms. ‘Splosion Man
Got a successful game under your belt and wondering what to do next? Take that leading man, whack a bow on his head, slap some lippy on him and get him back out there to bring the gravy train rolling back into town.
Sound familiar? Twisted Pixel’s not-so-novel approach to sequel creation means the off-the-wall indie studio manages to bank one joke before the game even begins. And it’s only the first of many, a strong and telling gambit that gives a perfect impression of the silliness that lies in wait within the walls of Big Science’s labs.
From the fact that even engine splashes and loading screens seem incapable of passing without cracking a funny or two, you have to assume that either Twisted Pixel is incapable of doing anything sensibly or that the team has simply created so much amusing content that it overflows from the game and floods even the most traditionally mundane screens. Truth be told, it’s hard to complain either way.
While its title might suggest the same kind of bow-wearing level pack as that Midway put out some 30 years ago on the back of Pac-Man’s success, this couldn’t be further from the case.
Ms. ’Splosion Man represents the pinnacle of Twisted Pixel’s output so far, a game that takes what the firm did with the original ’Splosion Man, splices it with elements of Comic Jumper and winds up feeling completely different to both titles.
Even before the opening level is over, Twisted Pixel has showcased a level of talent, imagination and wit that puts the majority of big-budget developers to shame.
And with a combination of ingenious new features, familiar callouts to the previous game and not-so-subtle bursts of parody, satire and nonsense, the team manages to skilfully craft a hardcore platformer as funny as it is satisfying, as entertaining as it is inventive and as utterly ridiculous as it is unflinchingly brutal.
The new heroine fills the shoes of her explosive orange forerunner admirably, his aeroplane impressions and uncontrollable gibbering replaced here with something altogether more… well, girly.
As she prances, skips, dances and poses her way about each stage, the leading lady proves that she shares her fella’s verbal diarrhoea – instead of unintelligible words and noises, she fires off snippets, hooks and soundbites from music’s finest girl power classics, occasionally taking a break from singing to engage in seemingly endless pretend phone calls.
It’s a relentless barrage of giggly ear mischief and, while to some that may sound absolutely abhorrent (she can be turned down in the options menu, if her noise does get too much), its ability to amuse, distract and annoy depending on the situation is evergreen.
Level design, however, is an area in which Ms. ’Splosion Man is worthy of unanimous praise. New gimmicks push the potential far beyond the simple platforming of the original. Grind rails, rocket cars, pressure pads and action across multiple planes are just a handful of the new features, with even classic features like Donkey Kong Country’s rocket barrels joining the fray and mixing things up.
Rather than just being thrown into your way, spacing and pacing in the design give the game a much greater fluidity than its predecessor – there’s an almost Sonic-esque flow, albeit one far more reliant on quick reactions and absolute precision to keep it going, usually with horrific consequences for even the slightest mistake.
While it might not be quite so sadistic in its design as Super Meat Boy, sight-reading a level – particularly one of the later profanity-baiting examples – is possible, but only those gifted with the fleetest fingers and sharpest reflexes will stand a chance.
For the rest of us, there are times when Ms. ’Splosion Man can feel a little like a memory test, particularly when faced with a mess of buttons, switches, lasers and new features and no idea how it will all interact.
Crazy as it may appear sometimes, the game’s concrete logic holds true throughout and even though some leaps of faith might take a few goes, the sense of accomplishment that goes along with stringing together a slick chain of leaps, bounces, slides and blasts is – whether success comes on the third attempt or the thirtieth – absolutely enormous.
Between structure and gameplay elements ripped straight from 16-bit classics and brutal level design that makes even the most pixel-perfect jumps of yesteryear seem like child’s play, Ms. ’Splosion Man is as much a characterised celebration of the platform genre as she is a stellar poster girl for it.
It speaks volumes of Twisted Pixel’s boundless creativity that the game is not only so far removed from the usual by-numbers sequel it could so easily have been but also so much of an improvement on the original.
New ideas come thick and fast, an often daunting onslaught of obstacles to overcome made all the more compelling by countless unlockables, self-improvement and, more importantly, that ever-important leaderboard constantly mocking your best run on each and every level.
With its meaty single-player slog backed up by an equally massive multiplayer campaign (which has the power to destroy even the closest of friendships), the prospect of more levels through both free challenge updates and DLC and the aforementioned replayability coursing through both, there’s a frankly ridiculous amount of content here, and all for less than the price of a cinema ticket.
That Twisted Pixel is already releasing products of this standard – so drenched in personality, imagination and intelligent design – just four games in is incredible.
The insanely steep difficulty curve will invariably stop some less patient players from seeing the best the game has to offer, sure, but that’s just the team’s way of separating the ’Splosion Men from the ’Splosion Boys.