The folks at Q-Games know what they’re doing. Perhaps of greater interest, they also don’t seem to much care what everyone else is doing. Racers, Eden, Monsters, and Shooter – all under the PixelJunk umbrella – are built upon the ghosts of game’s past, but it’s nearly impossible to find peers, contemporary or otherwise, that share a similar mission. PixelJunk games are deliberately retro in their design, but treat the burn of reality by not relying exclusively on faux nostalgia. Challenging without seeming unfair, aesthetically beautiful yet simplistically constructed, and undeniably attractive to both casual and hardcore audiences, PixelJunk is its own world.
All of that being said, it’s odd to see Q-Games latest entry, PixelJunk SideScroller, unabashedly wearing its heart on its sleeve. Whether you were absorbed in Eden’s ambience or canvassing Shooter’s geography for diamonds, it seemed there was always something to find, figuratively or literally, beneath the surface. SideScroller, on the other hand, doesn’t pull any punches. The screen corners bend like a ancient monitor, the enemies go backwards and forward in scripted patterns, and god save your soul if you ever take your finger off the fire button; PixelJunk SideScroller revels in teleporting your brain back to the 80’s when horizontal and vertical shooters defined electronic interactivity.
It’s like Q-Games studied the bibles of Gradius and R-Type, enjoyed the modern amenities afforded by Einhander, and then rewrote the text with Shooter’s mythology in mind. Veterans will instantly recognize organic turrets, giant buzz saws, explosive gas, and other elements from their treks through Shooter. This is to be expected, SideScroller openly declares its lineage with its 4-b label, but it took as many lessons from the past as it did from the present. Flickering laser barricades must be calculated, invincible snakes need to be avoided, and a plethora of flying bullets, always filling out the spaces in between, need to be evaded. The multifaceted bosses also provide welcomed complexity. With textbook design and modern sensibilities (checkpoints in particular being a godsend) SideScroller blends new and old with considerable ease.
Your ship has ample tools to deal with your aggressors. Three weapons can be switched on the fly; a standard machine gun fills the need for constant fire while a slower, high-power laser is reserved for calculated shots, and bouncy bombs are available for those hard to reach enemies on the ground. Each weapon can also receive up to five upgrades that typically allow your ship to spew weapon fire up, down, diagonal, and backward. Regardless of your progression, weapons reset to their base level after a stage is completed or if you run out of lives and use a continue. Initially that seems cruel, and it deliberately is if you’re playing on harder difficulties, but otherwise it’s a means to hold your skill in check. By design, SideScroller would rather you get better than make itself easier. And, at least on normal, enemies containing shields and power-ups are tossed out like candy, so getting at least one of your weapons up to snuff isn’t usually too demanding.
As anyone who completed Eden windy climax or rainbow’d every level in Monsters will tell you, Q-Games isn’t afraid to make their games difficult. SideScroller doesn’t often reach the levels of bullet hell found in obscure Japanese shoot ’em ups, but it is hard, and successfully managing five flavors of advancing hell is a skill acquired through diminishing luck and increasing skill (…along with guttural screams and clenched teeth). Your ship can usually withstand one blow before it explodes. Health doesn’t technically exist, but your ship can be restored by either giving it time to cool down or finding the occasional oasis for an immediate repair. I also took notice that, despite the later stages being objectively harder, I was dying much less after I was more learned in SideScroller’s language.
On paper SideScroller’s output of twelve regular stages and four boss stages might seem a bit sparse, but in practice it feels more than sufficient. SideScroller is rarely content to repeat the same trick (I only saw those devilish buzz saws once, for example) Q-Games could have easily copied and pasted their ideas in different arrangements and made the game twice as long, but they opted for quality over quantity. Besides, SideScroller, and shoot ’em ups in general, thrive on repeating a performance until one achieves perfection. This might not necessarily jive with the folks who close the book on a game when the credits role, but, when given the option of casual appeal versus a hardcore experience, SideScroller remains faithful to its genre. There is actually casual mode if you just want to plow through the game or play through co-op, but SideScroller is best enjoyed by climbing leader boards or pursuing perfection.
Rapper 50 Cent, no stranger to getting shot at, unintentionally coughed up a great metaphor for shoot ’em ups with Get Rich or Die Tryin’. This, essentially, is a shoot ’em up’s mantra. To me, spotting a coveted checkpoint in SideScroller is like waving a flag in front of a bull; I see one, immediately want to get it, and ignore everything else in the name of getting rich. I almost always die trying, because SideScroller knows I want that checkpoint and typically spawns a few subtle enemies when a one pops up. But that’s not how one actually gets rich. Getting rich is about the repeated performance in pursuit of perfection and being able to dance around five different objects flying at you from different directions. It’s quite a sight to behold; that old Ikaruga* video is to shoot ’em up addicts what Daigo’s improbable comeback is to fighting game fans. Ultimate perfection is seemingly unobtainable for us mortals, but it leaves plenty of room to dream and try it anyway. SideScroller, especially on higher difficulty, is calculated and coordinated well enough to open a gateway for anyone to feel rich. In this manner it succeeds on its own merits, not just because it’s the only horizontal shooter in town.
Special mention goes to the brilliance that is the final stage. Along its way SideScroller does a lot of little things right (a reluctance to conclude sectors at bosses is particularly great), but the final stage is utterly brilliant. Without ripping the paper off the surprise, the trials within are pinnacle of SideScroller’s merciless stages, intricate bosses, lovely neon retro visual style, and eclectic music; it’s the perfect summation of all of the preceding levels. Blocking off the coolest playing, sounding, and looking part of your game until you beat everything else was no doubt risky, but SideScroller had to save its best for last. Appreciation is only gained with experience, and its prime fault is somehow the rest of the game suddenly no longer seems to be of the same caliber as the climactic final level.
* I understand that Ikaruga is A) a vertical shooter and B) infinitely more complicated than SideScroller, but the general response is comparable.