California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Ms. Splosion Man

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July 17th, 2011 at 10:09 am

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Ms. Splosion Man box art
Ms. Splosion Man

Release Date: July 13th, 2011
Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade
Developer: Twisted Pixel
Publisher: Microsoft Games Studio
Genre: Pretty Pink Platformer
ESRB: T for Teen

CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Get Ready to ‘Splode Again!

Running, jumping, falling, weaving, bouncing, dodging, riding, fleeing, swerving, racing, sweating, climbing, collecting coins and occasionally fighting – gerunds of action all; these are some of the primary concepts behind the 2D platform game, or “Platformer”, a genre that twenty years ago was so widespread that it was pretty much synonymous with the concept of “video game.”

In 2009, Twisted Pixel added ‘sploding to that list. That’s when they debuted their cathartic, whimsical and absurdist hit; the aptly (if not obviously) titled ‘Splosion Man to the downloadable games scene.

What’s ‘Sploding? Well that’s what happens when you’re made entirely of volatile chemical energy and you need to jump, attack, or do anything really, which is exactly what ‘Splosion Man is and does. Using only this ability to merrily detonate (sorry, ‘splode) everywhere he could, Splosion Man propelled himself through the Big Science laboratory that spawned him collecting cake along the way. There was much rejoicing.

And why not? ‘Splosion Man was a return to form. Of the glory days where the platformer was king due to the success of a benevolent super powered Italian plumber (by way of a whimsical Japanese former toy-maker) and practically every game made followed suit, no matter how little sense it made. In many ways, ‘Splosion Man, along with precursor Braid and the subsequent Super Meat Boy, reproved the viability of the entire genre for the modern world.

Twisted Pixel followed their hit with the hilarious Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley, but it seems they couldn’t forget their erstwhile exemplar exploder. For they bring us another bit of meat-filled merry making by introducing us to the combustible cavalier’s counterpart and member of the fairer sex: Ms. Splosion Man.

Ms. Splosion Man video game

Ms. Splosion Man (or is that ‘Splosion Woman?) is dive-bombing in for her close-up.

As with the first game, Ms. Splosion Man is a platformer in its purest form, almost immediately dismissing the notion of a plot once we’re privy to the creation of our pink protagonist during the after party to ‘Splosion Man’s capture by Big Science lab techs. After a thrilling opening level that has our heroine battling a resurrected foe past “Mission Accomplished” posters (which is as close as the game gets to any sort of ironic commentary), you’re soon trouncing and bouncing outside of the laboratory and into the world beyond its walls. From an enormous city among the clouds to a hip vacation paradise, the game presents a decidedly expanded scope.

Interestingly, it also tosses in an actual theme both through song and vignette: romance. The newly formed ‘Splosion Woman, though a paragon of the particular form of “Girl Power” promoted by the likes of The Spice Girls and other late nineties – early 00’s pop divas (whose songs she sings snatches of as she skips along), is lonely and looking for love. It seems a good man isn’t hard to find, they’re just made of flammable flesh or end up being psycho kill-bots out to stop her roaring rampage of unwitting annihilation. Neither are good long term prospects.

Perhaps a certain Man is what the fates have in store? One who is also made of ’Splosions? I know for certain . . . but I’ll never tell!

*WINK*

Ms. Splosion Man video game

She just want to hug them and kiss them and blow them all up!

Yeah, the setup to the game’s finale is a bit obvious, but a welcome reversal to the platforming standard of rescuing a princess, seeing as you ARE the princess here. Other than this subversion, all of the fundamentals that made the first game a fistful of frivolous fun are present here: you’ll ‘splode to jump and attack and bounce off walls, there are fifty levels for single player, another unique fifty for multiplayer co-op, and the controls (all buttons ‘splode) are completely unchanged. The unhinged minds at Twisted Pixel obviously saw nothing broken with the first game, so did little to “fix” it.

However they didn’t just rest on their laurels. An incredible array of new features and gameplay additions are tossed in to keep things fresh. You’ll encounter some new enemies, a map screen straight out of the later Mario games (complete with hidden levels), purchase a bevy of unlockable content, compete against your best times on courses via “ghost” replays, and run across several new traversal devices from trampolines and rocket cars as you guide our fiery female armed with nothing but a bow on her head and a song in her heart to her ultimate destiny.

