Whatever happened to silly games? I'm talking about actual silliness as opposed to 'Cole Phelps dangling over a chandelier' or 'BioShock 2 multiplayer' silly. Most developers flounce about like they're trying to capture the tortured beauty of a beautiful watercolour landscape or something equally po-faced, and it seems nobody wants to envisage the splendour of somebody getting hit in the face with a custard pie. No developer other than Twisted Pixel, that is.
Well, almost. Ms. Splosion Man doesn't actually have any custard pies in it, but it is singing to a similar tune. Which is what counts in the world of art, don'tcha know. And when Twisted Pixel's latest does hit the right notes it's absolutely laugh-out-loud funny - even the game's opening 'Beard' sting for Twisted Pixel's bespoke engine elicits a chortle, with a man swivelling around in an office chair and bellowing "your move, Unreal."
Ms. Splosion Man herself, accidentally spawned in Big Science Laboratories as they celebrate the capture of Splosion Man, punches through levels with an endearing momentum and raucous charm, muttering ceaseless pop culture references ("if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it") and bouncing between skittish animations with all the flair of a classic Looney Tunes cartoon.
Much of her character riffs off girly clichés, collecting shoes, talking about cupcakes, and almost always pretending to have a telephone - "hey sister!" - stuck to the side of her face. The rendition is far too hyperbolic and distorted to cause offence, and the joke is aimed squarely at Midway for its shameless 1981 arcade game Ms. Pacman. Twisted Pixel is clearly missing a trick if it doesn't complete the trilogy with a Splosion Man Jr.
Like its predecessor, there's something indubitably pleasing about the atmosphere of Ms. Splosion Man's trappings. In its most pain-free moments, or when you've just memorised the level layout, there's a noticeable sense of both speed and rhythm, and a genuine undercurrent of elegance sitting underneath the on-screen chaos, panicking lab attendants, and the voluminous amounts of collapsing scenery.
The basic jist is that any button on your controller will cause Ms. Splosion Man to explode, and this can be done up to three times in succession. Recharging is almost instantaneous but requires her to be against a solid surface, and much of the game is built around traversing the game's 100 stages (split down the middle between single-player and co-op modes) with this intentional hindrance in mind.
Each face button triggers one of these explosions - and with the exception of moving left and right there are no other inputs in the game - which are used to both attack targets and traverse the environment, as the resulting force of the detonation always propels Ms. Splosion Man into the air. Human targets will collapse comically into a pile of steaks, for instance, whereas hitting brightly coloured explosive barrels is used to propel the character onwards and upwards to further challenges.
Splosion Man's raw exuberance was neutered slightly by the game's repetitive platform sequences, and Twisted Pixel is clearly doing its best to curb this for the sequel. Alongside the comforting and enduring familiarity of switches and conveyor belts, levels are now routinely themed around specific elements rather than a medley of obstacles.
New on display are things like pink barrels, which catapult you from the foreground to the background (or vice versa), catapult sequences that probably owe Donkey Kong royalties, and electrical rails to grind. The latter is perhaps the most frustrating, and elongated rails sequences are more memory test than dexterity challenge.
The basic structure of the game is also neatly turned upside down in some areas where you're given infinite explosions but are required to avoid hitting barrels and enemies - usually your staple items for forward movement - else be propelled to certain death. Unlike the first game you are also given the opportunity to escape the aesthetic of the Big Science Laboratories and head into a seaside resort and, later, an industrial factory. There's also a secret set of 'Star Road' levels, a Mario-inspired borrowing that Twisted Pixel cheekily turns on its head to give Capcom a kicking.
Three boss challenges punctuate each of the game's worlds, and while these don't add much to the experience they are admittedly far less grating than in the original game.
The game's focus is always on pushing forwards rather than exploring the full breadth of the levels, and this carries over into the game's multiplayer levels, which can now be played over Xbox LIVE as well as local co-op.
Multiplayer boggles the mind far more than the solo campaign, with many of the levels requiring pitch-perfect timing from both players, An unlockable 'two girls one controller' mode even allows a single player to control two characters, which works surprisingly well. When playing I like to imagine I'm just as talented as those people who play two-player Japanese shmups on hardest difficulty by themselves, but I'm definitely not.
It's certainly easy to be won over by the game's cheek and charm, but it's harder to forgive the game for its occasional frustrations and schizophrenic difficulty levels. Certain sequences are overly thrifty on the checkpoints, especially in later levels, forcing you into some weary bouts of repetition, and while the game offers you an option to 'Cheat on the Game' and skip ahead I think most people interested in Ms. Splosion Man will be far too proud to ever use such a feature.
For the most part, however, Ms. Splosion Man frustrates but is never frustrating, and actually playing the game produces an odd blend of emotive responses. Don't let the humour fool you; this is a detailed, challenging high-speed platformer designed to tickle your reflexes as much your funnybone.
By iterating on its most endearing property, Twisted Pixel has created a sequel that injects a fresh lease of life into both the platform genre and Xbox LIVE Arcade itself. Ms. Splosion Man might not have the same immediacy and freshness of her orange-hued male counterpart, but with more variety and intelligence in the level design she's definitely more fun to play with.