Q Games have made quite a name for themselves on the PlayStation 3 with their series of downloadable titles called PixelJunk. We’ve already seen a lot of great co-op games in the series including PixelJunk Shooter 1 and 2 and PixelJunk Monsters. The latest game is called PixelJunk SideScroller and it shares a lot of similarities with the Shooter titles including some slick visuals, element dynamics, and great music. But just how different is it and how deep is the co-op?
As the name implies, PixelJunk SideScroller is a sidescrolling SHMUP similar to games like Gradius and R-Type. It becomes immediately apparent that Q Games wanted an old school feel for this title, giving the entire screen a CRT like look - complete with rounded and distorted edges like those found in an arcade cabinet. The visuals themselves though are bright, clean, and smooth and look really great on an HDTV. These visuals extend to each level which have their own unique look and feel to them and are filled with their own style of enemies.
The enemies come in three forms - flying, turrets grounded in the environment and the environment itself. While the first two aren’t much different than any other SHMUP out there, it’s the third that sets SideScroller apart from other games. Taking a queue from the Shooter series, the game features environmental hazards like lava, gas, and mechanical objects. These things not only directly hurt you, but also interact with each other. For instance there may be sections in which you’ll be flying through gas clouds only to have lava explode behind you setting the gas clouds off. This means you’ll need to keep ahead of the explosions in the gas or risk losing a life.
Losing a life isn’t as simple as taking one hit, thankfully, instead there’s an interesting system at play where you can actually take two. After taking a hit you’ll hear a warning sound, this means you’ll need to dunk your ship in water to cool off otherwise if you take another you’ll lose a life. This is somewhat similar to a system that was in the Shooter series.
Checkpoints are small circles within the levels to help ease the pain from dying, because you will die quite often. There’s virtually no penalty for dying, other than restarting at a checkpoint with your weapon upgrades in tact, and the penalty for continuing appears equally as soft, though, there’s a catch. When continuing you’ll simply lose your score and weapon upgrades but can still continue at the checkpoint. The key here though is your weapons being reset, and with a progressive level difficulty, you may find yourself smack dab in the middle of a huge battle with a ton of guys with a measly single shot weapon, making that section even more difficult.
The weapons themselves deserve some mention, each are upgradable by collecting a P icon stored in conveniently colored baddies you’ll need to kill. The machine gun, rolling bombs, and laser all serve their purpose offering strengths and weaknesses against enemies and the environment alike.
Like any good SHMUP you can play PixelJunk SideScroller in co-op. You’ll be playing through the game’s single player levels just the same, though players have to share from the same life pool. This means that the difficult game is even more difficult because you’ll be continuing twice as much. Players also contribute towards the same point total and a separate leaderboard.
Co-op is pretty much exactly how you would expect, and it is a bunch of fun with a friend - but it’s equally, if not more, frustrating. This is mostly due to the enviornmental dangers with players getting hung up or killed. The other weird thing with the co-op mode is once you start it - there’s no way to turn it off without actually exiting the game. We even tried turning off the controller for Player 2 and the game still refused to let us jump back into single player.
While PixelJunk SideScroller is a solid SHMUP, I can’t help but feel it’s a bit inbalanced. The game only offers three areas with four sub sections each capped off by a boss. If you managed to beat those areas on the normal difficulty, you’ll unlock a fourth. The problem I had was the difficulty separation between Casual and Normal was quite great and with that came a lot of frustration.
Fans of SHMUP up games will have a decent time here and the visuals and style alone almost make the game worth it. Co-Op adds a bit to the mix, though it seems to be a bit of an afterthought. It’s a bit disappointing as the PixelJunk series have added some unique twists to co-op gameplay with each successive game. That’s not to say what SideScroller offers co-op players is bad, it’s just not anything special.