Then there’s the simple fact that the game is just plain prettier. Environments are certainly nice, but it’s the attention to the little details that really shine. With mid-air pirouettes, running en pointe, and silhouetted tableaus mid-splosion indicating grace, while the “Nuh-Uh Girlfriend” headshakes and mimed “LIKE OMG!” phone conversations implying teenage triviality, Ms. Splosion Man has an animated complexity more robust than her predecessor. While most likely the product of extra development time and a matured usage of their proprietary BEARD engine, the improved aesthetic ties into the yoni spirit of the leading lady quite perfectly.

Not to be outdone, the audio department, headed by their leader Chainsaw (possibly not his real name), has brought their A-game to the table here. The nifty, but very subtle, reactive layering on background music returns and it again creates an aural texture rarely encountered. This is saying nothing of the music itself; at times funky, melodramatic, danceable, romantic or downright hilarious, each track is wonderfully suited to the situation at hand. The best is definitely “Badonkadonk”, a lovingly hilarious ode to the derriere you hear , should you ever cheat on the game.

Yes, the folks at Twisted Pixel let the player skip ahead if you ever get frustrated with a section, with the caveat of an enlarged posterior for the normally waifish heroine (matching the tutu of the previous game’s similar feature). They do this because they know that their game is hard, but I don’t know if they realized that it might actually be too hard, and for all the wrong reasons.

Ms. Splosion Man video game

Boy are the folks at Twisted Pixel proud of their BEARD(s). This is literally the first thing you see in the game.

Most players, especially those used to platformers, can tolerate a game that tests their limits as long as they feel that their failures are a result of their own actions. “Fair” deaths are acceptable, essentially. Unfortunately most of the new gameplay additions, particularly the rocket cars and ziplines, and a stricter overall level design contribute to a multitude of situations that will force you to die while having absolutely no way to prevent the death. These setbacks feel decidedly unfair most of the time, and lead to far too much trial and error gameplay.

The biggest “tell” that the level design is the problem, and not that I suck at the game (unlikely seeing as I’ve beaten the first on “hardcore” difficulty) is simply the fact that getting ahead of the game can be just as punishing as lagging behind in many levels. This is a problem when the game actively encourages you to move quickly through levels. The constant player punishment can get quite very frustrating at times, especially when the alternative the developers have offered (instead of you know, levels you won’t want to murder people over) is a light-handed insult that ALSO punishes you by removing level completion rewards.

Hmm. I suppose all those gals in sociology class were right; women really do have it tougher . . . or at least ‘Splosion women do.

Ms. Splosion Man video game

At least the game provides ample stress relief in the form of wanton destruction! Archaic pun unintentional.

Hair pulling challenge based in lazy level structure like this is especially jarring because it’s so at odds with literally everything else in the game. From the playful pictures of Twisted Pixel staff in “The Mall”, as well as a darkly humorous tutorial video narrated by Lisa Foiles, to the overly abundant movie references (with several now obligatory nods to Total Recall) the overall tone that would be described as “mischievous effervescence” if you were to dress it up, but is more accurately “screwing around while no one’s looking”. These people are obviously having a blast making the game.

But perhaps that’s the problem, maybe they’re having too much of a good time making cute little videos and putting pictures themselves into the game to realize that they’re starting to slip. I’m all for game makers doing anything and everything they can to insert their personalities into their works as long as it doesn’t get overbearing, and doesn’t interfere with the overall quality. Ms. Splosion Man shows the first signs of both these problems. I just hope they can learn to get their priorities straight before we end up with another Duke Nukem Forever.

As an aside, Ms. Splosion Man does make an excellent counterpoint to the recent Shadows of the Damned. Whereas that romp through the surreal and bizarre was both sexual and aggressively phallic, Ms. Splosion Man is utterly feminine, and (almost) completely desexualized. The attraction between the ‘Splosions’ is (like the characters themselves) childlike and true, while Garcia’s relationship with Paula was anything but. Both are games that live in absurd, almost Dadaist borderlands, but are such polar opposites in terms of all things gender, that they end up complementing each other quite well. If you happened to play SotD, Ms. Splosion Man is the perfect after dinner mint.

Ms. Splosion Man video game

Like, please don’t tell me there’s a gigantic cybernetic octopus behind me wearing floaties. Totally gross!

Actually, that recommendation still goes for everyone else. Ms. Splosion Man, despite occasionally being more difficult than a geometry class taught in Klingon, is still a good game. It’s a quick splash of summertime fun in fires of a thousand exploding suns.

Besides, even if she has an innate need to accessorize with 47 different pairs of shoes, at least we’re not playing as yet another overly muscled , bald , angry dude , with obvious steroid issues. Sometimes it’s nice to put a bow on your head and have fun as only a girl can!

By blowing things up! But in PINK!

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Ms. Splosion Man Trailer

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