This review is going to be painful, because I really wanted to like Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley. It shows a deep love of comics, of 2D platforming and twin-stick shooting, and it slathers art style all over itself with shiny confidence. It also wants to be funny, which is rare for a game to even attempt. However, it failed to engage me with interesting gameplay, and it succeeded at infuriating me constantly. I'm going to be a dissenting opinion on this, as I'm sure a number of comic fans and hardcore shoot-‘em-up fans will somehow squeeze fun and hilarity out of Comic Jumper, (and even in our office, other editors had very different reactions) but for me it didn’t work on any level.
Above: Every level features palette swaps of these robot women - they all behave almost exactly the same, and you'll have to shoot hundreds of them
Comic Jumper stars Captain Smiley, a superhero of unknown origin (is he even human? Who knows!) with no super powers and no cool gadgets. He punches dudes and he shoots with two pistols, and that’s it. He’s accompanied by his symbol, a star on the chest of his costume that can talk, and which makes fun of him constantly. Both of them have irritating voices, and they bicker throughout the game. The idea that a superhero’s own symbol is a character is pretty clever – it’s too bad the execution is obnoxious. Captain smiley also has the requisite voice in the ear, Gerda, who only serves to scream at the player things like “You’re at %50 health! Stop sucking!” Considering how difficult the game is, those annoying insults come out of the TV constantly.
There are two main types of gameplay in Comic Jumper. The first, and less frequent, is melee combat. This consists of walking on a flat 2D surface with no variation while pressing X repeatedly to punch guys. Occasionally, two guys will attack from either side, and pressing A does an all-around attack to push them back. That’s it. You can’t jump in these sections. You can’t grab, throw, or do anything that brawlers were doing back in the 80s. This is simpler than Final Fight by a huge margin.
The main type of gameplay in Comic Jumper is side-scrolling, twin-stick shooting. Smiley runs along shooting his dual pistols in all directions, fighting wave after wave (after wave) of identical enemies. Look, I love twin-stick shooters. I love Contra. I love difficult shooters. But Comic Jumper gets the fundamentals of these games wrong, and doesn’t provide a single new idea to freshen up these formulas.
Above: A few sections play similarly to Space Harrier or the base levels of Contra. They are somehow more basic and less interesting than either of those games
Most of the game is spent shooting identical enemies that appear in the same patterns over and over. Even on different levels, the enemies just have different art while behaving the same way. But there are several huge problems that make the shooting action not just dull, but aggravating. First, Smiley himself is too big. A basic foundation of a shooter is that you need to be able to skillfully maneuver your character through tight gaps and barely edge past projectiles. Smiley is huge and unwieldy. Sometimes he won’t jump when you press jump. When he does jump, he doesn’t to a flip – now, this may seem unimportant, but it’s actually a big deal. Think back to Contra. Those characters don’t just flip in the air to look cool – they flip so that their sprite shrinks to a manageable size. See, whenever you jump in just about any game, you lose maneuverability – you can direct your trajectory somewhat, but it’s going to be an arc, so you commit yourself to certain constraints. That’s why characters flip when they jump – you need to be able to jump between waves of bullets. Smiley’s jump keeps him bulky, making jumping as an evasive move a crapshoot.
Add on top of this that his massive sprite has no wiggle room whatsoever for collision. If a bullet even comes close to Smiley’s toe, you get hit. The other option for evasion is a slide move, which actually looks and feels really cool when you pull it off – he goes all Chow Yun Fat with both guns blazing. Too bad it doesn’t work half the time, instead making Smiley jump right into bullets. And yet it gets worse: the bullets themselves are a gigantic problem. In the first level of the game, the enemies shoot nice, colorful, glowing bullets that are easy to see. For the rest of the game, most projectiles have nothing to make them stand out against the background – we’re talking projectiles that are literally the exact same shade and color of the background textures. It’s been a fundamental component of shooters since they came into existence: if nothing else, make the bullets clearly visible.
