Captain Smiley wants a lot of things. He wants his own comic. He wants Origami Kid to get out of his pants. He wants his own chest to stop mocking him. But most of all, he wants you, dear reader, to smile. Comic Jumper, the game chronicling Captain Smiley’s efforts to get back on top, works hard to delight both gamers up for a challenge and gamers who want to cruise through delightful worlds. Sometimes maybe a little too hard, but it’s tough to begrudge such determination to delight.
From the instant you boot up, Comic Jumper’s presentation will astound, with a host of techniques hardly any game has tried. Using full-motion video for comic instead of dramatic effect redeems that long-forgotten cutscene enhancer, and the comic book panels that carry you through scene changes are dynamically laid-out and charmingly animated. Even better is the design work within the levels; other games have tried the “every level a different style” approach, but few have done it with Comic Jumper’s attention to detail. Special kudos go to the sound designers, who do a lot to support the visuals with such classy touches as a Silver Age comics level where the gunshots make the sound of a bebop-era trap set.
For all the visual variety, levels mostly maintain the same basic gameplay: 2D shooting with some fancy dodging demanded. The levels are often broken up by free-flying sections, beat-’em-up bits, fixed-screen shootouts, and some fabulous 3D sections that suggest the Twisted Pixel gang, like many hardcore gamers, spent a good chunk of last summer playing Sin & Punishment. The gameplay gets brutally difficult, but frequent checkpointing means you’re unlikely to get too frustrated.
Unfortunately, the varied gameplay means the experience never achieves the Zen perfection of Twisted Pixel’s last title, ’Splosion Man. The erratic aiming assist and too-close camera makes many of the levels harder than they should be, and the platforming sections are fatally marred by shockingly poor visual decisions; when you fall to your death simply because a pipe was hard to see, that’s the designer’s fault, not the player’s. Even some of the design choices lead them wrong, most notably in the manga level; though the sprites are pitch-perfect parodies of black-and-white manga, the lack of color makes it very hard to pick out enemies. I still had plenty of fun, mind you, but there were lots of times when it all felt sort of unfair, and I never had the kind of flawless action immersion that the best games, no matter how simple, can provide.
In fact, though Comic Jumper is a huge step forward in narrative and design ambition for Twisted Pixel, it’s something of a step back from ’Splosion Man’s gameplay heights, and not just because it doesn’t include multiplayer. ’Splosion Man’s tight focus, which restricted the gameplay to one stick, one button, and one action (’SPLODE!!!!!), freed the developers to concentrate on building ever-more-complex levels. Because Comic Jumper is changing the visual rules on you all the time, the underlying structure has to stay the same to avoid confusion. So while I kept playing enthusiastically to see what the next level would look like, I never wondered how the next level would play. It’s the same problem that bedeviled The Maw, Twisted Pixel’s debut title—by trying for maximum variety in one aspect, they forced other aspects of the game to be kind of same-y.
Even the comic writing is far from flawless. Star, your chest companion, is mostly obnoxious instead of funny, and some of the jokes end up relying on dated stereotypes rather than spoofing them. As always, though, Twisted Pixel’s secret comedy weapon are their songwriting chops; as soon as I heard the first verse of “The Stats Song,” all was forgiven.
Anyway, it’s hard to complain much when a game is working this hard to show me a good time. Even the hub world is stuffed with great design, out-of-the-way treats, and genuinely funny writing, as asset that’s still rare in the gaming world. I hope that for their next title, Twisted Pixel either scales back the way they did in ’Splosion Man, or else expands their staff enough to fill their ambitious plans. But Comic Jumper is six solid hours of laughs, thrills, and delight, plus some great little musical numbers, and if it’s not quite the perfect game, well, who in this world is perfect? Certainly not Captain Smiley!