Captain Smiley is not a household name. Even though he sports a friendly exterior and has a good sense of charm, his comic books just aren't interesting enough to keep the superhero employed. His books are being ripped up or, used as toilet paper or worse. He would be happy to be called a D-lister. Clearly, something needs to change. It's time for an extreme superhero make-over!
This is the set-up for Twisted Pixel's newest action game. This young developer has successfully conquered both 3D and 2D, with The Maw and 'Splosion Man. Now they have their sights set on something a little more personal. For their next game they have decided to write themselves into the story, creating one of the most compelling concepts of the year. Who cares if the dated gameplay gets in the way, Comic Jumper proves that a great idea can make up for a lot of minor problems.
So how exactly does one go about remaking a superhero? If you're Captain Smiley you hire Twisted Pixel to develop a machine that will literally shoot you into more popular comics. The plan is simple, guest star in a bunch of successful comics so people will know who this yellow-headed freak is. If they earn enough money and clout, they'll re-launch the comic book and turn Captain Smiley into the shining star he's supposed to be.
Oh wait ... that shining star isn't Captain Smiley at all. Instead it's the Captain's biologically attached sidekick, Star. While Smiley is often nice and courteous, Star can be a real jerk. He says what he means and isn't afraid to sugar coat it. The two are constantly at odds, bickering like an old married couple. Star doesn't do anything, he just sits there on the chest making discouraging comments.
In order to earn enough money, Captain Smiley will need to star in three classic comic books - Nanoc the Obliviator (1974), Improbable Paper Pals (1961) and Cutie Cutie Kid Cupids (1998). These three comics (along with Smiley's own 2010 book) couldn't be any more different. Every element of these levels is different; from the era-specific bosses to the cultural references to the bad guys you fight. And best of all, the levels keep getting better the further you get.
The parodies are obvious enough, but what makes this game special is the close attention to comic book history. While the Conan the Barbarian jokes make the early part of the game chuckle-worthy, it wasn't until the second set of levels where I sat up and took note of the clever concept. Suddenly I went from shooting dinosaurs in a prehistoric world to having to worry about staying within the comic book code of conduct. That means no excessive violence or profanity.Comic Jumper is at its creative best when it mines the strange comic book contradictions found in each theme and era. In the 1960s, the censors seem to have no problem with an outright racist Asian stereotype prancing around. Yet you don't dare use a four-letter word or show any form of sexuality. Later in the game the developers explore the cultural divide between traditional Western comics and Japanese manga. The result is a set of levels so over-the-top (yet spot-on) that they have to be seen to be believed.
There's a reason why we're six hundred words into this review and I haven't talked about the gameplay, and that's because it's something of a letdown. Instead of sticking with just one game mechanic, Twisted Pixel has employed several different styles of gameplay. The most used style is a run-and-gun game, similar to the old arcade game Midnight Resistance. It's a side-scrolling 2D shooter that acts like a dual-stick shooter. You jump around and shoot in any direction, the object here is to not get hit by stray bullets (or whatever else the enemies throw your way).
Sometimes the game switches from platformer to rail-shooter. Here you'll not only control Smiley, but you'll also have to aim the crosshairs around the screen. This works for the most part, mostly because it's used somewhat sparingly. It overstays its welcome, but it's not as bad as the hand-to-hand combat. From time to time, for no reason that I can figure out, Smiley will be limited to his hands and feet. He won't even be able to jump or block. He just moves left and right and punches enemies he would normally shoot. This mode doesn't feel very fleshed out, as if the development team ran out of time and this woefully inadequate close quarters combat is what we're left with.
The gameplay is fine for what it is, but it's not fresh or innovative in any way. The world around it is exciting and new, but the same cannot be said about the tired quick time events and the Forgotten Worlds-style space levels. Although players are able to buy upgrades for Smiley, there are no power-up items or new moves to master. What you see is what you get. Thankfully the writing and different comic books are enough to keep things exciting, but it would have been nice for a little more depth in the gameplay department.
The game's meta concept is unlike anything I've ever seen before in a video game. Smiley is constantly getting notes from the development team. Heck, before the Captain takes to his rocket seat, he can peer in and see what the employees of Twisted Pixel are doing. He can go downstairs and play The Maw (where he quips that it's too short and the developers overpriced the downloadable content). I can't verify this, but I suspect that no video game has more developer cameos than Comic Jumper. If you ever wanted to know what the employees of Twisted Pixel look like, this is the game for you.
Yet, as easy as this game is to recommend, there are missteps that really stand out for me. The banter between Smiley and Star isn't always funny, especially early in the game. Some of the writing in the first couple levels is so bad I wondered if I was going to be able to stomach the full game. It felt forced and never quite hit the mark. It also relied a little too heavily on pop culture references. In a five minute period, I heard our two heroes reference Back to the Future, Alien, Lost in Space, Gauntlet and Star Trek. All while giving us gameplay about as fresh as Marty McFly's Chuck Berry cover.
The good news is that the game's writing eventually picks up, so most people will have forgotten the rocky start by the time they see the awesome end cinema. There's so much personality throughout this game, it would be foolish to spend too much time dwelling on a few questionable jokes. Instead I should be talking about the cool song you listen to while looking at Captain Smiley's stats. Or maybe the two extra 'Splosion Man levels that come with this game. No matter what I end up talking about, there's a lot to love about Comic Jumper.
The game's three comic books definitely feel like enough for the price, but I can't help but think about all of the comic books in need of the Captain Smiley make-over. I would love to see a Sin City-style graphic novel or maybe something that taps into Tales from the Crypt. There are so many iconic comics to cull from, here's hoping Twisted Pixel comes up with some DLC or a sequel in a hurry.