Small, quiet PixelJunk SideScroller studio Q-Games is one of two prominent developers based in Kyoto. (The other is not-so-small-or-quiet Nintendo.) The ancient capital of Japan and a bastion of artisanal tradition, Kyoto suits Q-Games well. Its developers design their wares with the confident wisdom of old-world crafters, like the ones who forge blades in samurai flicks. They value patient simplicity over bombast, and that approach is evident in their PixelJunk series. Even though the tone of the PixelJunk oeuvre has ranged from noisy genre fun like PixelJunk Shooter to the tranquility of PixelJunk Eden, the elegant craftsmanship has been consistent. PixelJunk SideScroller, though, proves that craft only takes a game so far.
This spin-off of Shooter is a tribute to 1980s games like Gradius, whose scrolling firmaments slowly dragged players into frantic dogfights with spaceships, space aliens, and (obviously!) space volcanoes. In SideScroller, your ship comes pre-equipped with three weapons: a machine gun, a bomb launcher, and a laser. You can switch between these freely as the situation demands, and a large part of the challenge is figuring out which assault will serve you best in a given moment. Do you use the bombs to clear out the nuisance turrets around the edges, or mow down the approaching phalanx of fighters with your machine gun? As players take their fourth and fifth and 17th runs through a given stage—this is a tough game, even on “normal” difficulty—they’ll find this three-way system offers a complex range of tactical possibilities.
Even with that mild twist on tradition, SideScroller boils down to the same experience as any other decent sidescroller: Find a pattern of maneuvers and attacks that succeeds on a given stage, work it into your muscle memory, and unleash hell. Repeat until the universe is saved. That’s a classic formula, and it’s executed fairly well here.
SideScroller has the crisp lines and fluid movement of its PixelJunk predecessors, but it lacks their personality. Even accounting for the series’ laid-back style, this game interprets a traditionally vivacious genre in an oddly muted way, with rote level design and an easy-listening soundtrack that sounds like it’s piped from the lounge of a two-star Ginza hotel.
When there are scant flourishes of character, they don’t help. In a bid to instill some sense of excitement, a Japanese-pixie voice belts out a cheer for certain events, like crossing a checkpoint—that is to say, crossing a chekkupointo! That would be cute enough every once in a while, but she also pipes up every time you switch weapons, which tends to happen dozens of times in a stage. So it sounds as if there’s a coke-addled hostess girl right next to you on the couch.
This is the type of game that nostalgists always characterize as a “love letter to the genre.” Putting aside the necessity of writing that letter in the first place—surely the NES era’s post-office box is full by now—it’s evident that Q-Games’ passions weren’t inflamed here. SideScroller is like a butter knife from a master bladesmith, a meticulous game whose modest ambition only hints at its creators’ talent.