Twisted Pixel Games has become something of an indie-XBLA favorite. Last year they released both The Maw and ‘Splosion Man, two bright, colorful, and imaginative games that are generally well regarded. But apparently those two games were warmups, with Twisted Pixel designing the engine and tools for those games with a specific goal in mind. That goal is Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley, an XBLA exclusive single player action game with a big focus on humor. It’s an imaginative game that tries to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and while it’s far from perfect many will find that its best elements make up for its worst flaws.
Captain Smiley takes place in a world where the characters in our comic books and video games are just working schmucks putting on a kind of theater for all of us, and it’s within this fourth-wall breaking setup that we get to know our titular hero, Captain Smiley. He’s a super hero with no real discernible powers, just the ability to hit things pretty hard and shoot his guns in any direction. He’s an overcompensating sap whose staff and supporting cast seem to have zero respect for. He’s constantly accompanied by his sidekick, the mouthy jerk Star, who is literally a talking star attached to his chest. The game picks up in the middle of the latest issue of their comic line, which falls apart half way through. The comic has apparently become so unpopular that it’s been cancelled, and the Captain Smiley franchise is left homeless and alone. It’s here that the game’s developers, Twisted Pixel, decide to sponsor the fallen hero through guest appearances in three different comic books in an attempt to earn some cash and relaunch the comic line.
It’s an amusing setup, but the meat of it is how far Twisted Pixel is willing to go to sell not only the jokes but the game’s sense of style. Smiley’s comic book world is rendered entirely in 3D, with each comic book that Smiley guest stars in taking an entirely different appearance. For instance, Smiley’s native world is patterned after the kind of artwork we’d expect to see in comic books today, while a trip to a silver age era comic book changes the world to cel shaded graphics and characters and environments that would look more at home on an episode of super friends. There is also a black and white japanese manga world and an 80′s era fantasy comics world, and each one is packed with jokes aimed at that particular flavor of comic: the silver age comic is burdened with the censors of the Comics Code Authority and a cast that includes all the offensive racial stereotypes of the day, while the Manga world — based on a manga aimed at young girls — has Captain Smiley looking more like Cloud Strife, riding rainbow-farting unicorns, and fighting googly-eyed cute things. The comic aesthetic always rests on top of this, and the game will often do flashy transitions that have Captain Smiley leaping off the pages of the comic book. And there is also the acknowledgement of the world beyond the fourth wall, with full motion video being employed here and there to sell the idea that these comic book heroes and characters are more like actors putting on a stage production than real heroes and villains.
It’s inventive, but more importantly it’s facilitated by writing that more often than not is genuinely funny. There is the occasional lame joke, but overall the gags land and lead to some actual laugh out loud moments. The game lays the humor on thick, with most cutscenes and even many action segments being a string of gags, so it’s important that it keeps itself feeling fresh, but the constantly changing comic environments lend themselves well in this regard. Delivery is half the trick here, and it helps that the voice actors for the constantly chattering Captain Smiley and Star are so spot on. They’ll often trade quips in the middle of hectic action sequences, though to the developer’s credit if you find yourself dying and going through the same section over and over again, it will wisely shut the characters up so you don’t have to hear the same scripted dialogue at the same places over and over.
And that’s a very good thing considering you will probably be dying a lot. Though the humor and character of the game is at the heart of the experience, it’s all supported by decidedly old school action gameplay with old school difficulty that takes many of its cues from developers like Treasure. The main thrust of the game is shooting, which feels awfully similar to Gunstar Heroes. You move with the left stick, aim with the right stick, fire with the right trigger, and jump with the left trigger. There’s also a slide move, but this movelist is all you’re going to have for most of the game. You can purchase stat upgrades in between levels, but you’ll never learn any new moves or find any new equipment. There are also some other gameplay segments, like on-rails shooter pieces that feels right out of Sin and Punishment, extremely simplistic beat-em-up sections, and even some QTEs that are thankfully short and few and far between.
As far as gameplay goes, it’s all very solid though not particularly deep. There’s only a small handful of basic enemy types in each comic world, but the game is good about throwing new bosses or set pieces to keep things fresh. Getting a handle on the unusual but effective controls can take some time, but after it clicks you’ll find it all comes second nature. If there are any outstanding problems here, it’s that some segments wear out their welcome. There are 11 stages spread across the four worlds of Comic Jumper, and each one is beatable in around 10 to 20 minutes. It comes out to around 4 hours of gameplay, which doesn’t sound all that long, but there are segments in some levels that seem to go on longer than they should. Hallways littered with enemies that seem to go on for a little too long, bosses that seem to take a little too much damage before dying, or platforming gimmicks that keep popping up well after you’ve had your fill of them. The game encourages players to replay levels by tallying scores and posting level specific challenges for cash bonuses, but it’s kind of a hard sell since it’s harder to forgive these more meandering segments a second (or third) time through a level. It’s here that some more advanced scoring mechanics would have helped make the game more replayable, but the scoring is pretty straightforward and based on how many things you managed to kill, how fast you completed a level, and how accurate you were.
As mentioned, the game definitely has some of that old school difficulty, but lives are unlimited and checkpoints are generously doled out, though sometimes in weird increments. Those worrying about the difficulty shouldn’t since despite the fact the screen can often be littered with bullets, every death puts you back at the last checkpoint with full health, and even a partially upgraded Captain Smiley can take quite a few hits before he clocks out.
After completing the game, there’s not a whole lot to keep you coming back. Sure there are leaderboards to climb, but I personally could not go through most of the levels more than a couple times and still enjoy myself, though there’s some fun to be had by going to the earliest levels with a completely upgraded Captain Smiley. There’s a very impressive bounty of extras to unlock, including concept art, video interviews, early development gameplay footage, and even extra levels for ‘Spolsion Man, but these as well as all of the upgrades for Captain Smiley can be attained before the end of your first playthrough (it’s worth mentioning here that buying these bonus extras also help to significantly increase the amount of money you earn in levels, so it’s worth it to invest in unlockable art and such early in the game to get all the upgrades as fast as possible).
Still, despite being a relatively short game without a lot of replay value, at $15 Comic Jumper is still a pretty easy game to recommend to fans of action games, comic books, or just self-referential geek humor in general. It’s a new IP with an imaginative premise, great humor, and solid action that should keep you entertained for that entire four hour playthrough. It ranks with games like Shadow Complex, Braid, and Limbo as one of the better single player campaigns on XBLA right now.