Q Games and its PixelJunk franchise has made a name for itself by taking existing genres and finding subtle ways to leave its own indelible mark. PixelJunk Sidescroller, their latest work, is sort of a departure for the series because it doesn’t only aim to reinvent the scrolling shooter, but also to painstakingly recreate the venue we grew up playing them in: the 80s’ arcade.
On the heels of the excellent PixelJunk Shooter series, Sidescroller initially seems like a step backwards; this is not Shooter 3, though it clearly channels Q’s preexisting universe. The distressed miners of the previous titles are gone, leaving the only lives entrusted to the player being their own. The previous series’ signature fluid dynamics return here merely as window dressing, which might come as a disappointment to fans of Shooter. Sidescroller is a straightforward, simple game; think of it as a side-step.
Production wise, Q is unparalleled when it comes to defining their world and vision. Sidescroller wants to be an arcade cabinet, and to do so it employs a number of clever effects to simulate the experience many of us remember. The fisheye screen effect simulates the old CRT monitors, the ‘Insert credit’ request at the title screen, every single aspect of the game, from the neon graphics to the all-new soundtrack by High Frequency Bandwidth, exists to pay respect to a simpler time in gaming. The only difference being the games you remember never looked or sounded this good.
Sidescroller continues the PixelJunk tradition, taking a well-worn genre and tweaking it just enough to feel fresh. The scrolling shooter, like any other arcade game, was designed to eat your quarters: it wanted you to die, frequently, but it never wanted you to feel completely defeated. If you’re playing Sidescroller, Q Games has already got your money. They don’t need to kill you repeatedly to turn their profit, though their design shares the same backbone: to improve you’ve got to learn, and to learn you’re going to die.
For the most part, gamers today don’t have the stomach they once did for one hit deaths, level restarts and an actual, definitive game over. Knowing this, Sidescroller accommodates both older players and those unfamiliar with the punishing mechanics associated with the genre. One hit deaths are out, in favor of two hits and the chance to cool your ship down ala PixelJunk Shooter, following the initial hit. The change, though small, leaves a small safety net for inexperienced players while introducing the added risk of tracking down water, which isn’t always in the safest places.
The most significant change has to be the checkpoint system, which solves both level resets and game overs. Like two-hit deaths, the alteration is minor, but it gives players something visible within the level to strive for, a mile post of sorts. Each checkpoint provides a momentary feeling of relief, a minor victory in Sidescroller’s admittedly tough levels. Checkpoints keep frustration levels to a minimum, allowing players to quickly get back to what killed them, making it equally difficult to walk away from – think Super Meat Boy. And, should it prove too difficult still, you can continue from the checkpoint on a lower difficulty level; Q wants to challenge you, but ultimately they want you to succeed. Though, no matter whether you change the difficulty level or not, both your score and of weapons will be reset to zero at every game over.
Sidescroller is unequivocally the sort of game that you play to get better at. The normal difficulty setting is hard, which says something for the PixelJunk titles. It forces you to learn the benefits of each of your three upgradable weapons, and once you’ve embraced the laser and bombs you’ll be much better off for it. Each weapon serves a distinct purpose and the good Sidescroller players will quickly assess situations and pick the weapon that best suits the encounter; knowing what to use and where to use it is one of the great satisfactions.
As mentioned earlier, there is a feeling of relief that permeates Sidescroller. Great scrolling shooters and bullet hell titles share this trait, as there is a unique form of gratification in merely surviving. These moments show up in abundance, thanks in part to the addition of checkpoints and ship cool downs, but it’s also punctuated as your ship zooms to safety at the level’s climax. Q knows the principal reward of the arcade game is in high-scores and personal accomplishment, which is why they only extend a pleasant ‘Congratulations!’ following the completion of an act. Though, it is worth mentioning, the final stage is one hell of a reward in itself; it doesn’t feel like Sidescroller is building towards much of a conclusion, but it packs an unexpected, phenomenal pay off.
Slipping into their finest retro attire, Q Games has once again proven their ability to step into any genre and own it. Repeatedly dumping you on your ass, Sidescroller is challenging but never impossible. Unlike the games that inspired it, Q Games offers the occasional helping hand, making an arcade game that is tough but fair. Like the best titles before it, you’ll feel relieved to complete Sidescroller, and still, beg for more.