Heavy on self-adulation, painfully short on gameplay.
Indie developer Twisted Pixel has made quite an impact upon the XBLA scene, showing early promise with the underrated 2009 downloadable title The Maw, and rocketing to superstardom with last summer’s excellent ‘Splosion Man. ‘Splosion Man in particular was noteworthy for mixing excellent and inventive gameplay with a depraved and wickedly delirious sense of humor. This, combined with pitch-perfect challenge that followed a punishing--yet fair--learning curve, made for one of the best games of 2009.
A little over a year later, and we have Comic Jumper, arguably one of the more ambitious titles yet on XBLA in terms of sheer volume of content. Comic Jumper follows the exploits of Captain Smiley, a third-rate comic book hero, and his foulmouthed sidekick Star, who is permanently attached to Smiley’s chest. Smiley loses his own comic due to poor readership, and the folks at Twisted Pixel have contracted him to appear in various comics throughout time, battling a motley crew of adversaries.
The result is a self-aware genre-bending romp through incredibly stylized levels filled with scads of on-screen action. It’s a premise that should have been pure gold. Unfortunately, Comic Jumper suffers from an absurd amount of narcissism and self-adulation that makes this seem more like a vanity project than a true game. Indeed, if the developers had put the same effort into the gameplay as they had the look-at-me antics and slaps on their back, Comic Jumper would have been a far more enjoyable experience.
Captain Smiley’s exploits traverse four distinct genres: a modern day Smiley series, a Conan-inspired 1970’s romp, classic 1960’s DayGlo capers, and a black-and-white manga series. Each genre is broken up into three levels, each about 15-20 minutes long, and offering multiple styles of gameplay within each section.
Most of your time will be spent in side-scrolling run-and-gun sequences, where you’re slammed with an onslaught of enemies who fill the screen with dangerous projectiles. During these sequences, you can fire in all directions independent of movement by using the right analog stick and pressing the right trigger. Other actions, including jumping and sliding, are mapped to both face buttons and the triggers. Oddly, while it is ultimately necessary to become facile with the triggers and bumpers in order to survive the later levels, the on-screen tutorials seem to favor the face buttons during the earlier stages.
Other elements include flying sections that are a cross between the run-and-gun gameplay and classic shmups, though the action comes from all directions. There are also brief and easy interludes where you engage in simple hand-to-hand combat. These sections are entertaining mostly because of all the ways in which you can send your foes flying into the environment, but alas, these sections are very short and extremely simple button-mashing affairs.
Finally, most levels will include a Sin & Punishment type section where you run on rails and move the reticule to demolish enemies on screen. Occasionally, these sections will also have you dodge obstacles or perform some very simple quick-time events.
Unfortunately, despite the promise of variety, the whole game is more or less a chore to play, buoyed only by the promise of a chuckle around the corner.
The gameplay is extremely repetitive, with wave after wave of the same enemies coming at you ad nauseum. There are really only three basic enemy types: ones that hurl projectiles, those that rush you, and those who rush and try to grab you. Yes, each level has its own art design, but they’re really just the same enemies dressed up in different clothes. The enemies are also terribly unsophisticated, positioned mostly for annoyance, and challenging only because of their sheer numbers and the fact that they’re total bullet sponges.
One of the best things about Twisted Pixel’s last offering, ‘Splosion Man, was the incredibly tight controls, which never allowed the game’s steep challenge to feel unfair. Unfortunately, Comic Jumper cannot boast the same, with very inconsistent and cumbersome controls that really detract from the fun.
As mentioned above, a lot of the game is played with the thumbstick and the triggers. While coarse aiming is offered by the left analog stick, most often, you’ll need to rely upon the right stick’s ability to provide more precise aim. Since there are a ton of enemies on the screen at all time, you’re pretty much always going to be shooting. However, by requiring players to keep the right trigger pressed down, the game can induce a lot of grip fatigue. Why they didn’t just have the right stick aim and autoshoot like in other dual-stick shooters is completely beyond me.
Also, the jumping controls are very inconsistent. There are times when jumps come up short for what seems like no reason, and during the hand-to-hand combat scenes, some of the punching animations take too long to recover, leaving you open to cheap shots.
But, then again, this game seems to be all about cheap shots. The game suffers from severe inconsistencies in difficulty, with some sections being a walk in the park, and others being frustratingly difficult. Many sections will throw enemies and projectiles at you but give you little freedom to dodge or counter their attacks. This is especially true in the manga section, where the lack of contrast makes enemies and projectiles blend in with the background. There are times where you’ll make one mistake, and spend the next 10 seconds getting juggled by enemies, with no hope of recovery, which is especially frustrating since health cannot be restored and the checkpoints seem arbitrary, especially during the Silver Age sections.
The boss battles are decent, but again suffer from a lack of variety. Expect to fight most bosses at least twice, with very little to distinguish one fight from another. Most of the battles are pitifully easy, yet there are a few which are painfully frustrating and seemingly unfair. Most bosses have a number of pattern sequences, some of which are seemingly impossible to avoid, so success often boils down to luck of the draw in terms of which sequences are repeated.
Even worse is the very anticlimactic conclusion to the game, which just has you rehashing another level in its entirety and engaging in a few disappointing boss fights. There is a surprise boss waiting for you in the last level, though by the time you reach it, you will likely be so tired of the developers’ narcissism, that you won’t be amused.
In fact, that’s what makes Comic Jumper so disappointing. The developers have fashioned this as a love letter to themselves, and they spend their time name-dropping, mugging for campy cutscenes, and patting themselves on the back for their past successes. Yes, guys, The Maw was a good game, and ‘Splosion Man was great, but two decent games don’t make you legends, and they certainly don’t give you a free pass to float very mediocre game on a sea of self-adulation.
Even the humor falls flat because of the tone. ‘Splosion Man had a few very clever, but unassuming interludes, with a hilarious end sequence and a surprising and unforgettable interlude about donuts that still makes me laugh. But, the thing that made these bits so funny is that they were unexpected distractions amidst some very solid gameplay. In Comic Jumper, the jokes are often telegraphed, and even outright announced with fanfare. It just comes across as attention-starved.
Despite the middling gameplay, Comic Jumper does add some value with the hundreds of unlockable items, including artwork, music, and developer interviews. The interviews are funny at times, but again, they often amount to little more than mugging for the camera, and they quickly wear out their welcome.
In the end, Comic Jumper is a wasted opportunity, ruined by the fact that the folks at Twisted Pixel seemed more interested in themselves than the gameplay. It’s not without some laughs, and there are a few bright spots here and there, but ultimately, it’s hard to decide if it’s worth all of the trouble and tedium to get there, and a lot of your enjoyment will depend upon how much you like unlocking bonus content. For me, the only real value to be found was in the unlockable bonus levels for ‘Splosion Man, which, unlike Comic Jumper, is a game I will happily revisit.