There’s an entire section of the game that seems designed to hurt your eyes. It’s a manga-inspired theme. Everything is black and white, and the contrast is washed out to the point where the bullets practically disappear into the background. And this goes on for several levels. During this time, Smiley rides on the back of a unicorn that kicks up big clouds around its hooves. Guess what can get obscured by those clouds. Bullets.
Above: Can you spot all of the bullets? Hint: there are more than one. This is actually an example of the easier-to-see bullets
For a shooter, it just gets so many little things off that add to the frustration and boredom. Smiley moves slowly - he looks like he's running against a treadmill. There are many sections where you hang from pipes, as inspired by Contra III on the SNES. Yet Contra understood that these sections needed to be short and not filled with bullet-firing enemies. Why? Because while hanging from a pipe you can't shoot and move at the same time and you're stuck to a single line of horizontal movement. Yet Comic Jumper fills these sections with enemies that rush you and shoot at you from weird angles. It's like playing a shooter while wading through glue. The enemies also take way too many bullets to kill - even the most basic enemies have to be shot continuously for 1-2 seconds, dragging the pace down. And remember - there are no powerups, no way to replenish health, no weapons to use other than the starting pea-shooters. Even upgrading the guns' damage seems to have no noticeable effect on their power.
Here's an example of how much of a slog the game can be: in the Nonac levels, there's a point where a tiger/dinosaur creature comes out. It takes roughly 45 seconds of continuous fire to kill it. To avoid it, you jump up to a pipe and shoot down at it. The creature waddles underneath you and does a slow leap, attempting to bite you. You jump sideways to avoid it. It waddles back. You jump again. The sequence contains zero challenge, zero tactics or thinking, and it goes on for 45 seconds. Amazingly, another of these monsters comes out immediately after you kill the first one, and you have to do it all over again. And this scenario happens more than once.
Aside from the lovely comic book art presentation, with its stylized visuals changing to match different genres and time periods, the other non-gameplay appeal that Comic Jumper goes for is comedy. Like I said before, I'm glad when developers attempt comedy because so few do. But holy hell is Comic Jumper not funny to me. Understand that I'm a geek myself, but this represents the worst of geek “humor.” Comic Jumper references other games, comics, and movies… and that’s basically it. It makes the mistake of thinking a reference is the same as parody. Here’s an example: in the Nanoc comic (Conan backwards… get it?) Smiley encounters the Nonac character. And what is he? A stale, tired-ass Ah-nold impression. But wait: he’s also fat. Fat people are funny, right? Most other attempts at humor in the game are really a guessing game of Spot the Reference. When Smiley dies, his explosion looks and sounds similar to Mega Man’s. See, as a geek, you can congratulate yourself for recognizing that. That recognition is supposed to make you laugh. Successful parody requires wit – the writer pokes fun at something by doing something clever with it. Imitation is just that – imitation. There were a couple of genuinely funny moments in the game – and they were not just chuckle-inducing, but hilarious. I won’t spoil them here, as that would take away from their unexpected hilarity.
Above: The background art is always beautiful and perfectly suited to the genre of the comic you're in. It's the best part of the game really
I really, really wanted to like Comic Jumper. It’s built out of love – for games, comics, and pop culture. It just feels like a first-time attempt at a twin-stick shooter, but the devs didn’t look at what makes these games function smoothly or provide an interesting and fair challenge. In fact, I think with some (not insignificant) tweaking of controls, pacing, visibility and enemy design, Twisted Pixel could possibly produce a fantastic shooter.
I need to emphasize that my problem isn’t that Comic Jumper is difficult – I love difficult scrolling shooters – my problem is that Comic Jumper is difficult for all the wrong reasons - and to top it off, the game constantly insults your incompetence with grating voice work. I bet that many geeks will be able to forgive the gameplay hurdles and may even love the game’s humor. I don’t want to stop those that will love Comic Jumper from considering playing it, but I do want to warn that it’s not a comfortable pill to swallow, and for some geeks – like me – it could be a downright unpleasant experience.
Oct 7, 2010