What was promising to be an amazing season for PSN, while filled with good games, hasnít been able to capture that lightning-in-a-bottle - a surprisingly phenomenal downloadable title (the sort that XBLA events always seem to get). This season needs its Flower, Dead Nation, Shatter, or WipEout HD. In steps Q Games with their Pixeljunk series to save us all, or so Iíd hoped.
Pixeljunk Sidescroller is an entire game based off of an extra level in Pixeljunk Shooter 2 that had you controlling your spaceship using a one stick control scheme like your usual Shmup. The inspiration for the game is that the pilot from Pixeljunk Shooter is playing a video game while on his trip back to Earth (very meta Q Games, I see what you did there), which explains the CRT-based screen and pixelated visuals. Itís been a while since my TV had that classic curve to it and it was kind of fun to play a game that not only embraces an old school style of gameplay but visuals as well. That isnít to say that Sidescroller has visuals that an Atari could have managed. It still makes good use of the universe of Shooter and most of the materials and fluids from the previous series make a return with all their wonderful dynamics and interactions, just in a pixelated form. Unfortunately, since the game is a classic side-scrolling Shmup (hence the name) youíll get no chance to play around with these interactions, and instead they are used more as obstacles in the environment during stages. Thankfully the audio is kept at modern expectations and the music is just as good as that in the Shooter series.
Strange gasses and liquids arenít the only obstacles in your quest to go ever to the right, so youíre probably going to need some guns. Youíll have three different projectile weapons and a chargeable spin attack to decimate your foes, and each of the projectiles can be leveled up to a maximum of five. Machinegun is a good choice for a spread attack that allows you to focus more on dodging than aiming, while the laser is more powerful but doesnít fire as often or in as many directions. Last, and in my opinion least, are bombs which 'fall' both up and down from the ship and act with gravity in the direction they ďfellĒ. So if they go unencumbered, bombs will be bouncing on the ceiling as well as the floor. Itís a nice option for tight spaces with enemies planted on the walls, but it doesnít fire out far enough to be useful in most situations.
If your weapons and dodging skills arenít up to the task, you might take a hit or two, but those who plan to never ever ever get shot can ignore this next section. Health is similar to how it was in the Shooter titles, but you can only take two hits before exploding, and health wonít come back automatically. You still get back health by cooling your ship with life-giving water, but water is far scarcer this time around and acts more like health packs than the safe havens they were before. Shields also make a return and they can be a life saver during long boss fights.
Speaking of boss fights, some of the enemies youíll see will be instantly recognizable, but in larger numbers or different attack patterns than before. One enemy type I particularly liked the implementation of were the jellies who explode into water, which in this game makes them health packs that fight back. Boss fights punctuate the end of each of three levels comprised of four stages, with one more boss fight in an extra level. Each had the compulsory multiple stages required of a Shmup boss and enough bullets flying to keep things challenging, but I missed the Shooter philosophy of each Boss having some kind of trick to them you had to learn, though perhaps that wouldnít really fit the new genre.
A different genre also comes with different expectations, including game length, but I still think Sidescroller ended up on the short side. My first play through only took me an hour and 45 minutes on the normal difficulty. After that there was a cutscene and I was directed towards the higher difficulties. Along with more enemies, bullets to dodge, and different boss patterns, the higher difficulty switches up the color scheme, which not only helps to keep things a bit more fresh but really messed with my head when I saw red water and blue lava for the first time. Still, though, less than 2 hours for one playthrough is a disappointment, even for a genre more focused on high score attempts than most. Every stage can be played by yourself as well as with a coop partner, but there isn't any coop specific content so it's just one more way to play the same stages.
Pixeljunk is definitely one of the best things to come to PSN as far as exclusive content goes. A series that changes genres with almost every entry and yet maintains an exceptional level of quality and ingenuity, with only a few titles that donít live up to expectations. Unfortunately, Iíd put Sidescroller in amongst those misses. Itís a fun game - no doubt - with difficult boss fights and a lovingly made retro feel, but its value depends too much on multiple difficulty levels and high score chasing. I enjoyed what was there, but it was over far, far too soon. †