A self-aware character is not a new concept but Captain Smiley breaks the fourth wall so often it is little more than powder by the end. He, along with his sidekick/talking chest-emblem, Star, are the heroes of a comic book that is so unpopular it is finding a second life as an understudy for toilet paper. After the book is cancelled they must (wait for it…) jump into various other comics to gain enough money to fund their comeback. So, did Twisted Pixel add a new member to their league of enjoyable downloadable titles, or does this captain get tangled in his own cape?
Gameplay mostly falls in the category of ground-based “shmup”. You move with the left stick and aim with the right. Jumping can be done with the left trigger and shooting with the right. Honestly, given how many bullets the enemies absorb you will never take your finger off the right trigger. The same goes for the over the shoulder shooting sections that occur often during the course of play. During these sections you’ll feel more like you are playing a light gun game where you have to position the cursor over your enemies. The only break you’ll get from shooting will be the rare melee sections where, for no good reason, you’ll put your guns away and be forced instead to punch and kick a wave of minions. This shift in gameplay does keep the experience from becoming a stale affair, but I could have done without the “light gun” sections. The cursor doesn’t move anywhere near as well as you’d like and it is common to have enemies rush you from the side of the screen, giving you less than a second to react.
The main hindrance to the fun of the gameplay comes down to Twisted Pixel forgetting that there is a fine line between challenging and annoying. Enemies that take more than one hit to go down are common, but even after leveling up my guns even the most basic enemy still took around eight hits to fall. Add to that the constant stream of projectiles (some homing) being flung at you from all angles and not getting hit is close to impossible. I’ve never been so annoyed to take damage in any other game, but that could be because I haven’t played a game that doesn’t allow you to regain health except after death. On top of this, for every 25% of health you lose, you get mocked by the game and told to “stop sucking”. Without any way to regain health you will find yourself tiptoeing through the level to keep the enemy count at a manageable level.
It is worth noting that when the game is fun, it’s really fun. You can get into a Zen state where you are calculating angles of projectiles and jumping through gaps while whittling down their numbers. I had flashbacks to Earthworm Jim, Gunstar Heroes, and maybe even a little Contra. The levels start to become a long puzzle for you to solve. I will say, though, that the bosses and mini bosses will always throw a brick wall in your face the first few attempts. They are so damaging and are such damage sponges themselves that, until you (painfully) learn their patterns, you will not survive for very long. My main beef with this is not the challenge but again the annoying way in which they let you continue. Death at a boss restarts you a bit away from that boss. You will typically have to dispatch a couple of common enemies and then have to deal with the cutscene again before getting back into the battle. Luckily, you can skip the cutscenes, but it is always bad design to not allow you to just jump back in and keep the momentum going.
The presentation is the saving grace of this game. While the gameplay has its peaks and valleys, the artistic style always shines. Whether it is the cel shading that captures a silver age feel from a comic book of the 60s or the overly exaggerated anime styling for a manga book, you can’t help but get distracted by the eye candy. The sound design also changes for each different world in a way that is fitting and humorous. You will get jazz riffs in the silver age when attacking, for example.
One thing that I was a little disappointed with is that the humor level is less Venture Brothers and more Shrek 3. I mostly blame the underwhelming voice acting. On paper the jokes could have worked, but they are just not delivered skillfully enough to make it zing. It doesn’t help that there is little-to-no lip syncing either. Sorry to go all animation nerd on you, but it is quite distracting to have a character just start flapping their jaw when they are talking and for it to not really match up with what they are saying. The best moments of humor actually come from the home base that acts as your hub between “jumps”. Self referential humor, more fourth wall breaking, and a song on the stats screen that gives the “donut song” from 'Splosion Man a run for its money.
Comic Jumper does do something that I’m fairly sure hasn’t been done before. Down in the “basement” of your home base you can play the other two Twisted Pixelgames, Maw and 'Splosion Man. Not only that but you can actually unlock levels of Splosion Man that weren’t in the original game. Or, if you actually want to play the game you are playing, there are plenty of challenges to complete and unlockables to purchase. This game is designed in that “play until you memorize the level” old-school style that gives you a ton of replay value if you are the type of player that always seek to better your score. Otherwise, I’m not sure if the 1200 MS Point price tag will get you the best bang for your buck.
I’m not mad at you, Twisted Pixel, I just expected better. With a little more polish this could have been one of my favorite games. I love the gameplay style, but I hate how much of a damage sponge the enemies are. I love the challenge, but hate the lack of health recovery. I love the art style, but hate the voice acting. Gameplay is king in the land of videogame and forgetting that will always hurt the experience. It’s fine to attempt to leap great buildings in a single round, just don’t trip on the roof.