E3 2011: PixelJunk SideScroller hands-on preview

Though the PixelJunk Shooter series has always done a good job sort of imitating the mechanics of a classic shmup in an adventure game’s clothing, SideScroller is about as direct an homage as you can get to classic shooter series like R-Type and Gradius. Think of this one as something of a spinoff from Shooter – the heat and water mechanics (avoid the former and restore your lifebar by cooling yourself off in the latter) are still around, and your butterfly ship can still do a spin attack. The same colorful visuals and sometime-focus on destroying environmental obstacles are present too, but this time the game is strictly on-rails and you can alternate between three upgradeable weapon types.

This changes the feel of the gameplay quite a bit. Rather than making your way through open-ended, treacherous areas rescuing scientists, you’re just trying to survive. Of the three levels we saw, only the underground lava caverns felt much like Shooter, with a heavy emphasis on avoiding spewing lava in addition to swarms of enemies.

There were more “trap you in a room” scenarios in the other level we played, an industrial environment filled with enemy types that spewed all manner of blooming and wave projectiles at you, crisscrossing and forcing you to think about the path you need to cut in order to survive. Of the two regular levels demoed, this one felt more like a traditional horizontal shmup, and often we had to clear a number of escalating enemy waves before we could proceed. Thankfully, a number of enemies dropped power ups that led to some helpful Gradius-like upgrades for our machine guns, laser and homing missile weapons.

Movement feels a lot like Shooter – we hope the developers include an option to drop the analog stick sensitivity. The game is also probably as hard as the series it seems to have spawned from, although seasoned shmup vets probably won’t have too much trouble with it, particularly given the lack of guaranteed instantaneous death if you accidentally collide with an incoming projectile.

The demo’s boss level, pitting us against a giant multi-eyed subterranean creature that looks a bit like a deep sea angler, was about what you’d expect from a shmup: plenty of screen-filling bullet-hell patterns, spit out in often overlapping waves. The boss made it feel like SideScroller might be keeping the organic feel of Shooter 2, though that could just be for the level shown.

SideScroller is perhaps the best-looking PixelJunk title to date, its trademark vibrant colors and simple line-art style meshing Geometry Wars and Gaijin’s Bit.Trip series, with a variety of neat retro-styled effects that gave the game an arresting visual design. Basically, a PixelJunk interpretation of classic shmup gameplay feels like a great thing and a natural fit – we want more of this game. Look for SideScroller’s release sometime later this year.

Jun 16, 2011