The shoot-em-up game has its die-hard following, a rabid base of fans that pick up one crazy release after another. They have to, really; the games are all quite short. The side effect of throwing crazy amounts of things at the player at once is that it’s basically like playing a game on fast-forward. Q-Games’ newest, PixelJunk SideScroller, fits right in with the genre, which may disappoint fans of its more puzzle-oriented, exploration-filled Shooter series.
SideScroller takes the Shooter engine (down to the enemies and environments), coats it with a thick layer of neon retro and locks the ship to face right. The weapons are changed up, with the option of a straight machine gun, a powerful (but slow-shooting) laser and a peculiar weapon that shoots bouncing balls to the sides. Each can be upgraded to shoot backward and have more bullets, and it’s the largest incentive (outside of high scores) to not die to hold on to the powerups. Each of the game’s 13 stages is filled with checkpoints, making the experience more manageable to complete while leaving the leaderboards to those who can get through unscathed.
What makes SideScroller more compelling than others in the genre, though? It’s that PixelJunk feel. The pseudo-vector, pseudo-pixelated levels, each with a special almost-monochromatic color palette and an amazing tune to go with it, just feel cool to play. Q-Games has done atmospheric music before, but this soundtrack is the best just as a standalone collection of songs to groove out to. The team also implemented an old-CRT look to everything, with distorted picture and glowing scan lines, and it made us feel like we were in a dimly-lit arcade with a stack of quarters.
Co-op is supported, and like in Shooter, it’s a great addition that adds a bit of strategy to the twitch-focused gameplay. One player can wipe out large waves of small ships while the other focuses on aiming laser shots at the big ones, or one can be the daredevil while the other stays alive and lets the other respawn without going back to the checkpoint.
There were a few efforts made to extend the length of the game, like multiple difficulty levels and a few hidden items to collect in each stage, but the main game can be completed in less than three hours with no problem. (Maybe two.) It’s just as fun as the other PixelJunk games, but it’s a bit more disposable. For the cost of a movie ticket, though, SideScroller captivates you for at least as long.
Pros: Great soundtrack and aesthetics
Cons: When it’s over, it’s over, and that’s soon