Title: ‘Splosion Man
Format: XBox Live Arcade
Approximate Time Spent playing at time of writing: 60 hours
Modes of play: Single Player, Offline and Online 2-4 Multiplayer Co-op, Online Leaderboards
I think if I was going to sit down and theorise the perfect platformer, or ‘puzzle-platformer’ if you will, for my particular tastes in skill tests, then Splosion Man (or ‘Splosion Man, to be precise) may very well be it. It has just the right mixture of thinking and working out puzzles to go with the execution skills needed for me. Most platform games are far more about execution – although in the puzzle-platformer category you do of course have exceptions such as Braid which is far further to the pure puzzle side of things. Now whilst that’s a lot of fun for me too, there’s something about just the right blend of execution and thought when it comes to a game like ‘Splosion Man that I can’t deny is even more fun for this style of challenge. Not only does it allow for a lot more fun of re-playing it, gives much more toy-‘experience’ type of fun, it also stops the problem of people shortcutting the challenge itself just by reading or watching online guides (their loss – but it does indirectly weaken the fun for others as well). It also more readily allows for difficulty ‘waves’ rather than a curve – allowing a player moments of ‘feeling powerful’ and enjoying the realisation of how skilled at the execution they have become before the next challenge. Splosion Man delivers all of these elements with aplomb with its incredibly well designed levels which also always manage to offer new challenges and a surprising amount of variety throughout the game. The blend of thinking of a solution & execution prowess needed in ‘Splosion Man actually reminds me of Street Fighter II, it really is at such a sweet spot for me. Add in a challenge & punishment curve that could practically have been designed for my exact level of ability – enough to really make me struggle, yet always feel attainable – it’s already a heady mix.
The execution in ‘Splosion Man is simply a matter of movement control and ‘splode’ control, which is your only direct command (although in some levels there are various levers and switches you can also control via movement or splodes); there’s no very complicated strings of commands to remember, just varying degrees of directional presses and timing of single button presses along with analogue movement. It’s really just a modified form of the ‘standard’ platform game mechanics. However I like the mechanics here more than almost any other platform game because of the basic jump or ‘splode’ mechanics, and here it is quite unique. Each splode is of a fixed maximum distance and direction once initiated – there’s no way to modify your direction easily apart from sploding again (and you only ever can have 3 splodes charged) or waiting until you start to fall, in which case you gain more control over your momentum. So in this way a splode really is like your character is flinging himself in a direction – it might sound odd, but it’s actually far more like a ‘real’ jump and is far more natural to me than in most platformers which have some very strange mid-air momentum control going on. There’s also a lot of subtlety to the controls when it comes to being able to ‘wall bounce’, hang on ledges of platforms and re-gain your splodes by standing still or sliding down a wall. So what initially is a simple control space, actually has quite a lot of depth and a very nice learning curve to it, as you begin to really master it – which you’ll need to do to continue to progress through the levels. And of course it’s the way you interact with the levels that becomes part of the advanced level of the controls, as suddenly you have to judge splodes onto exploding barrels that bounce you higher and replenish your splodes, time splodes through gaps in moving spikes, use enemies to splode higher, or regain splodes mid-fall from hotspot locations.
‘Splosion Man also does something else in particular that I personally love in a videogame and something that’s extremely rare in platformers – it rewards exploration and thoroughness over speed rushes and warps and the like. That type of rushing style has always been something that I’ve not enjoyed so much. Racing through levels of Mario and Sonic always frustrated me because I didn’t really enjoy playing like that so much. I was forever wanting to go back and explore every corner and kill every enemy, however the ticking timer and the risk/rewards & challenge of the game dictated that whilst you could sometimes go off-piste (sometimes with minor rewards of its own), there really was one ‘best’ way to play it. To put this in perspective, when I was (a lot!) younger the way I played Super Mario World on the SNES was to plot the fastest route through all the levels, using the best warps I could, and I completed the game only doing around 10 of the vaunted 99 levels, finishing the game in a matter of minutes, or hours at most. Here’s where Achievements (and online leaderboards) really help a lot to widen the rewards available within a challenge game beyond ‘completion’. Perhaps because of them, there’s no way that you’d want to play Splosion Man like this (at least at first) as it actually goes to great lengths to reward the experimenter and the explorer – with delicious cake! The cakes are the ‘collectibles’ in the game that are hidden, one per level, that are often harder to find and get to than actually just finishing the level itself. However even without Achievements – getting the cakes would still be quite clearly the best ‘way to play’ in Splosion Man, and obviously ‘the real challenge’. This is because of the option to skip levels that you are doing badly at. This means that completing the game is actually only a matter of beating the 3 bosses that you cannot skip – ie: it’s short, pretty trivial and certainly quite easy – and so in it’s place becomes the real challenge to get every cake – because to record it, you also have to complete every level fully without skipping.
