I do so love when I get a chance to review something from Twisted Pixel. Not only have they produced some of my favorite games for XBLA, I’ve actually met and shaken hands with members of the staff on multiple occasions, and they are a great bunch. This isn’t even my first time playing Ms. Splosion Man. I got a hands on at PAX East, and I was able to snag a spot on their coveted beta. This playthrough was just confirmation of what I knew already, and what you are about to find out.
Twisted Pixel has a long history of producing exceedingly stylized games. While they don’t tend to push the limits of realism or graphical complexity, they always boast some truly memorable scenes. Ms. Splosion Man keeps that track record going strong. Let’s start with the main character herself. Ms. Splosion Man is a bundle spastic energy, glowing pink and sporting a yellow bow. These days, you can safely assume a game will throw an idle animation or two into the mix if you don’t touch the controller for a while, usually indicating that the character is getting bored. Ms. Splosion Man’s attention span is about seven milliseconds then, because she shifts instantly into one of a whole pile of different animations the instant you release the controls. She has a handful of dance routines and ballet positions, sassy head waggles, and who knows what else. As a matter of fact, each and every activity she can engage in has multiple animations, jumps become pirouettes and poses, falling becomes diving. Hell, even the namesake sploding conjures up stylish freeze-framed silhouettes of the character in various positions.
The variety extends to the enemies and set dressing as well – which for most of the game play roughly the same role (things to splode). The stages take you through three different environments, from the familiar laboratory setting to a tropical resort and finally a deadly factory. Each level is littered with props appropriate to the environment; control panels and equipment in the lab, vending machines and tiki torches in the resort, and mysterious crates and devices in the factory. Populating the levels are hapless scientists of various sorts. A quick trip through the unlockable concept art, which I highly suggest you look at, reveals that each of these scientists is based loosely on actual Twisted Pixel staff members. They have a whole repertoire of motions to pick from as well. Their idle fidgeting tends to fit the character, and once you show up, their panicked attempts to escape, the cowering resulting from their failure, and their inevitable detonation are many, varied, and unique to the characters. That’s right, not even the enemies like to do the same animation twice.
Like its predecessor, the game is primarily played on a 2D field, but this time around the foreground and background are played around with. Some enemies will be launched into the air to collide with the screen, for instance. During long stretches approaching boss fights, items foreshadowing the upcoming battle tend to show up in the background. One particularly memorable example is the boss itself menacingly following you toward the end of the stage, hauling itself up shafts and punching through walls. Visual feedback is included to help you along, with the number of splodes remaining illustrated by the degree to which our heroine is still glowing, and failed splosions producing sad little wisps of smoke. Notable events are highlighted by shifting the camera or manipulating the zoom. Topping off the game’s graphics are the usual touches. Depth of field effects, lighting effects, etc. Oh, and if you grab a pair of shoes on the level, you actually wear them.
The one thing I could find to gripe about with regards to the graphics of the game involves the massive changes of scale you sometimes experience, and the utterly chaotic amount of screen effects. When these two things happen at the same time, as is often the case in boss fights, it is exceedingly easy to lose track of your tiny pink hero. Other than than that, I found little that I could call anything less than excellent.
The gamplay of Ms. Splosion Man is precisely like its predecessor, which means that it is simultaneously as simple as possible and yet maddeningly complex. The simplicity comes from the fact that you have precisely one interaction with the world, sploding. You can do it three times before needing to recharge, which is achieved by sliding on a wall for a few seconds, touching the ground for a few moments, or sploding a barrel or explosive enemy. From that, all else follows. Splosions serve the purpose of jumps, wall jumps, double and triple jumps, and attacks. Using this single volatile yet versatile maneuver, you are tasked with navigating levels and beating bosses, each of which tends to be equal parts puzzle solving and split second timing.
As each level is a super fast-paced obstacle course, the obstacles are naturally exceedingly important. You’ll get standard moving platforms and switch-triggered doors, but you’ll also run into turrets that knock you back and if you have splodes remaining or kill you if you’re all sploded out. There are splosion extinguishers that sap your remaining splodes, heat panel looking things that recharge your splodes mid-air or give you unlimited splodes while you’re in front of them. There is glass that must be broken, doors that toggle when you splode them, and the ever-popular rising deadly goop or walls of electricity. Each level is a veritable smorgasbord of hostile environments.
