Comic books and video games really are soul-mates these days, aren’t they? We have games that either tie-in to an established franchise or that feel like comic books, and we have comic books that do the reverse. However, the one thing that has been lacking is parody: no one has dared to poke fun at the tropes and overly-used conventions of either medium…until 2010.
Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley is the third project developed by Twisted Pixel, a modest little company with a knack for creating novel indie games. It relies heavily on their patented charm, charisma and creativity, as well as their tendency to prey upon the gaming experiences of yore for motivation. In lesser hands, this might have failed miserably…but it’s Twisted Pixel, how could they do wrong?
Comic Jumper stars the titular Captain Smiley, a self-centred and fairly egotistical superhero with only half the wits to warrant it, and his chest-mounted comrade Star, a loud-mouthed cynic holding only contempt for Smiles. Turns out, as the opening level indicates, Captain’s comic is not that popular in the real world, and the series is promptly cancelled.
However, in a twist that outdoes Shyamalan’s entire career, Twisted Pixel themselves appear in-game, seemingly to help out Smiley by giving him employment and a special base of operations. The catch is, in order to reboot his series, Smiley must guest-star in three other series to make the necessary money.
The entire game lasts somewhere in the range of 6 to 8 hours, which may or may not include replaying levels to earn extra money. Each of the game’s 11 levels contains a trough-load of almost always excellently timed and well-written humour, as Smiley and Star bicker like an old couple or poke fun at both comic-book and video game conventions. It’s quite refreshing to see characters actually noticing how ridiculous situations can get, and it certainly lends itself to some memorable lines.
The gameplay itself is decidedly old-school, in that it’s a twin-stick side-scroller shooter in the vein of Contra – and that’s to say nothing of the difficulty. While the first level, set in modern day, is moderately easy to get through, the next three story-arcs – which take Smiley to a Fantasy realm, a Retro realm, and a Manga Realm – get progressively more brutal as enemies become quite varied and more powerful, utilizing a wide range of projectiles to attack with.
Luckily, Twisted Pixel does old-school well. Smiley, as the player character, moves with the left stick and fires with the right stick, depending on where it is pointed. Whether he has to climb or simply jump up platforms, he’s agile without being uncontrollable. The only real worry with the control scheme is the input for dropping off of platforms (hit A/LB + Down on the left stick), which can be difficult to pull off, but it’s not really a deal-breaker.
Of course, if you can manage to get past the difficulty and fast-paced controls, the game’s locales are as visually amusing as the characters. The Fantasy realm is essentially a rip-off of Conan the Barbarian, as Smiley and company wear loin-cloths and robes, the environments are subdued and drawn with watercolours, and the land is ruled by Nanoc (flip the spelling around). The Retro realm brings back our old pal cell-shading to give these comics a distinctly classic feel, which works well with the ever-present censorship committee. Finally, the Manga realm appears in black-and-white shading, and the comics progress from right to left (which would be pretty weird on its own…if the rest of the comics didn’t manage to top that).
After (hopefully) completing the levels, you can choose to leave the game satisfied with its outcome, or you can continue playing to earn extra money. See, aside from the unmentioned amount that Smiley must earn to get his comic back, the player earns pay for each level depending on various factors – the accuracy of shots fired, the number of times they died, and so on – along with Readership Bonuses based on completing optional objectives.
That money is spent on either upgrades to improve Captain Smiley’s abilities (which can help with getting at least one Achievement) or on bonuses. These “bonuses” range from concept art, to comics, to audio clips and more. Each bonus also carries a percentage that adds to your end-of-level payment, further increasing your payout.
Before closing, I should also give praise where praise is due: the soundtrack, and sound work overall, is great. You’ll experience different styles of atmospheric music for each type of comic, and it always feels fitting. The voice actors also seem to be having a great time with their characters and their lyrics, and it’s worthwhile to see and hear just how much chemistry Smiley and Star really have.
All in all, there’s a lot to enjoy in this rather small Xbox Live Arcade game. It may only last about 7 hours, but it packs twelve Achievements of varying difficulty, numerous bonuses that are actually fun to examine close-up, various challenge levels that unlock with the completion of each level, and the opportunity to access two of Twisted Pixel’s other works, The Maw and ‘Splosion Man. While not every joke and foil is perfect (I still question the portrayal of Origami Kid), it works out well enough to warrant the purchase.