Version tested: PlayStation 3
Scott Pilgrim is one of us. While Hollywood's zeitgeist-chasing writers and directors clutch at game references in an effort to appeal to those born into videogames, Scott Pilgrim out-nerds even the medium's firstborn by knowing the bass line to Final Fantasy II off by heart. Aged 16, he joined a three-piece indie band called Sonic and Knuckles in an effort to transcend his non-jock plebeian school status. He owns a Mithril Skateboard (+4 to Speed, +3 to Kick, +1 to Will), plays Tony Hawk to train, Bomberman to relax and saves tiny worlds on a daily basis.
His worldview is filtered through a Nintendo lens: health measured in Zelda sprite hearts, cans of soda replenishing HP in quarter increments. Girls are won by defeating boss-fight personifications of their issues. When Scott does battle, his puny, cathode-tan arms are transformed into Street Fighter weapons, his body all suspension-wire fly-kick shapes, silhouetted against a scrolling parallax sunset.
Scott Pilgrim daydreams in videogame verbs. He is one of us.
And therein lies the problem with his game. Despite looking like one of us, despite speaking our language and making references that only we could ever understand, Scott Pilgrim nevertheless represents some uncomfortable things about the state of gaming today. Ubisoft-licensed, it is the videogame of the movie of the comic book, its very existence reinforcing the idea that games are no more than a third-tier advertising revenue stream filled with product precision-timed to support the box office.
Viewed ungenerously, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is as much an example of adver-gaming as so many Watchmen, Transformers and James Bond tie-ins have been before it. Just because its protagonist is one of us doesn't necessarily mean his game shares the same hopes and dreams for the medium as us. Does it?
"Winners Don't Eat Meat".
The parody of FBI Director William S. Sessions' "Winners Don't Do Drugs" slogan, seen at the start-up of all American videogame arcade machines in the nineties, is the first thing you see in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. It's a simple joke that speaks volumes. All six volumes of the Scott Pilgrim comic books, in fact; it's evidence that developer Ubisoft Montreal has digested every page of Bryan Lee O'Malley's lifework, and is confident to kick off with a joke entirely absent from the paperback series, and yet entirely in keeping with its spirit.
From thereon in, the knowing delights combo upwards: Paul Robertson's effortless pixel art captures the essence of the 8- and 16-bit Japanese scrolling beat-'em-ups the game apes, while Anamanaguchi's cute/dramatic/cute brand of chiptune soundtracks every flurry of punches with Casiotone arpeggios.
It's the attention to detail that's gone into this Final Fight clone that elevates it above a predictable movie tie-in. The world of the comics has been recreated in fine detail, each of the four (initially) playable characters –Scott, Kim Pine, Steven Stills and Ramona Flowers – communicating a great deal of their on-page personality in a handful of effective sprite animations. There are ten thousand in-jokes for fans of the books, the game offering players the chance to pay back Scott's video rental fine ($504.25) or to eat vegan food to replenish health.
Likewise, where the books celebrate formative Japanese gaming culture, so the game contains endless micro-tributes to yesterday's gaming landscape, from the obvious Super Mario World level select hub, to more subtle flourishes such as the Triforce symbols painted on the side of recycling bins or the choice of pale Earthbound text box colours in the shops.
In play, the game is a competent brawler. Two attack buttons, fast and strong, can be combined with jumps and blocks to thread together long, exciting combos. A fast dash (executed with a double tap of the directional input) allows you to knock an enemy backwards into the air, dash in to keep apace with them, and continue the juggle.
As well as a health gauge, each character has a set of guts points which can be spent on two types of special moves: one to knock a cluster of surrounding enemies out of the way, and the other to summon a back-up attack from Scott's underage admirer, Knives Chau (17 years old). It's best to use gut points sparingly as, when your health is depleted and you're knocked out, you can use them to regain consciousness, converting gut points into heart points.
The potential to thread attacks together like this with precision timing nudges this low-level aspect to the game slightly in front of closest rival Castle Crashers, but make no mistake: Scott Pilgrim is every bit as straightforward as the Streets of Rage and Teenage Mutant Turtles games it parodies. It's a celebration of the past, not a roadmap to the future.
The structure of the game mirrors that of the series: seven stages, each punctuated by a boss fight with one of Ramona Flowers' seven evil ex-boyfriends. Stages match locations from the books, with occasional diversions through unassuming doorways into sub-space warps from one area to the next, filled with glitches and soundtracked by nostalgic tape loading sounds that will be familiar to all gamers of a certain age.
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For reals this time.
Scott Pilgrim forever.
Pow! Blat! Zork!
Enemies drop Canadian dollars and cents when defeated, money which can be used to buy restorative items as well as character-augmenting weaponry, bionic arms and so on. However, the use of bought upgrades is far less involved than in Castle Crashers, and as a result the long-term goals in the game can feel far nearer than in The Behemoth's lengthy proposition.
Each of your characters levels up through 16 levels, a new move or combo unlocked at each threshold. As in most modern scrolling beat-'em-ups that enjoy RPG-lite elements, characters keep their level after the Game Over screen, and can restart the game where they left off, ability-wise.
The difficulty ramps up quickly and, for the solitary player, represents a tall challenge. Played in local multiplayer, where player-characters can juggle enemies between them hurl one another into groups of opponents to launch an Ultimate Band Attack, the difficulty curve becomes far more manageable. For this reason, the lack of online multiplayer is an obvious disappointment.
The Scott Pilgrim franchise is, in one sense, a triumph for those of us who grew up with videogames, the kids whose quiet, nerdish avenue of escapism has somehow became the aesthetic of the hip present. A fanzine-esque comic book turned Hollywood blockbuster, it is our niche shoved onto culture's main stage. It's the geeks inheriting the earth: pixel-art T-shirts in Top Man, chiptune seasoning on Number 1 records, a hundred thousand hipster Tumblr blogs celebrating gaming's minutiae and detritus.
And yet, because the series is a tribute to 20-year-old gaming culture, any actual videogame born from this universe is subject to those restraints. For this reason, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is pretty much the perfect Scott Pilgrim game, hitting all the notes that fans of the series and its worldview could want. But for those who couldn't tell an Envy Adams from a Julie Powers (pity them), it's little more than a cute parody game, meticulously detailed, but outdated by design.
7 / 10
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is released on the PlayStation Network next Wednesday, 11th August, as a timed PS3 exclusive. An Xbox 360 version is planned but has no announced release date.