I wasn't expecting much from 'Splosion Man, (XBLA), the new game from The Maw creator Twisted Pixel. The screen shots looked boring and the name put me uncomfortably in mind of those old "Trojan Man" commercials, so it was with something akin to dread that I finally fired it up. I mention this for two reasons: First, as a reminder that there's no substitute for actually trying a game yourself (not even brilliant reviews like this one). Second, so that you fully understand the import of my telling you that 'Splosion Man is the most fun I've had playing a videogame in months.
'Splosion Man is a puzzle platformer that's somewhat reminiscent of another great example of the genre, Portal. You are once again the unwilling guest of a scientific facility that you endeavor to leave by weaving your way past numerous environmental obstacles to the exit on each level. Lasers, missiles, meat grinders, electric beams, acid baths and attack robots are just some of the dangers standing between you and sweet, sweet freedom. Sadly, you don't have a nifty doorway-creating bit of tech to help you escape, but you can explode on cue, and that's all you'll really need.
You'll spend much of the game just learning what's possible. At first, it feels very limiting to only be able to do one thing, but you'll soon discover that exploding serves many purposes - allowing you to jump, flip switches, destroy things, even propel yourself across gaps. You do have one key limitation, though: You can only explode three times in a row before having to recharge by touching the floor. Early levels let you learn how to use your explosions to best effect, slowly teaching you techniques like how to wall jump, use exploding barrels correctly, and defeat enemies. What's makes 'Splosion Man so addictive, so "just one more level" is how gradually it increases the difficulty level, adding new and more intricate obstacles just as you've mastered the old ones. What was maddening on Level 3 is a breeze by Level 7, but the challenge curve ramps up so perfectly with your increasing skills that you never feel overwhelmed or outclassed. (Robert Zacny covered this very phenomenon in his recent article The Incredible Disappearing Teacher.)
'Splosion Man's levels are cunningly designed and will require more than a little experimentation and practice to conquer. Fair warning: you will die. A lot. Hundreds and hundreds of times, in fact. Such trial and error could have made the game a health risk to players with a history of high blood pressure, but developer Twisted Pixel wisely made sure that particularly difficult sequences in each level are followed immediately by a checkpoint. Die enough times and you'll unlock the "Way of the Coward" option, which lets you skip that level entirely and move on to the next one. A bit of a ding on your ego, perhaps, but it prevents the kind of roadblocks that all too frequently end up killing a game.
The game's great sense of humor also helps keep it from driving you too crazy. Your cartoony scientist captors explode into steaks when they die, a giant robotic surfer dude of a boss declares "Missiles are awesome!" as he tries to kill you, and even 'Splosion Man himself is adorable in his own bat-shit crazy kind of way. The entire game is set in the type of compound you'd expect from a supervillain in The Incredibles, complete with huge switches that turn the death traps on and off. It's all very silly and very pleasing.
The one complaint I have with 'Splosion Man is its finicky camera, which seems to actively work against you at times. Theoretically, its shifts in viewpoints are meant to help you better see the landscape that's laid out before you, but they wind up having the opposite effect as often as not. You can move the camera slightly with the right thumbstick, but for the most part you're at the game's mercy, seeing only what it wants you to see. You'll have to make more than one leap completely blind, and the skewed angles of some of the screwier camera shifts can make distances hard to judge. It's not a game killer, but it is a constant source of annoyance.
'Splosion Man offers a co-op mode, but I must confess I have yet to play it. I had every intention of trying it out, but I simply couldn't pry myself away from the single player campaign to do it. I've replayed levels over and over again, trying to nab all the hidden cakes and do better than the "par" times in the Time Trials. Twisted Pixel could've left the co-op out of the game entirely and 'Splosion Man would still be an absolute gem.
Bottom Line: Overlook its lousy name and download 'Splosion Man with all due speed. It's brilliant, addictive, funny, smart, and jam packed with content.
Recommendation: 'Splosion Man is some of the best money you can spend on Xbox Live Arcade right now.
Susan Arendt dares you to try and get the "everybody loves doughnuts" song out of your head. Go ahead, just try.