If ‘Splosion Man left things at this point would be a really good title, however what pushes it over the top into the realm of one of my favourite challenge videogames of all time is it’s real ace card – co-operative play. As is shown by my large ‘Social’ score from my Brainhex test, I really enjoy playing games & challenges with other people. ‘Splosion Man’s co-op mode takes everything I like about the single player, and every skill-test, and then adds teamwork, co-ordination, timing and communication skills to the mix – to make the challenge even more perfect for my tastes. It arguably makes the thought ‘puzzle’ side of the game easier – as you now have at least two minds attempting to solve it, although it also expands your options quite a bit too, as with two players you gain the ability to splode off one another, and splode launch another player, which lends itself to more complex situations and solutions sometimes. One thing that’s certain though is that co-op also makes all of the execution tests harder, now that perfect timing between two or more players is needed. Whilst this is a lot of fun for those players that want this additional challenge, this could be a detriment to some players. This certainly isn’t the kind of co-op game where someone can be “along for the ride” and can be carried by another player – apart from a few segments where one player can die and the other one can get to the checkpoint or complete the level, but these aren’t common. In fact the level of co-ordination needed when you get to 3 or 4 players is so high, I’ve personally not had any chance to get a group together who wanted to take that on. Wisely, there’s no “hardcore co-op” mode in the game, as this would be an infeasible feat for all but two of the very best & perfectly coordinated players. One great thing about the co-op though is the fact that the levels are different than in single player mode, and so you’ll both need to figure them out together, even if one of you has also played the game in single player. Yet at the same time the levels do have similarities, as do the skills you need to acquire, and so playing single player will really help make you better at the co-op mode. So whilst it won’t be a re-run of the same skills by any means, single player can almost become a fantastic ‘practice mode’ for those more interested in the challenge with the addition of teamwork, like I am. The fiero punch I experienced upon completing this game on Hardcore was exhilarating – I danced around the house singing & shouting for quite some time in fact! 😉 However without the excellent co-operative mode driving my interest in the game to such a height in the first place, I very much doubt I would ever have gotten to that point – this is how important co-op play is to me. The online netcode is pretty good too, using the ‘rollback’ (GGPO-style) method of dealing with lag, which as any decent fighting game player knows is the only way to handle lag in a game requiring this kind of precision. It’s not as good as the netcode in some other games, but it’s certainly good enough for a non-competitive game, and there’s no gameplay difference between offline co-op and online co-op with a good net connection, as both use a “shared screen”.
Naturally it’s almost extraneous to how great the game is, but I also have to mention the hilarious humour in the game, the great graphics and animations, and the excellent music. Almost everything I’d personally want from the “toy/experience” category is here in abundance. It lacks any option for the full free form paidic type of toy-like play, but that does not tend to be something I go for anyway. ‘Splosion Man has everything I want ‘beyond the challenge’ to interest me and draw me in. There’s not much of a story, interactive or otherwise beyond the jokes, yet the comedy ‘world’ of Big Science Labs is actually far better realised than in many videogames, even extending to the game’s website.
I’ve written a lot before about ‘Splosion Man as I used the game as an examination of the difference between challenge and punishment in games, and I also explained in that full gaming design article more about ‘Splosion Man and why I like it so much; yet I can also readily see why it isn’t for everyone. The difficulty curve may very well not be at the same sweet spot for you, the skills it tests may not interest you in the same way they do for me, and the way the game is designed does little to attempt to alleviate that, beyond the extremely weak solution of offering the aforementioned level skip option. However, if you’re anywhere close to my tastes, then a level-skip option isn’t something you could imagine using! If you can get at least one like-minded, like-skilled friend who hasn’t yet solved all the puzzles in the game already to play through this on co-op with you – and you try to get all the cake – I believe you are in for one of the very best challenge experiences that any game (not just videogames) can offer. Whilst I think a lot could be done to make the title more accessible to a wider audience, the only way to make this puzzle/challenge better for me personally would be to have more of it. ‘Splosion Man is the standard I currently judge all other platformers and even many other comparable puzzle-challenge games against.
Competitive Gaming Design Review: N/A.
Competitive Game Review: N/A. Whilst there are online leaderboards, these are such a weak incentive compared to the rest of the game, they don’t really offer much to all but the most rabid fans of this method of gaming. You can play a score game or a speed game though, per level or across the whole game, but as I’ve explained above, but I have other outlets for my competitive gaming I enjoy much more, and playing Splosion Man like this would move the game too much away from my personal taste territory, as explained above, and so I’ve barely even tried – beyond making sure I was ahead of all my friends of course! 😉
Interactive Story: Neutral
Toy/Experience: Highly Positive, although there isn’t too much of a ‘toy’, the animations, characterisation and humour will entertain potentially as much as the game mechanics.
Grind: A tiny amount possibly if the “Normal” mode is too easy for you, you will need to finish it to unlock “Hardcore” mode. However this is very unlikely to be the case for anyone.
Other good reviews found: