'Splosion Man is such a demandingly fast-paced and sometimes maddeningly difficult action game that I can't decide if I should praise the developers at Twisted Pixel for creating this throwback to the days when all games were that way--or despise them for the abuse I've suffered at their hands. But looking back on this lengthy 2D platformer, I'll lean toward praise, because 'Splosion Man is every bit as satisfying, fun, and charmingly oddball as it is grueling to complete.
In 'Splosion Man you're some kind of science experiment gone wrong, a walking, quipping fireball who, well, 'splodes every chance he gets. You explode to jump, explode to attack, explode to do just about everything. Exploding lets you kill robotic enemies and innocuous but no doubt nefarious lab-coated scientists; bust through obstacles and throw switches and levers; and bounce off of ubiquitous barrels and explosive toxic waste to catch huge amounts of air. It's the one and only way you do everything in the game, making this a pretty simple game to play (but, as the saying goes, a hard one to master).
The 50 or so levels of the single-player game in 'Splosion Man are all set up like elaborate, breakneck puzzles that demand split-second precision as you navigate increasingly--and after a while, insanely--complex combinations of wall jumps, triple jumps, moving platforms, lethal laser barriers, conveyor belts, rising flood waters, crushing spiked pistons, pursuing giant robots... all flying at you, or you at them, at a thousand miles an hour. (If reading about the action seems tiring, you should try playing it.)
And if you're going to play 'Splosion Man, prepare to be frustrated. There is zero margin for error in each precisely plotted action sequence. The game expects you to hit your marks without fail, forcing you to always be ready to jump at exactly the right time and often react to obstacles and challenges almost before you can see them, much less prepare for them. Some sections simply require rote repetition and memorization before you can pass them; there were a few parts I must have tried two or three dozen times before completing. But only one sequence in one level of the entire game felt truly cheap; the rest were just a matter of practice and timing. As any fan of old '80s arcade and home action games knows, mastering that style of gameplay can be quite satisfying in its own right. Just ask Billy Mitchell.
I can't fault Twisted Pixel for this sort of unforgiving design. The game gets a pass, barely, because it mitigates the frustration level by doing everything it can, short of actually lightening the challenge itself. You have unlimited lives, and you hit a checkpoint between every puzzle or action sequence. When you die, you respawn at the last checkpoint instantly, with no loading time. The little scorch-mark textures you leave behind when you wall-jump even remain when you die and respawn, as if to preserve cues for you to remember precisely the right--and wrong--places to jump.
The single-player in 'Splosion Man is so intensely focused on speed and timing, you wouldn't expect it to translate well into a multiplayer mode, but it does. The game has a completely different set of multiplayer levels for up to four different-colored 'Splosion Men to get in on simultaneously, and the co-op works because the level design here is less about navigating split-second traps and more about methodical puzzles that make all the players work together. (Some of the puzzles even tailor themselves to the number of players in the game.) There are a couple of ingenious additions to the co-op that really tie it together: two players can explode off of each other in midair to get a big jump, and anyone can initiate a color-coded onscreen 3-2-1 countdown that makes it startlingly easy for you to communicate your intentions and time your jumps. I managed to get through several levels with a couple of other players without even using voice chat, which is an impressive feat when you think about it.
Humor is the real ace up 'Splosion Man's sleeve, and anyone who played Twisted Pixel's last effort The Maw will know the sort of lovable lunacy to expect here, from the ridiculous, madcap soundtrack to the silly poses and inexplicable Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes that come out of 'Splosion Man himself. The scientists burst into little steaks and sausages when you fry them. There's an achievement for changing your controls (bearing in mind that every button does the same thing). It really is a funny game. And the ending--which I would commit a huge offense in describing to you in this review--is so far off the deep end it might go down as one of the most memorable ever. The ending, and all the goofy bits before it, are worth slogging through the occasional frustration for.
That's 'Splosion Man in a nutshell: just fun enough and charming enough to make it worth gritting your teeth through all the tough spots. It's a great second effort from Twisted Pixel, and a tidy little value for the money.