Comic Jumper review: Panel beater

Games are made by human beings. It's easy to forget that fact when you're playing an extravagant, focus-tested blockbuster like Assassin's Creed, whose high production values can even obscure a team of over 200 people. In contrast, Twisted Pixel's games don't feel like perfectly orchestrated, inhuman feats -- they feel like they were handmade, just for you.

That contrast isn't diminished when the Texas-based indie developer attempts more complex storytelling in Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley. There has never been this much dialogue, creative presentation and extra content in a Twisted Pixel game, and while it feels less economical and less elegant than either The Maw or 'Splosion Man, hubristic hero Captain Smiley doesn't waste his time in the spotlight.
%Gallery-88440% Between bickering with his lowbrow, mid-chest sidekick Star, Captain Smiley struggles to make ends meet after his comic book of questionable merit gets cancelled. There's plenty of money to be made in cameo appearances, of course, which prompts the pair to jump into several different comics, including a politically incorrect Silver Age sci-fi special and an intolerably sweet manga volume. The introduction of new scenarios, remarkable visual styles (manga Star is totally kawaii!) and hilarious gags occurs at a brisk pace, reigniting interest just as a parody lands on its last legs.

Twisted Pixel regularly drives a bulldozer through the fourth wall ... and sometimes a drill when the level calls for ridiculous Total Recall references. The developers themselves provide Smiley with a home base, which connects the missions and hosts a plethora of cool unlockable bonuses. You'll also come across wonderfully voiced dialogue with the game's bizarre villains and a few one-off jokes that only appear between certain levels (including one that cleverly addresses Smiley's similarity to "The Maniacal Smile").

The action itself feels borrowed from the 16-bit era, with most levels offering (at least) some classic biff-powing and a good dose of side-scrolling shooting. You'll spot shades of Earthworm Jim and Gunstar Heroes in there, along with a surprisingly tough, old-school difficulty. Maneuvering Smiley with the left stick, aiming his guns with the right and sliding beneath bullets at the right moment is deceptively simple at first, but playing well (and playing perfectly, for leaderboard progression) is an intense challenge. It never feels unfair though, and Smiley's gung-ho animations embellish your efforts perfectly.

The checkpoints are usually generous, but the lack of health recovery (outside of dying) does highlight some of Comic Jumper's uneven pacing. The jokes come at a steady rate, sure, but some enemy encounters simply don't know when it's time to leave. Foes can be quite the bullet sponges if you haven't upgraded Smiley's guns all the way, and successive waves of similar monsters can easily lead to a feeling of ho-hum tedium, especially if you're repeating a tricky section because you didn't have enough health going in. This is also a problem with a handful of bosses, whose large health stores require plenty of bullets and a feat of endurance to deplete. Compared to 'Splosion Man, there's a notable lack of snap in Comic Jumper.

To speed things along, however, you can call out to the developers at Twisted Pixel and have them clear the screen for you in a fit of live-action pummeling. These folks can get away with something that M. Night Shyamalan can't because ... well, they're doing it to help. Maybe it's a good thing that Comic Jumper isn't mechanically assembled and focus-tested to perfection in every respect. People made this game (a game about a sphere-faced, gun-toting action hero with an abrasive talking star on his chest!), and it's nice to have an earnest reminder of that every now and then.

Although Comic Jumper is Twisted Pixel's biggest and arguably most traditional title yet, it loses none of the studio's in-your-face personality and infectious irreverence. When developers tell me they had as much fun making a game as I had playing it, it's not often that I believe them.

This review is based on final Xbox 360 code provided by Twisted Pixel. Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley launches on Xbox Live Arcade this Wednesday, October 6, for 1200 MS Points.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.