Pixeljunk Saga Pt. 1 - Shooter, Shooter 2, Sidescroller

Q-Games has really made a name for itself over the past few years with its Pixeljunk umbrella of downloadable games for the Playstation Network. From tower defense to top-down racing, Pixeljunk has been a font of (mostly) positive critical response and fan respect. For whatever reason, I'd all but ignored their work outside of reading a few reviews. Then, in May of this year, a veritable Pixeljunk blowout to celebrate the 10 anniversary of Q-Games – four titles were just a dollar, and others half off. I snapped them all up and didn't really think much of it until just a few days ago. My girlfriend Jamie and I were looking for something we could play co-op from our couch, and as soon as I started to google some suggestions, Pixeljunk Shooter cropped up again and again.

So, we loaded it up.

Pixeljunk Shooter was the one Pixeljunk game I did have experience with, and fully playing through it in co-op turned out to be a pleasure. Responding to a distress signal, Jamie and I flew around in ships along a gorgeous 2D plane, made reactions by mixing water, lava, and gas, rescued scientists trapped in the strange alien world we were cruising through, and collected many shiny diamonds. I think the overarching gem collecting aspect of the game was a huge draw for us. It's a slightly mandatory affair – you need a fair amount of gems to access the final boss – but it was nevertheless fun to really pick apart each beautiful level, even when we had to start backtracking to meet the quota. What struck me time and again was the authentic feeling of exploring an alien place, and often you're allowed to just sort of sit in a safe spot and drink it in for a moment. I'm glad this was our first Pixeljunk game; a picture of what I'd been missing definitely began to crystallize.

Once that was done, we dug right into Shooter 2, and came up more than a little disappointed. Although the awesome visuals and funky soundtrack were still there, the game just felt hollow compared to the original. Worst of all was that the relationships between the various liquids, solids and gasses often play second fiddle to some lame new suits for your ship, among other gimmicks. The chomper suit, for example, grafts a large, tooth-filled monster mouth onto the nose of your craft, and you can use it to chomp through the breakable rock material. It's a neat idea, but falters in its execution; between the awkward controls and loss of your other abilities, it wasn't much fun to use. This was especially a shame since we felt that the suits in the first game – like the Inverter suit that made lava safe and water dangerous – changed up the core gameplay in interesting, brief ways without feeling outside the spirit of the game. Another cringeworthy addition to Shooter 2 was its third and final area, whose levels obscure the map with a thick darkness. This is where the game truly fell apart for us. Staying in the dark too long attracts leech-like enemies that heat up your ship and must be shaken off, and nothing can be used or picked up while in the dark, even though the game teases you with silhouettes of stranded scientists or diamonds. These last few levels led to frustrating runs through the dark, accidentally killing scientists, and perceiving a burning disappointment that this game just doesn't stick to what made the original so special – a moody atmosphere with compelling exploration, science experiment-like puzzles, music, and pacing. With the sequel, I often felt like I was being rushed past all the great sights, and the exploration is largely replaced with underwhelming combat and uninspired timed sequences.

Luckily, Sidescroller more than made up for the stress endured. I think Sidescroller was my personal favourite of the three, actually. Unsurprisingly, this Pixeljunk joint is a sidescrolling shooter in the vein of R-Type, with all of the masterful presentation work and dope beats I now associate with the company and Pixeljunk branding. I'll readily admit that I'm a sucker for this type of game, but this was Jamie's favourite as well. She liked that the checkpoints reward skillful play while still giving you a friendly safety net in case of disaster. I think what impressed me most was the way the weapons felt perfectly balanced and complementary to each other. Although I stuck with the rapid-fire machine gun for the first while, the slow but potent laser and scattershot bomb weapons were both incredibly useful in certain situations. Once I got comfortable enough to switch between them as we played, I felt the kinship between these weapons and the geography of the interiors and enemy layouts. I remembered a particularly tough moment and commiserated that if I had filled that narrow pathway with bombs and cut a path through the ice with my laser, we would have gotten through the early set piece a few checkpoints sooner. Of the three games we've played by Q-Games so far, this is the only one I'm still thinking about playing again, maybe to rise through the ranks of its many (surely brutal) difficulty levels.

Oh yeah. And the voiceover work when you change or upgrade your weapons and hit checkpoints? Wonderful.

In all it's been great to jump into Q-Games' catalogue and see that, indeed, this is a series of games that shouldn't be overlooked, and I'm glad I've been able to start rectifying that. I still have Pixeljunk Monsters, Racers 2 Lap, and Eden left untouched on my PS3's hard drive. I'm curious to see how a more eclectic mix of the company's offerings will do it for me.

What do you think? Got a favourite Pixeljunk game? Am I missing anything? Any I should avoid while I still can?

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Ratchet and Clank HD is out, and you ought to play it

Since me and the missus played through Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One – a soon-to-be-expired Playstation Plus gimme – I've been developing an insatiable thirst to play a real, full-on Ratchet platformer. I considered A Crack in Time, a game I consider to be a masterpiece and modern classic, but I'd already uncovered every inch of it several times before. I took to the PSN to see if the original Ratchet and Clank HD remasters had been released yet. They were! And so I decided to go all the way back to the beginning and play the very first entry in the series, which I hadn't played since it's release nearly a decade ago.

I figured I'd have a good time reliving my twelve-year-old gaming palette, but I was surprised at just how well Ratchet and Clank holds up. It's still a terrific game, and one fit both to be revisited or discovered for the first time.

Visually, Ratchet and Clank HD looks awesome. I mean, you can tell that it's a Playstation 2 game at heart. You won't mistake it for the amazing artwork of Insomniac's more recent R&C games. But it still looks great. Like Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter HD Collection similarly proved, the visuals in Ratchet were ahead of their time. Simple texture work and bold colours were a limitation of the hardware but also worked into the expressive, cartoony style of the graphics, and the effect only gets stronger with pristine sharpness and a high-def resolution. You can play it in 3D as well, though I'm not equipped for that and couldn't test it out. The only drag are the pre-rendered cutscenes that play in 4:3 with a fair amount of artifacting. It's a shame, because the cutscenes are well-done and get you through the minimal story with some good laughs. Watch 'em anyway, even if it does hurt your eyes next to the remastered visuals.

The gameplay also holds up amazingly well; I can't say I expected to have as good a time playing Ratchet and Clank than I did ten years ago. But again, like the Jak and Daxter trilogy re-release, this R&C touch-up cements its status as a classic even further. The controls tighten up when you turn just slightly left and right, presumably the help out with moving and aiming at the same time. It felt a little stiff at first, but it didn't take long to get adjusted. The weapons are still a ton of fun to use, and some tricky platforming challenges have been a stressful pleasure, thanks to some great physics that make guiding Ratchet through the air feel natural.

There's a lot of other current and near-future releases crowding my attention lately, but I'm definitely going to keep plugging on through Ratchet and Clank HD. The three are available individually on PSN for fifteen bones a piece, or you can opt for a 30 dollar retail version of the game that includes all three PS2 Ratchet odysseys.

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