Twisted Pixel, the developers of Splosion Man, hit the Xbox Live Arcade scene earlier this year with their debut, The Maw. It was an impressive little game with characters it was almost impossible not to fall in love with. For a studios first effort, it was an extremely promising start for them. For me, Splosion Man seemed to come out of nowhere. I'd heard a few whisperings here and there but never thought to check it out. It wasn't until I booted up the game that I realised this is exactly the kind of original game Xbox LIVE Arcade needs to kick off the "Summer of Arcade".
Please note: I tried to keep the number of uses of the word "explode" or any variation of it to a minimum. As you will see, I failed badly.
Splosion Man is essentially an experiment gone wrong. Exposed to some form of radiation, he becomes a combustible anti-hero, hell-bent on gaining vengeance on the scientists and ultimately escaping his lab confinement. The problem is, security is tight. very tight. Like lasers, robots and acid pools tight. And here comes another problem, our anti-hero can't jump, and a lot of jumping is needed. Splosion Man can walk left and right but he can also explode in an effort to gain height.
Sploding works in much the same way as jumping does. Splosion Man is able to blow himself up three times before needing to cool down. To get through the narrow passages in the lab, he must bounce off walls using jets of fire and barrels of radioactive material to boost his way up or across.
The gameplay is a relatively simple concept; get from A to B whilst sploding from platform to platform. Anyone can pick up a controller and get into the game, especially with such easy controls. However, the problems come when the puzzles hit. Occasionally, the scientists will make it their duty to make your progression a living hell and so you must find a way around a door or across a sea of acid. The creativity of some of these levels is phenomenal, and some are just teeth-grittingly infuriating.
Splosion Man, especially in some of the later levels, relies heavily on trial and error gameplay. In certain puzzles, the margin of error is extremely thin, so you will need to keep replaying these several times. A number of times whilst playing Splosion Man I have actually gotten to the point where I felt the need to bite my controller in anger. As much as this sounds like a flaw in the game, it is anything but. The levels are extremely well designed, Twisted Pixel have just purposefully put in some of the most excruciating puzzles known to man. The feeling of finally beating a certain section of a level brings great relief, and in one specific occasion I threw my controller down and jumped for joy (I was at it for about 12 minutes).
Each level has a par time, which are, in all honesty, ridiculous. I've yet to pass any of the par times or even get quite close to them. It takes real skill and trial and error gameplay to actually get anywhere near the par times. Of course, this provides a lot of replay value in an attempt to beat the par times especially if you're a puzzle completest.
Alongside this, you can play the game in co-op with up to 4 people. You'd think, with co-op, it would just be the same levels as in the single player but with a tiny bit extra for co-op use. Wrong. The co-op levels are entirely different, and there are as many as the single player. Playing in co-op requires a lot of teamwork, and I mean a lot. Especially when you have four players. I tend to stick with just two; me and a friend, because it makes communication and synchronisation so much easier. This synchronisation is key because you need to, at points, explode off of each other to get to higher platforms. The fact that Twisted Pixel have decided to create entirely new co-op levels is a treat in itself.
The thing I love about the game is its style. The protagonist reminds me a heck of a lot of Earthworm Jim in his mannerisms especially. If you leave him idle, he'll start doing jumping jacks or juggling fireballs. If you run down a long corridor, he'll stretch out his arms and make plane noises as he runs. Splosion Man's love of cake and exploding scientists into bits of deli meat make him perhaps one of the most memorable characters of this year. There is one specific point in the game referring to doughnuts which sums up the humour of this game exactly.
Of course, there are some flaws, but they're pretty nit picking flaws. The first is the levels; they just looks like bland corridors most of the time, and could use a dash of colour in places, just to make it a bit brighter and more interesting to look at. My major gripe is the loading screen. It makes you feel quite ill with it's rotating colour wheel and annoying looped drum fills. But these are my only true gripes with the game.
Splosion Man maybe my sleeper hit of the year on XBLA. It just popped up on my radar upon release and I've pretty much fallen for it since I started playing it. Twisted Pixel are now up there on my list of developers to keep an eye out for because, so far, they have made consistently original, enjoyable games that anyone can get into.
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