Ms. Splosion Man
Available as a downloadable XBLA title, Splosion Man was a rather impressive hit for indie studio Twisted Pixel, applying a great sense of humor and astounding game-design skill to the puzzle platformer genre. Oddly, for a game and studio so entrenched in originality, they've gone back to the well for Ms. Splosion Man, applying the feminine title and bow of Ms. Pac-Man to their explosive lunatic, and, like the legendary maze-dweller before it, created an instant classic and an improvement over their previous production. Continuing where the first game ended, it's more of the same, as the scientists who battled Splosion Man have accidentally created a distaff version, and now attempt to stop her. Somehow, despite the DNA being very much the same game, it feels fresh and somehow more fun, thanks in large part to the main character's loopy personality and an unwillingness to rely on the first game's laurels.
Ms. Splosion Man has a simple concept: Get from point A to point B, killing scientists and getting around traps along the way. To do so, you make yourself explode to "leap" up and/or forward, up to three times before needing to recharge by walking or other options. You'll explode numerous items as you traverse each stage, including lots of barrels and switches, which let you fly higher and open pathways. It's a very puzzle-heavy experience, as you are a part of what's essentially a huge Rube Goldberg device, putting the pieces in place as you go. The thing is, you're moving through these areas at incredibly high speeds, covering areas of immense heights and facing a variety of foes, frequently needing to make split-second decisions to avoid trouble coming at you from all directions (and frequently from just off-screen.)
Now, the high-energy action and non-stop variety of traps, devices and enemies are just part of what makes this game a blast (both literally and figuratively.) The other part of the equation is the sense of humor. The game is just simply fun, with little animation details that are terrific, references to video-game and pop culture legends, including an unusually large number of gags about Total Recall and a fun overall vibe. There's one element, Mandy, a fleshy character you can use as protection from lasers, who embodies this loose atmosphere, as she has her own theme song and she sheds deli meats when blasted by weapons. It's just one example of the bizarre feel the game lives by (which plays out right through the final battle and ending, both of which rank among the greatest EVER.) Ms. Splosion Man is key to the comedy in this game, as her dialogue is mainly made up of a bizarre mix of song lyrics and pop culture references (mostly to portray her as a stereotypical girly girl) and it keeps things very enjoyable. It's so good, I would have swore the voice was provided by veteran voice artist E.G. Daily, but it's anime voiceover artist Monica Rial providing the laughs (and doing a great job of it.)
The main drawback of the gameplay is the difficulty. In many places, it's less about platforming and more like a quicktime event marathon (including actual quicktime events), as you'll get past one obstacle only to be done in by the next one. Then, you add that solution to your script and move on to the next one, where you promptly die by surprise, until you learn that answer. Though there are checkpoints thoughout each level, having to chain together these quick reactions over a length of time is not only stressful, it can get annoying. The bosses are a similar issue, as they are easy to beat, but it takes forever to work through their patterns. The only plus side to these challenges is the sense of satisfaction you get when you finally figure out how to move forward (or the occasional forehead smack when the answer is much easier than it seemed.) Like the previous title, the developers allowed for players who struggle with the challenges by providing a way to cheat past a section that's too hard, but there is a cost. Your score will be zero, your time elapsed will max out and your ass will get big. Seriously (or, more truthfully, not at all seriously.)
For those who think the game isn't quite hard enough, finish things off and you get hardcore mode, which offers no checkpoints and one-hit kills. Good luck with that, sport. But that's not all. Playing with friends gives you the chance to play another full game of different levels, with its own unique ending, while also facing the unique challenge of playing with four exploding women. And if playing with others isn't your thing, but you still want to experience this chaos, there's the Two Girls, One Controller mode you can unlock (along with a variety of other goodies, like art, videos, pictures and audio) where you control two different Ms. Splosion Man characters at the same time. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done in the realm of video games. And we're still not done, as you still have the shoe quests, with a different pair of shoes hidden on each level (of both single and multiplayer modes), an assortment of secret exits to ferret out and the ability to download the top 50 online runs through each level, and play against them as ghost runners. You'll never complain you haven't gotten your money's worth here.
You can take the multiplayer action online via XBox Live, and play with up to three digital pals, with drop-in openings at the start of each level. Playing with three other Sploders is a tricky juggling game, as working together to complete the multiplayer levels is like trying to coordinate a quartet of super-bounce balls. Surprisingly, the fast pace of the game doesn't suffer online.
It doesn't get a lot simpler than the controls for this game, as you use the analog stick to move your character and hit any of the face buttons to splode (up to three times per charge.) Yes, you have to utilize some precision if you're going to get the jumps right, but you only have so many ways to screw it up. Though there will be some frustrating moments where you think you've got it right but you can't land a jump, overall the controls are very responsive, and there's some helpful guidance by the game when things get super-chaotic. At these times, it can feel like things are a bit out of your hands, but that's short lived as you're quickly back in control of dodging lasers and acid.
An XBLA title, you're getting just a small handful of achievements to earn in this one, with 12 awards worth a total of 200 points. Most of them are completion achievements, like finishing all the levels or collecting all the shoes, but there are a few unique awards too, like completing a certain level without touching the ground. Those are the best kind, as they let you try to do something different than the usual gameplay.
Let's get this out of the way off the top: the map menus and close-ups of Ms. Splosion Man just don't look good. But beyond those items, the game looks terrific. The animations on Ms. Splosion Man, especially her frequent dancing, are well done, and despite the amount of action on-screen, things are pretty easy to keep separate (though the final boss battle on the second world is a test for your eyesight.) The art style and level design on this game is inspired, including tremendous use of blurring to separate the foreground and background and fun depth effects, like flinging bad guys in your face, smashing into the screen, but unfortunately you don't have a lot of time to enjoy it. Perhaps on your next run through.
It's pretty obvious that Twisted Pixel goes all out when it comes to their games, and the audio gets the same treatment as the rest of the package. Even if the only thing we had was the voice of Ms. Splosion Man, that might be enough to make the game great. But there's also a wealth of great sound effects and excellent music. The music is especially impressive, as it doesn't weigh on you, which is a definite possibility when you're stuck on a level and have to repeat it, say, 30 or 40 times. It's not even just great score, as there are ridiculous, yet great songs like the doughnut song on the pause menu or the song that accompanies the cheating curse. In fact, the song that accompanies the Mandy suit is so catchy, once I realized it plays while wearing the suit I stood still just to listen to it.
And in the End...
If there's anything negative that can be said about Ms. Splosion Man, it would be that the challenge can get a bit too tough at times, but even that's been negated by the ability to "legally" cheat (if you fail enough.) Other than that, this is a brilliantly fun, great-looking and great-sounding game that moves like buttered lightning and offers enough variety to make the lengthy gameplay the three worlds offer fly by. And then, when you're done with that, there are even more opportunities to enjoy the game in new ways. You can't ask for more than that when you're plunking down 10 dollars. Fans of Splosion Man should purchase without hesitation, while newcomers owe it to themselves to jump, or splode, on in.