Review: Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley (XBLA)

Captain Smiley has lost his touch. The superhero -- a muscular, caped crime-fighter with a smiley face for a head and a talking, smart-ass, star-shaped sidekick named Star embedded in his chest -- finds his comic being canceled after degenerating into an embarrassing commercial flop. In order to regain his former glory and pay his debts to the Twisted Pixel guys, who bust down the fourth wall with aplomb by bailing out Smiley's debts, Captain Smiley is forced to guest-star in other comics to build up enough of a reputation and a financial base to relaunch his comic series.

Comic Jumper features a rich, vibrant presentation that's bizarre, outlandish, hilarious, and wonderfully innovative. But unfortunately, actually playing the game is a whole other story.

As a reviewer, I try to avoid analyzing a game's merits by breaking it down into its constituent parts: sound, graphics, etc. But Comic Jumper isn't a typical game experience because it takes a pretty disappointing platformer/twin-stick shooter hybrid and dresses it up with piles of wit, personality and hilarity. And when all's said and done, it does come out as a net positive -- but not without some significant reservations.

Comic Jumper functions primarily as a platformer/shooter hybrid that takes place from a few distinct perspectives. Most of the game has the player controlling Captain Smiley in a two-dimensional plane, running from left to right while shooting countless swarms of enemies. In practice, it's a little reminiscent of Contra in terms of the stop-start pacing, but there's a bit of Geometry Wars-like strategy to how you'll have to train your eyes both to follow your target to make sure your shots land while also moving Smiley to avoid danger. This sort of keen observation method becomes almost excruciatingly difficult to pull off in the manga-themed levels, where everything -- including the background, characters, and bullets -- is rendered in black and white. It's a difficult skill to pick up for the post-arcade generation, and it's certainly not something that anyone under 20 is going to be familiar with, but by the end of the game I finally got the hang of it.

Occasionally the game will zoom in a bit and Smiley will be relegated to melee attacks only. These are amusingly animated, but they play in an entirely one-dimensional fashion: you'll either land a three-hit combo with the X button to knock an enemy out or press the A button to knock them back. In practice, each one of these encounters is indistinguishable from the rest, which seems like a missed opportunity.

There are also a few sequences where the action shifts to an over-the-shoulder perspective where you'll sidestep and jump to avoid enemies while Smiley marches forward from encounter to encounter -- again, similar to those base-invasion sequences from the NES version of Contra. While all of these modes function adequately well enough, they have a distinctly unsatisfying feel. For example: enemies generally seem like they should take fewer shots to kill, some enemy movement patterns are unforgivingly difficult to avoid, and the inability to restore Smiley's health can lead to a sense of hopelessness, particularly because checkpoints are so uncommon.

I don't want to blame a game for my own shortcomings as a gamer, but considering that I didn't truly feel in control until I'd reached the six-hour mark, I think it's fair to say that Comic Jumper could have benefited from an easier default difficulty or more checkpoints or weaker enemies, and ideally it would have included all three.

In all the time I've been playing games, I've never been as conflicted about recommending a game as I am with Comic Jumper. The starry eyed idealist in me wants to urge everyone reading this review to fork over their fifteen bucks without a moment's hesitation to support a developer that has consistently taken huge risks and delivered games bursting with personality and originality. But when I look back at the majority of my time spent actually playing through Comic Jumper, most of the action was adequate at best and utterly maddening at worst. But when you weigh the good with the bad, Comic Jumper's ribald attitude and the perfectly-paced banter between Captain Smiley and Star combine to make it worth the effort of actually playing through the game.

I think Twisted Pixel deserves to be commended for having the ambition to produce a game as substantial and varied as Comic Jumper; it's a shame, then, that the core gameplay didn't come together nearly as well as its sound design, art direction, writing, mission hub, full-motion video integration, unlockable bonus content, and even its stats screen.

If you'll indulge me in a really terrible metaphor, Comic Jumper is like a big-ass whale held aloft by a million tiny, dedicated birds. Despite the frustrating, sluggish, monotonous action at the core of Comic Jumper, it somehow keeps going thanks to the countless little careful touches that imbue the experience with genuine heart and laugh-out-loud humor -- two essential qualities that are almost impossible to find in the average game.

Twisted Pixel has heart and intellect that any other world-class developer could only dream of. Once they figure out how to combine those qualities with a game that is just as enjoyable to play, they'll be unstoppable. But at this point, Comic Jumper exists only as a moderate success -- a mere glimpse at the substantial potential of one of the most inspired teams making games today.

Recommended for:

  • Those who recognize just how rare and important it is when a game can actually make a player burst out laughing at regular intervals
  • Excellent characterization and inspired interpretations of various comic worlds, all of which are as compelling as they are bizarre
  • Fantastic production values, especially with regard to art and sound design, and plenty of Twisted Pixel's trademark goofball full-motion video

Not Recommended for:

  • Frustrating progression: each of the game modes feels underdeveloped and unwieldy, a problem exacerbated by an infrequent checkpoint system
  • Gamers concerned first and foremost with the playability of a game; if you're not digging the flavor of Comic Jumper's presentation, you're not going to find much redeeming value in how it plays, either

Comic Jumper is available on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200  ($15). A copy was provided for review by Twisted Pixel. The reviewer completed the game, earned 8 of a possible 12 achievements, played most of the challenge missions, unlocked most of the unlockables, and punched Star a grand total of 28 times.

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