Review / Comic Jumper (XBLA)

Developer Twisted Pixel has already cranked out a couple great games for Xbox Live Arcade, the critically acclaimed ‘Splosion Man and The Maw, but in the self-referential and self-deprecating Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley they have finally stumbled upon a truly franchise-worthy hero. Never mind the fact that he got fired from his own comic book. With his titular adventures now relegated to toilet paper fodder, Captain Smiley and his sidekick, a sentient costume decoration named Star, are forced to moonlight in other comic books to earn back the love, respect and, most importantly, cash needed to re-launch their own super-powered series. Jumping from the Robert Howard-inspired Nanoc The Obliviator to the Jack Kirby-influenced Improbable Paper Pals to the manga-styled Cutie Cutie Kid Cupids, Comic Jumper plays like an homage to the classic side-scroller Gunstar Heroes filtered through the developer’s obvious love of comics.

Each comic book world has its own distinct artistic style – modern, fantasy, silver age and manga – and its own unique gameplay elements, though the humor remains delightfully, dependably funny throughout. Plenty of games try to be funny, but forget that they need to build the laughs on a firm foundation of good game mechanics. There’s nothing humorous about blowing your hard-earned cash on a title destined for the bargain bin from the start. Thankfully this doesn’t remotely describe Comic Jumper, even if it were a disc-based release. Twisted Pixel has struck the perfect balance between solid, varied gameplay and side splitting hilarity. The bosses are lame. The story is dumb. But the laughs are real. Where else can you fight a floating child’s head from atop a galloping unicorn? Or use a power up to summon live action Twisted Pixel employees to head butt the screen? The humor that isn’t grounded in weirdness is firmly rooted in Captain Smiley and crew’s awareness that they are indeed comic book and videogame characters.

Comic Jumper doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it rigs it with C-4 charges and blows it right to hell. The characters are constantly referencing their dependence on, and frustration with the strange whims of the comic-reading, game-playing public.  That is when they’re not tearing each other down. The dialogue, from Captain Smiley and Star’s constant bickering banter to Mistress Rope’s feminist rants against 60’s era sexism, is brilliantly written and acted. In addition to the self-aware humor, Comic Jumper is chock full of geeky gamer references. When Captain Smiley dies, he explodes in a shower of flashing concentric circles ala Mega Man while delivering parting digs at your gaming prowess, my favorite being “hope your friends weren’t watching.” This is a game for gamers, by gamers, so the the pithy put-downs ring of truth. Good thing they’re funny, because you’ll be hearing them many, many times. For the most part, the action unfolds in typical Contra fashion, with the left stick controlling movement and the right stick controlling a dual-wielded projectile weapon that will be put to good use blasting enemies from all angles, at all times. Don’t let the fact that the protagonist has an emoticon for a head fool you into thinking Comic Jumper is cutesy. The action is hardcore, at times frustratingly so.

This game is old school through and through. No leisurely exploration. No instant respawns. No mercy.  Comic Jumper mixes things up with some brawler sections, as well as several Space Harrier-esque on rails sections where you are able to dodge left or right while controlling a set of crosshairs,  but for the most part it’s you versus endless waves of enemies. There are even monster closet sections where you are confined to a single comic book frame until you defeat all the enemies. What there isn’t are health pick ups. There also isn’t a block button, though the Captain does have the ability to knock-back foes for some all too temporary breathing room.  This all makes for a surprisingly challenging shooter and platformer. When you die, and you will die often, it’s back to the nearest checkpoint. And near is never as near as you’d like it. For those who grew up gaming on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the frustration will be tempered with feelings of nostalgia, but there will still be frustration. There’s really nowhere to escape to in a 2D side-scroller. Sometimes the best strategy is just to haul ass and hope you cross that invisible checkpoint line before you become just another mass of expanding circles scattered on a virtual wind.

Despite the trial and error, Comic Jumper is a solid action title. Most of the gameplay is predicated on two buttons – jump and punch – but the simple controls belie the game’s depth. Sure, there aren’t any pick ups, save the aforementioned developer head butting special attack that can be earned during melee sections and purchased from villain turned upgrade vendor Dr. Winklemeyer, but there are lots of upgrades and bonuses. The cash you earn completing comic book issues, and from readership bonuses for meeting certain conditions like not getting pegged in the head with a flying chicken, can be spent on extra health, increased melee damage and increased weapon damage. You can also earn cash in the form of “Exploration Bonuses” just for wandering around and talking to the pink slipped villains crashing in your basement base, like Captain Smiley’s frat boy-esque archenemy Brad and his Bradbots. The real money though is in completing missions and the non-story related challenges. There is a fair amount of grinding required to squeeze all the cash out of each level, but all the hidden references keep it from being a chore.  The developers obviously intended you to play through each level more than once, as the in-jokes are flying too fast and furious to absorb in a single go.

Even if you find yourself having performed the miracle of a perfect playthrough, there’s still a surprising amount of items and extras to unlock in the Captain’s headquarters, including character models, concept art, audio clips  and behind the scenes interviews, all of which will grant an additional boost to your earnings potential giving you the purchasing power to unlock even more exclusive items. Deep in the recesses of your headquarters, there’s even a game and trophy room with classic arcade cabinets devoted to The Maw and ‘Splosion Man, allowing you to play both games without exiting to the dashboard, or trial versions if you’re not willing to part with a ten spot. All these little touches go to show that Comic Jumper isn’t some slap dash effort, but a true labor of love for Twisted Pixel. Comic Jumper has catchy music, funny dialogue and tons of extra unlockable items all wrapped up in colorful comic book genre-hopping graphics, and the bow on top is the fact that it’s a damn challenging action game, too.

+ Hilariously self-referential, self-aware dialogue
+ Brilliant artistic design spoofing popular comic genres and game cliches
+ Love the developer has for this project palpatable in every single pixel

– Health pick ups are non existent
– Checkpoints are too far and few between
– Action is brutal enough that you will curse at the screen at some point, which we will count as a negative if your children aren’t in public school already