Part of a balanced breakfast
Splosion Man is the kind of character that needs to appear on a cereal box. The character of “Splosion Man” is a hyperactive, flamboyant acid-freak with no attention span or a long-term memory that extends beyond 3 seconds; I found myself waiting for him to proclaim that he goes coo-coo for Coa Coa Puffs. I know I shouldn’t expect character depth in a downloaded Xbox Live game, but I was completely annoyed by how shallow Splosion Man is; he just divulges in nutty animations and “splodes” a lot. And he’s got that de Blob-like “I’m going to cause mayhem to people in authority and you’ll think I’m cool for doing it” that so many 90s characters employed when being marketed towards pre-teen boys. But in 2009, those pre-teen boys are cursing up a storm in online Halo deathmatches, so I can’t help but feel like Splosion Man is missing a mark. Maybe he’s really aimed towards people like me, people that remember what a Bugsy is.
Most of my issues with Splosion Man are thematic. Therefore, they’ll probably come across as petty sparks to any player whose world has already been lit on fire by this red hot platformer, but I’ll digress them anyway. Splosion Man is a walking pyromaniac with the ability to self-combust or “splode” at will. And he’ll splode a lot, splode with such great frequency that you’ll be very sick of the world “splode” in no time. Splosion Man is perpetually escaping some massive science lab, a lab that must be the size of for how many tower-like rooms Splosion Man finds himself trying to escape. All of the game’s 50 missions take place in the same setting, with the same music, with the same Splosion Man yelling “Bort Bort Bort!” like a blasted Muppet over and over again until you want to splode your brains out.
Along the way, you’ll run into scientists, and you’ll get the chance to detonate them into flying chunks of steak, pork, hot dog and other meats. The whole visual is very Looney-Tunesy by design but I couldn’t help but feel that all these hunks of meat are a bit gory for an E-rated game. That, or the game comes across as a glorification of cannibalism. That may seem like a joke to you, but wait until you see the final boss and the subsequent ending. I’ve been playing Mortal Kombats and Dooms for years and I can’t remember the last time a game made me uncomfortable killing virtual humans the way this game did. Also, the game tries its hardest to set your funny bone on fire with a few strange gags, but too many of the jokes feel like inside ribs on development staff and oblivious to the public. That, or they’re lame attempts to create a series of internet memes the way Portal did.
As for the gameplay, well things seem simple enough. Pressing the A button will make you explode, pressing the B button will make you explode, pressing the Y button will make you explode, and finally, pressing the X button will make you explode. Trying to change this controller mapping in the options screen will result in the game mocking you with an Achievement. I’ve always been in favor of games that evenly balance the scales of “simple” and “challenging”, and Splosion Man weighs in just perfectly in that regard. Self-detonation is Splosion Man’s everything; his attack, his jump, his aerial double-jump, his wall-jump, his barrel-jump, his mating call, his reason of being.
And challenging our metallurgic man are frightened scientists, evil robots, gun turrets, rockets and platforms galore. Splosion Man can only blow his load three times before hitting the ground (does the Earth’s gravitational pull power this man?) so Splosion Man will have to split his atoms in moderation in order to clear certain obstacles. The game turns the old first person shooter cliché of the exploding barrel into an opportunity for thrills, as you rocket away from one barrel blast to another, flying through stages like Sonic the Hedgehog back when Sonic the Hedgehog was cool. The game has numerous of these fast-running sequences where you let the game go all nutty and only bother to press a button when the next barrel of fun presents itself. Sometimes you’ll have to solve a switch-oriented puzzle to get around, say, a gun turret or rocket launcher (ironic that Splosion Man’s weakness is firearms.) But you’ll never be stumped, in that the solution to every problem will involve some kind of exploding.
The difficulty curve the game does quickly expand from sparklers to mushroom cloud as you progress. Later sequences set up massive platform sequences that’ll separate you from the floor for very lengthy stretches. Both your reflexes and thumbiscal dexterity will be tested when you need to time your explosions perfectly to clear particular jumps. You’ll die a lot, and Splosion Man probably gets off of self-mutilation anyways all things considered. But you have unlimited lives and the checkpoint system is fairly forgiving so you’ll find yourself less likely to whip the controller at the screen and calm your nerves with a Lego Star Wars game. If you die enough, “Way of the Coward” presents itself, where you are given the option of skipping a level. But I found myself wondering why anyone would want to use it; it’s not like anyone is playing this game for storyline progression, so why skip one stage to jump into an even harder one?
For the most part, the challenging sequences are but a matter of time before you wrap your mind around the exploding physics. But there are a series of sequences that feel too cheap for my liking. In particular, anytime the game throws its legion of respawning floating gun turret-thingys to eradicate Explosion Man. I often found they had the habit of appearing randomly and opening fire from off the screen, thereby knocking you into a vat of acid. I salute these mad scientists for having successfully recreated the Castlevanian effect of knockback attacks that throw you into a pit of death. And then there’s the giant robotic crabs. I’d like to request a new ruling amongst gamers; giant enemy crabs in video games are only funny if the game came out before that Sony press conference. This particular crab throws razor-blades that must be deflected back at the enemy in order to progress. It takes five good razors in the ass and a frustrating break in flow from the high-speed pace in each stage to defeat one robot, which makes it even more annoying when two robot crabs are presented in succession. And there are many of these crabs strewn throughout the game. Why do people tolerate rematches with mini-bosses in games like Splosion Man and Infamous? Does the Law of Diminishing Returns apply to anyone else out there? Finally, without giving too much away, the final battle is rather annoying if you’re not playing on an HD set.
But if all this pyromania isn’t enough and you want to share your love of explosives to the world, then there’s a separate set of missions designed entirely for multiplayer. Up to four players can join in the flammable circle jerk and work together to solve puzzles and blow themselves up for team-assisted jumping action. You can play on Xbox Live with complete strangers, but the demand for teamwork means you’ll probably save this for real friends. Like fellow pyromaniacs in your local asylum.
I think the kind of person that’ll enjoy Splosion Man the most is the speed-run freak. Your performance on each level is timed, and your time posted on an online Leaderboard. There’s also a more masochistic harder difficulty waiting to be unlocked if you’re that demented. I figure that most ordinary, red-blooded Americans will find Splosion Man too bizarre and too difficult to enjoy. Rather, this game caters towards people who feel an extreme enthusiasm for sidescrolling platformers. As in, if you’ve ever posted a remix for a song from an NES game on Youtube, then this game was designed for you. 50 single player and multiplayer levels for 800 Microsoft Money Points is a pretty darned good value, and you’ll probably have that many points lying around after buying any other Arcade game or bevy of Rock Band songs anyways, so give this game a look.
3 ½ stars