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'Splosion Man

(XBox LIVE Arcade; US: 22 Jul 2009)

The first stage in ‘Splosion Man begins with a ten second cut scene of the titular character bursting through a door. Then the player gets control. That’s all the story there is in ‘Splosion Man, which is a relief because that’s all the story it needs. This is a game that doesn’t want to be anything other than great fun.


This is a pure platformer but sped up to such a frenetic pace that the loading screen becomes a welcome break rather than an annoyance. Each ‘splosion propels us forward, and the game wants us to keep that momentum going by timing our ‘splosions just as the character is passing an exploding barrel. There are usually several of these barrels in a row, requiring a series of perfectly timed button presses to get through a stage. With such a focus on timing and speed, ‘Splosin Man feels like a rhythm game at times. Getting through a maze of corridors with a series of flawless ‘splosions feels just like nailing a solo in Rock Band. Every stage is also stuffed with a surprising variety of obstacles and (thankfully) generous checkpoints. Some sections of a stage feature small puzzles, so the ‘sploding becomes a means of exploring while the player figures out where to go and how to get there. Other sections focus on traditional platforming and the ‘sploding becomes a clear substitute for jumping. Every checkpoint brings with it a new kind of obstacle, keeping players on their toes at all times. But the pace slows down when there are no exploding barrels around, and the game is at its best when it’s at its most frantic.


When it’s at its most frantic is also when it’s at its hardest. There’s a lot of trial and error in ‘Splosion Man. Sometimes you’ll get shot off in one direction, pass a barrel you didn’t know was coming, and die. While this has the potential to get very annoying very quickly much of the game design works to dispel any anger before it arises. The generous checkpoints ensure that you’ll never have to replay large portions of a stage, and since there are few enemies in the game, most deaths feel like the player’s fault. Sure you won’t know that that barrel is coming the first time, but you will the second time. So, if you die more than once it’s because your timing is off. The game does get hard later on, but it is never punishing. A little practice will get you past every challenge. However, at certain points, the camera pulls back to showcase large obstacles or bosses, and in doing so, the ‘Splosion Man becomes rather small. Not too small to see (he’s still very visible), but some tiny obstacles ahead are too small to see, making those couple sections of the game unnecessarily hard.


It’s a testament to the game’s fun that it can, during one stage, put you through a hellish obstacle course with one jump that you just can’t make and have to try again and again and again and then, on the next stage, make you laugh and forget that that whole ordeal ever happened. ‘Splosion Man is that funny. The ‘Splosion Man himself is one of the best characters of any recent game and proves the importance of animation in developing characters in video games. While he spouts off a few funny one-liners and pop-culture references, it’s his animations that make him so endearing: when he runs he sticks his hands out like a plane and makes engine noises, when he’s standing still he punches the air like he’s in a karate movie, and there are several more. Every aspect of the game is in on the joke as well. From the “blood” of scientists to the control screen to the achievements (find all the hidden cake and get a “Not a Portal Reference” achievement) and even the descriptions of the achievements are all a part of the hilarity. Can you figure out what “Let your hyper little brother play the game for a bit” and “Master the mastery of controlling your controls” are really asking you to do? And the moment you pick up a fat scientist, you’ll want a doughnut.


‘Splosion Man packs a lot into a small package. There’s also a hardcore mode with one-hit kills and no checkpoints for the more masochistic gamer and even a four player co-op that lets you go through a whole new slew of stages made specifically for multiplayer. A headset should be required for multiplayer since players are often required to ‘splode at the same time in order to jettison each other higher. The provided countdown timer on the left trigger is indispensable, but later levels demand more communication.


Simply put though, ’Splosion Man just wants to be great fun, and it succeeds.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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