Time and time again, the PixelJunk series has proven adept at crafting clever, fresh games derived from simple, played-out concepts: Monsters made tower-defense titles viable again in an overcrowded field, and Eden reminded gamers how immersive straightforward exploration can be. PixelJunk Shooter is a bit of a misnomer—while it’s as charmingly lo-fi and trippy as its predecessors, it doesn’t let you blow up everything to your heart’s content. Well, you can, but that won’t get you far.
Shooter plants players in the cockpit of a teeny-tiny subterranean vehicle that must ward off marauding enemy ships and wandering turrets as you rescue your Hazmat-suit-wearing scientist allies. One stray blast from your peashooter laser can kill the people you’re trying to protect, but not shooting is counterproductive, given the other wrench Shooter throws at you: the elements. While your ship can overheat and malfunction from shooting too much, molten magma, magnetic fluids, and gas are much more instantaneously hazardous. Knowing how to effectively play one element against another without the result blowing up in your face helps transform a simple gimmick into fast-paced strategizing—gas acts as a fuse when it touches lava, water and magma combine to make sand, and magnetic goo turns to gas when you add water. Through Shooter’s 15 levels, additional twists are offered via power-ups that suddenly make you impervious to an element you previously should have avoided: When wearing the magma suit, drops of water can instantly turn you into mist.
In addition to all this careful blasting, rescuing, and, uh, flinging of fluids, the only way to progress from one world to another is unlocking them by discovering hidden, miniscule diamonds that, when not exposed, appear as slivers of white along surfaces. While this breeds an appetite for anal-retentively exploring every nook of every level (or deploying the ship’s grabbing arm repeatedly whenever you’re moving), it can eventually lead to a dead end where you won’t be able to progress until you unearth 15 more gems. Old-school gamers will likely have strong instincts about where diamonds might be hidden within some levels, but it feels more like an arbitrary hindrance. Still, Shooter’s handful of focused levels are all worth experiencing to their fullest. Just when you think you know exactly how to solve a certain puzzle, Shooter gets the last laugh by springing an unexpected surprise on you, making for that rarest of shooters: One where you must be paying attention and thinking at all times.