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PixelJunk Sidescroller preview: Normal is Hard

Though I wouldn't characterize any of Q-Games' titles as being especially easy, none possess the penchant for punishment boasted by the recently announced PixelJunk Sidescroller. That's fairly appropriate, considering the hellacious difficulty barriers that are customary for the shoot-em-up genre. Still, it's tough to stop and smell the audiovisual roses that pepper the stylish developer's games when you're also concerned with weaving through wall after wall of small, spherical bullets.

Preparing myself for a somewhat relaxing synesthetic experience, my decision at PixelJunk Sidescroller's difficulty screen was absentminded: "Normal should be fine," I said, with unknowing hubris. It was far from fine.

Gallery: PixelJunk: SideScroller (E3 2011) | 6 Photos

Folks who managed to unlock the secret last level of PixelJunk Shooter 2 should be familiar with Sidescroller's set-up: It's a Gradius-style shooter which pushes the player's ship ever rightward as they blast through wave after wave of serpentine-patterned foes. A handful of Shooter's elemental elements make a return, as players' health can still be restored by dousing themselves with water, or depleted by dousing themselves in flame. (You probably could have figured that last part out on your own.)

Players can swap between three different weapons at will on their eastbound flight: A rapid-fire machine gun, a slower but more powerful laser beam and an even slower homing missile attack. Each can be upgraded by collecting power-ups from fallen enemies, and each serves a specific purpose depending on what ring of bullet hell you're currently navigating. Need to focus on dodging? The missiles are where it's at. Need to take down a line of enemies? Laser beams, friend.

It's a new direction for the franchise, but it's far from untreaded territory for the industry-at-large. Q Games is clearly courting a retro audience, here -- though that much should be evidenced by the game's very display, which is made to simulate a crummy, scanline-covered monitor. If, for some reason, you miss that revealing clue, you only have to play the game for a few minutes before you realize it also possesses a difficulty level rarely implemented outside of classic quarter-guzzlers.

My instinctual decision to play the game on it's "Normal" difficulty -- there was no "Hard" option on the demo I played, thank goodness -- resulted in my frequent failure, and a humbling decline to "Easy." After my third or fourth death in the lower gear, the demo handler explained that the game will possess another difficulty mode which will allow players to customize the game's every element: Enemy types, enemy health, player health and, presumably, number of bullets.

With it's local co-op and its focus on arcadey, score-chasing competition, PixelJunk: Sidescroller seems like it could be a neat accompaniment to the Shooter series. However, it's promised capacity to make the game as easy as your fragile heart desires -- or as difficult as your completely insane robot heart desires -- might just end up being its standout feature.

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