I bloody loved 'Splosion Man. The combination of tongue-in-cheek humour and a unique twist on the platform genre made it one of the must-buy XBLA games of 2009. With that success, developer Twisted Pixel's follow-up, Comic Jumper, had a lot to live up to, and it seems the pressure was just too great. While the new XBLA game is undeniably funny and packed with character, the core side-scrolling shooter gameplay feels tedious and poorly implemented [alongside a constant onslaught of enemies]. As your loud-mouth co-star, Star, mutters at one point; "there's a lot to complain about". He's not wrong.
Comic Jumper is set in a bizarre world in which the stars of comics lead lives similar to Hollywood actors. The biggest stars get their own comics, while the up-and-comers have to take bit parts while they try to make a name for themselves. Captain Smiley is a star, with his own comic and all the glitz and glam that goes with it, but things turn sour after the first level of the game. The yellow-faced man isn't performing well enough, so his comic is cancelled and he's forced to enter other publications in order to rebuild his reputation.
This setup allows Smiley to transport himself into rival comics by using a machine similar to the time travel device in Timecop. Each title he visits has its own unique look and style, and this makes for a diverse range of stages. From the prehistoric dinosaur-battling antics in Nanoc The Obliviator, through to the Japanese manga craziness of Cutie Cutie Cupid Kid Cupids, the creativity on show is never anything less than stellar. In fact, for the most part it's this inventiveness that will keep you playing through the duration of the adventure.
Comic Jumper is predominantly a side-scrolling 2D shooter, with the hero blasting enemies with a gun. By default aiming is handled manually using the right analogue stick, but there's an aim-assist option available if you want it. With so much stuff going on and enemies coming at you from all directions, this isn't an easy game. Manual aiming initially feels like the only option, as using assists seems like a cop-out, but you need to focus so much on avoiding attacks that a bit of help comes in handy.
You'd think that classic scrolling gameplay would be good fun, but the amount of enemies and bullets trying to kill you makes the experience quite stilted. Given the light tone of the story and the bravado of the main character, it's downright frustrating having to repeatedly stop to take out enemies that absorb too many hits. This is a game where it feels like running and gunning should be the way to play, but that's just not possible - even when you've bought some much-needed upgrades.
Smiley is able to slide along the ground to avoid gunfire and other projectiles, but this isn't enough to get out of situations where there are things trying to hurt you from all directions. Certain incoming threats - such as chickens catapulted at you from villagers in the Nanoc levels - can be shot out of the sky, but other objects can't. Melee combat sequences are far less frustrating, as are the on-rails Sin and Punishment-style interludes, but these are a small part of the overall game.
Despite some variety interspersed into the core running and gunning, repetition is Comic Jumper's biggest problem. Twisted Pixel's previous game, 'Splosion Man, excelled in terms of tight controls and smart level design, whereas Comic Jumper feels like a fairly generic old-school game inside a clever graphical style that current hardware allows. The manga-inspired Cutie Cutie Kid Cupids comic is a perfect example of style over function, with the hand-drawn art making it hard to actually see what's going on.
Comic Jumper is genuinely funny, although it might take a while to get in tune with what is at times a slightly juvenile tone. The characters here are amusingly self-aware: they know they're in a video game, and the development team has played on this quite superbly. This runs from the dialogue through to the in-game special moves - one of which sees the arms of dev team members flying onto the screen to kill all the enemies. There are moments of pure craziness too, with an early woman-surfing sequence highlighting the level of humour on offer. It might not sound particularly amusing, but in the context of the game it works.
For an XBLA game the fact that there's voice acting is a big bonus, and it's uniformly excellent. Sadly the lip-synching appears to be less impressive in the later stages, but the delivery is still superb. In typical Twisted Pixel fashion there are some hilarious little touches too, with the song that plays over the stats screen being a particular favourite of mine.
At points Comic Jumper will frustrate to the extent that you'll want to walk away and never look at it again, but if the humour grabs you then it's possible to overlook the many problems. I'd have preferred a more forgiving game that didn't jar so much with the tongue-in-cheek feel, but the hardcore gameplay is tolerable and things become easier as you progress. Comic Jumper is a solid XBLA release that will please some more than others, but for me it's definitely a case of style over substance.