Having spent much of my recent gaming time in the cerebral realms of the adventure game, I took a break last night and spent a challenging hour with TwistedPixel's downloadable XBLA platformer, 'Splosion Man. It's a thoroughly modern game from an audiovisual and physics standpoint, but it's a fresh concept that would have worked just as well in the 8-bit era, if only someone had thought of it. So it's a neo-retro game, without any obvious retro inspiration.
'Splosion Man stars a crazed, hyperkinetic humanoid... uh... explosion, I guess. He's certainly exploSIVE. And overflowing with personality -- like a gonzo version of the Max Fleischer-animated Popeye, 'Splosion Man mutters, giggles, yells, jogs, airplanes, and ghoul-walks through the game, and he's obviously having a great time. And unlike most classic platformer characters, he doesn't confine his self-expression to the idle animation when the player isn't moving him around -- he's always making noise or keeping himself busy, but never at the expense of control. He seems to be on a mission to escape from some sort of secret lab, while blowing up as many scientists and as much equipment as possible. Presumably he is the product of some unearthly tampering with nature, so his gleeful havoc is justified.
I'm enjoying this game just as much as he is, but I think my age is starting to show now that I'm a little bit past the halfway point. It's getting very challenging, demanding serious precision for timing and explosion (jump) placement. There are lots of chain-reaction sections in the second group of levels, where if the first jump and the second jump aren't timed and placed exactly right, the third jump isn't going to work out and the fourth jump will remain a distant, elusive goal. Figuring each level out requires observation and experimentation, like a puzzle game, but the real-time action aspect demands near-perfect execution.
If I stay stuck at some point where my reflexes just can't drag me any farther, I won't really regret it -- I've gotten my ten bucks' worth of entertainment out of this game already. Fortunately, the designers have taken pity on me, and provided "The Way of the Coward," a feature which up to this point I hadn't taken advantage of. If the player dies too many times in one level (lives are infinite, fortunately), this option becomes available, allowing the player to skip that level and gain access to the next one. I got stuck on Level 2-9, and finally succumbed to temptation, reaching an amusingly fake Level "Completed" screen with the completion time maxed out for the record. But I had found the cake on that level, so it wasn't completely wasted effort, and I did go on to complete Level 2-10 successfully after skipping ahead. So, my confidence bolstered, I will likely go back and take another crack at finishing 2-9 properly.
Probably when I get stuck on Level 2-11 this weekend...