Adding to the fun are the enemies. While the standard scientists seem like they exist just to give you something to turn into hunks of meat with your splosions, they have real gameplay purposes, too. A scientist blocks the way if it gets in front of you, and thus must be sploded, which is impossible if you have no means to splode. Sploding off of one gets you additional distance, too. Some scientists are actively holding down buttons or propping up levers that are activating hazards or locking doors. Progression depends upon wiping them out, often in highly creative ways. Then there are the scientists that are so useful they are practically power-ups. “Mandy”, the replacement for the popular Donut Scientist of the previous game, plays the role of meat shield (in a mildly disturbing way), and adds element of a super jump when there’s no more need to defend yourself. The Wilford scientist is cruising around in a stylish wheel chair that is one splosion away from being a flaming, battering ram of doom.
The barrels of the last game have returned, naturally. Kickable barrels serve as projectile attacks, standard ones give a boosted jump and a recharge. Green Barrels launch you. Joining the fun, though, are rideable rocket barrels that essentially combine the standard barrels with green ones, tossing in a countdown to complicate matters. There also electric pink barrels that shift you into the background, allowing some levels to exist as two parallel courses. There are even “slow fall” versions of the barrels that require careful time management.
Along with the new barrels and new scientists are new interactive bits of environment. Trampolines act about as you’d expect, launching you and anything else that touches them into the air. Zip lines send you rocketing along as you dangle by one hand, potentially flinging you into the air, depending on their shape. Scales will catapult you if you drop a weight on the other side, too. There are even little bouncy balls that lock into sockets (and like all other things, cause havoc) to activate or deactivate different hazards. The precision splosion juggling of these balls was one of the trickier things to master for me.
The single collectable item per board is back, now shoes rather than cake, but there are also levels which have hidden exits that unlock bonus levels. In a nod to Super Mario World, secret-bearing levels are shown on the overworld with red indicators rather than blue. Levels have par time and assign a score based on various criteria, which nets you coins to spend at the mall for more game modes, as well as videos, photos, audio tracks, concept art, themes, avatar items… man, there is a lot of stuff.
Oh, and there is also multiplayer, which combines all of the above with the need to coordinate your splosions with those of up to 3 other players. You can even play multiplayer solo, if you think you can handle it, by unlocking the 2 girls 1 controller mode. Between the hidden levels, the ability to race your ghost, secret items, and unique single and multiplayer campaigns, this has got replay value up the wazoo.
Was there any part of the gameplay I didn’t like? Well, the game does tend to get frustrating at times, even if you AREN’T playing on hardcore mode, but to the developers credit, steps have been taken to alleviate this. Checkpoints are usually well placed, minimizing the amount of replay you need to do, and if you really get stuck, you can “cheat on the game” and skip to the next checkpoint. Anything even remotely cinematic can usually be skipped by pressing X, preventing you from having to watch as the camera warns you of a hazard that has killed you thirty times already.
The sound, depending on your mood, can be a mixed bag. In keeping with her perpetual motion machine of a personality, Ms. Splosion Man is constantly spouting pop-culture references and generic “girl-isms.” The intensely over-the-top caricature shallow femininity is likely to clash with the sensibilities of those sensitive to perceived sexism, but I would like to think that most of the players will understand that nothing that exaggerated could possibly be meant to be taken seriously. Her constant quotes might get a bit on your nerves, a possibility that Twisted Pixel anticipated to the point of including a load screen tip that reminds you that you can adjust the voice in the settings menu. For a fun drinking game, take a shot every time you hear a reference to a Schwarzenegger movie. Total Recall and Predator were the source of some of my favorite moments, along with my all time favorite cinematic threat from Running Man.
The music goes in the same bracket as the animation: Incredibly varied and generally exceptional. Even the iconic donuts song has been replaced with a 50s style love song that honestly sounds like it could have been an actual hit of the era, and the music accompanying the endings similarly almost sounds too good to be a gag.
Like many XBLA games, this title isn’t exactly nuanced in its dramatic arc. Big Science finally captures Splosion Man, but in the process of celebrating, they manage to create a distaff counterpart, who immediately goes on a delightful rampage of devastation, heading toward her captured hubby. That’s right, in a reversal of video game archetypes, it is the female seeking to rescue her captured MALE love interest. So buried among the gleefully politically incorrect heaps of gender stereotypes is an honest to goodness piece of progressive empowerment. Add that to the fact that she isn’t simply a sex object and is able to speak in full sentences while her boyfriend is limited almost exclusively to monosyllabic exclamations and Ms. Splosion Man might actually be one of the best female role models of the video game world… Which is a sad statement about the video game world… Which might actually be the point. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. It might just be for the sake of hilarity, which suits me just fine.
If you want a fun, difficult platformer that references or pays homage to everything from the famous “Mission Accomplished” moment of the Bush Presidency to Mike Tyson’s Punchout, Ms. Splosion Man is the only game in town. I highly recommend you pick it up.
9.3 / 10: A hyperactive, fast-paced, super-challenging platformer with a great sense of humor.