Comic Jumper preview: Mashed-up mayhem

Twisted Pixel has risen to XBLA fame with critically acclaimed titles The Maw and 'Splosion Man. When the developers offer to personally stop by your West Los Angeles apartment to show you their latest title, Comic Jumper, you say yes. That's what I did, and in addition to playing through the first level and getting a feel for the mechanics, I played a few later levels and got a good look at all of the collectibles and extras you'll be unlocking throughout the game.

Comic Jumper is a longtime passion project for Twisted Pixel -- COO Josh Bear drew the game's main character, Captain Smiley, way back in seventh grade, and it's something the company has always wanted to make. After the success of 'Splosion Man last year, the team decided to have a go at finally turning it into a game. "It's not like we have any idea of how long the company could be around," Bear joked.
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Comic Jumper represented a big challenge because it called for a lot more content. There's never been this much character dialogue, or as many storylines and references in a Twisted Pixel game. In the game's first part -- taking place in the "official" Captain Smiley comic -- you'll indulge in some 2D platforming (not unlike that found in 'Splosion Man), mixed with some old-fashioned beatdowns and shooting. Bear used examples like Contra and Gunstar Heroes to describe the ranged combat, in which you use the right stick to aim and fire. While Comic Jumper is much sillier than either of those classics, the comparison is apt.

Whereas 'Splosion Man simply giggled and grunted his way through all his levels, Captain Smiley and his star-shaped sidekick are fully voiced, as are all of the characters and enemies, and the one-liners come so fast that you might miss some of the jokes. During our playthroughs, the Twisted Pixel guys chuckled at quite a few lines that I couldn't catch in time. But that's one of the big selling points of the game: you're not just fighting the bad guys, you're being entertained by the dialog and in-jokes as you play.

Fans can look forward to seeing references hidden all over the game's stages, from Twisted Pixel's own gags (there are live videos of the company's employees playing in the background of your home base) to video game nods and comic parodies hidden in the various themes of the levels themselves.

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I played through a level inspired by Silver Age, sci-fi comic books. The game's graphics faithfully recreated the old Jack Kirby four-color look, with Smiley dodging bullets and asteroids as he hurtled through space. Later on, in the black-and-white manga level (which takes place at a school named "Hent High" -- complete with a sports team dubbed The Tentacles), Smiley wields a sword that's bigger than he is during melee battles. When he switches to shooting, the game moves to a Panzer Dragoon-style perspective. And when Smiley dies, he explodes into concentric flashing circles, Mega Man-style.

Beating the various stages (and some extra challenges contained within each) will earn you cash that can be used in Smiley's headquarters to unlock an overwhelming number of items. These include character models and art (including seventh grader Josh Bear's original Captain Smiley sketch), upgrades for Smiley himself, behind-the-scenes mockumentaries, and even extra levels and content for Twisted Pixel's other XBLA games.

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Fans of "Donuts, Go Nuts!" can also rejoice, as there are at least two catchy new songs to find in the headquarters, including one that seems to be called "My Ringtone Jam." Expect to hear it on phones everywhere at the next PAX.

Bear seemed worried that Comic Jumper might not click with everyone who checks it out. "This guy is supposed to be a generic superhero," he admitted. "He's supposed to be a little whiny guy." Bear might be concerned that the creation of a seventh grader might not be enough to hold a big XBLA release together for a larger audience, but I don't think he has anything to worry about. Comic Jumper is clearly a labor of love, and it's a pretty sure bet that anyone with an interest in any of the genres or mediums it so shamelessly spoofs will find a lot of fun.

Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley launches on October 6, as part of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade Game Feast promotion.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.