Yes, Ms. Splosion Man has a bow in her hair, but that's not the only thing Twisted Pixel has added in this sequel to its punishing platformer from two summers (of Arcade) ago. Within the game's scores of levels, there's a number of new gadgets and doohickeys to bounce on and 'splode into, and the game's periphery is chock-full of the kind of video-based madness these guys have become known for since, well, the ending of the original Splosion Man. Given all the improvements and additions and craziness, though, it's a little disappointing that I didn't enjoy playing this sequel as much as the first one.
This is certainly a livelier and more vibrant game than before. Those new doohickeys include grind rails, flying cars, exploding barrels with saddles on them, and a purple bomb that shoots you between the fore- and background. Twisted Pixel's standard-setting Beard Engine has also evolved to make basic cinematic effects like depth of field more prominent, and the artists have run a little wilder than the first game's sterile lab environments with some tropical and futuristic urban settings as well. There's even a world map for each of the three areas, and finding secret exits in some levels will open up optional hidden levels elsewhere. The up-to-four-player multiplayer mode also returns from the first game, again with its own set of levels. On the surface it all sort of feels like the Super Mario World to the first game's Super Mario Bros.
New window dressing notwithstanding, it's important (and probably not surprising) to know the basic action and controls here haven't changed one iota, so if you didn't care for the insanely rigorous triple-jump puzzle-platforming in Splosion Man, nothing here is going to reel you in either. On the contrary, that stagnation and some awkward-feeling level layouts might actually put off players, like me, who gladly gritted their teeth through the original. There was an elegance to the design of that first game, where you had to hit switches, wall-jump, and bounce off of explosion points with speed and surety to make it to the end of each level. Sure, there was some repetition and more dying involved in feeling your way through each stage, but it felt like as long as you were precisely hitting your cues, you would generally splode your way to safety.
At the risk of straying into some kind of abstract hard-game design-theory class that I'm in no way qualified to teach, some of Ms. Splosion Man's levels don't feel as well thought-out as in the last game, particularly in light of the sluggish, awkward way the character herself moves. Maybe my patience for this kind of thing was ruined by Super Meat Boy, the current hard-game gold standard on consoles, and a game where the controls are so pinpoint-precise that you could frequently air-control your way out of a bad situation and narrowly avoid dying. Consequently, every death in that game felt like it was your fault. By contrast, Ms. Splosion Man takes forever to get running at full speed, and you don't have much air control. Since the game is constantly throwing obstacles at you that require some guesswork to get through if you haven't seen them before, you get into a lot of situations where you're just forced to eat it after making a bad call. Is that barrel emitter the kind that holds barrels in place or the kind that drops them straight down? Oh, it was the other kind? Back to the checkpoint before the last three major obstacles I already cleared. At least I learned my way through another small piece of the level. It just gets tedious.
The game also gets a little sloppy with things like camera work and window dressing. There are a few too many instances where some wonky camera angle obscures the next hotspot you need to splode off of, and it's downright baffling that multiple levels throw foreground objects (which include flying sharks, to be fair) right in front of where your character is supposed to be. I'm all for a little rote level memorization when it makes sense, but here it feels like that's the only reliable method of inching your way through most of the levels, when tighter controls and cleaner presentation would give more room for feeling that rush when you narrowly scrape through a sequence your first time. Some of the levels are absolutely better than others and do allow for that, but the less elegant ones drag the whole experience down. Other stupid-hard games like Meat Boy, Limbo, and Trials have made the trial-and-error thing fun with faster respawns and better checkpointing, so as much as I enjoyed the first Splosion Man, it was disappointing to feel like the sequel doesn't live up to the current standards for this kind of game, especially since the spirit of this franchise (and all of Twisted Pixel's games) is so lovable.
That absurdist spirit is alive in Ms. Splosion Man. It's a little ironic that the surreal ending of the first game--born as it was out of the necessity of limited time and resources--was seemingly the flashpoint that led Twisted Pixel into its bizarre embrace of both full-motion video and balls-out insanity, but here we are. This game lets you spend an in-game currency on some wonderfully cheesy music videos, green-screen outtakes, and other production trinkets, and I also think it's neat that you can just straight-up buy the Xbox-specific gamer pics and avatar awards with the same currency in that store. Things are even more ludicrous in-game, where your character constantly spouts girly '90s pop lyrics from the likes of En Vogue and Ace of Base, and there's yet another Total Recall-related non sequitur to be had. The all-video ending, of course, is as stupidly great as you would hope, and the unexpected format of the last boss fight nearly rescues the entire game from its faults. Though, it's probably telling that it was such a relief to find out that fight doesn't play anything like the rest of the game.
Ms. Splosion Man requires a saintly degree of patience to properly enjoy, but if you can muster it in your heart to forgive the rough spots, there's plenty more tough-as-nails platforming to be had here (an enormous amount for the $10 asking price, really). I love what Twisted Pixel does--in some ways, there's no other developer doing it exactly the same way right now--but as much as I also love beards, games like this make me wish they'd focus a little more on producing things that are more fun to actually play.