Indie Game of the Week 168: Ms. Splosion Man

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Mento

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Talk about your blasts from the past. Ms. 'Splosion Man was Twisted Pixel's second 'Splosion Man game, which instead followed the equally insane distaff version in a riff on Ms. Pac-Man (and, like Ms. Pac-Man, plays more or less identically to her male counterpart). It will be celebrating its tenth anniversary sometime next year, so what better time to finally start playing it? Ms. 'Splosion Man is a very challenging, reflexes-intensive game that fell right into that period of time where almost every Indie game was a "puzzle-platformer": those that are half skill-based jumping, and half figuring out how to progress with the puzzle components provided.

Ms. 'Splosion Man gets around by "'sploding" herself, which not only damages nearby objects and enemies but also propels her upward: she can then 'splode twice more in the air before she needs to hit terra firma to recharge (though there's a few mid-air ways to recharge also). That is the extent of actually controlling the protagonist; every other factor is determined by what is found the environment. Ms. 'Splosion Man can gain height by 'sploding barrels, can wall jump, can hit switches, can possess certain enemy types, can ride down rails, bounce off trampolines, etc. The game has a huge variety of directions to develop its platforming challenges, frequently introducing new elements to build puzzles around (throughout the first world, at least; I'm expecting later stages to use the same elements in more pernicious combinations).

Meat Facts play a large role in the game. It's unclear why.
Meat Facts play a large role in the game. It's unclear why.

Late-era Twisted Pixel became primarily known for their wild forays into FMV silliness, sometimes but not always featuring Lloyd Kaufman and his fellow Troma weirdos, but any real-life footage is used sparingly here. Most cutscenes instead use the in-game characters, and while the game has dialogue the vast majority of it is Ms. 'Splosion Man randomly spouting off song lyrics from Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Beyoncé as well as traditional valley girl speak and the occasional movie quote: every bit the madcap string of sound bites that her other half babbled, just with a more feminine twist. While this stream of pop culture consciousness is only fitfully funny, it wholly fits the sci-fi Looney Tunes aesthetic and hyperactive energy of the game. Speed's not only conducive to the game's personality, it's also integral to the fun: like Super Meat Boy and other "masocore" platformers worth their salt, steps have been taken to alleviate frustration whenever possible with quick checkpoint turnaround, concise enough air control and the three-'splode system to help course-correct jumps and halt any violently fast momentum, and reasonably short levels that tend to have par times of around 3-5 minutes. Even the boss fights have checkpoints, which I always appreciate but don't always anticipate.

That said, the game is definitely not one to pull any of its punches. Whatever difficulty already exists in the particular chain of jumps and 'splodes you need to accomplish for any given scenario is exacerbated slightly further still by how the game keeps rolling out new mechanics and the speed with which certain sequences move or are introduced suddenly, both of which can make for some wildly unpredictable scenarios that take a little bit of trial and error before you can reliably conquer them; that can and will mean dying a few times to something you had almost no time to react to, which is irksome to say the least, and there can be issues in correctly predicting Ms. 'Splosion Man's 'splode radius when in a mad dash. However, for the most part, everything is intuitive enough and deaths rarely feel like they're anything's fault but your own.

It feels like Donkey Kong Country Returns was an influence on Ms. 'Splosion Man. They both kinda go off on unpredictable tangents, and all you can do is just about survive them.
It feels like Donkey Kong Country Returns was an influence on Ms. 'Splosion Man. They both kinda go off on unpredictable tangents, and all you can do is just about survive them.

The game is also replete with fun extras, including some bonus FMV shot by the Twisted Pixel staff (they had an odd fascination with beards back then for whatever reason), a "2 Girls, 1 Controller" mode (yikes) for those intending to try the multiplayer mode solo, and all the usual concept art and trailers you could want (though probably a lot more than you could want). The cash needed to earn these extras is contingent on your performance: completing a level nets you 20 coins; completing it with the requisite hidden pair of shoes (which are both challenging to find and hold onto) is another five; and you get an extra five for beating the par time. Enough reason to want to revisit stages, and you'll have your own ghost to race against or one grabbed from the online leaderboards if you're that serious. It's a little odd to feel nostalgic for a platformer that A) wasn't released all that long ago, and B) brand new to my eyes, but it reminded me that this particular flavor of stage-based, time-trial 2D platformer were once everywhere but have mostly fallen out of favor more recently in lieu of explormers and 2D Soulslikes. Nice to remember this type of game exists, even if I'm fully prepared to crash and burn on Ms. 'Splosion Man's later worlds and vindictively decide that, actually, I'm glad they all died out.

Rating: 4 out of 5. (Though I'm sorely tempted to drop it to 3/5 after that last world.)

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