Version tested: Xbox 360
It's a good joke that has remained unvisited for 30 years. Take a character whose gender is defined in his name and turn a him into a her by adding Ms. in front of it. Slip on a colourful bow and slap on some lipstick and the transformation is complete, a neat recycling of assets that's both economical and absurd.
It worked for Midway with Ms. Pac-Man in 1981, and it works for Twisted Pixel three decades later with a pink-skinned, restless, female counterpart to 2009's original 'Splosion Man.
Ms. Splosion Man has lost none of her elder sibling's jitteriness, muttering teenage girl slogans to herself ("I must I must increase my bust") before bursting into snatches of pop song lyrics, carrying on the incessant chatter irrespective of player input. A vivacious ball of energy, Ms. Splosion Man sprints along a tightrope between endearing and irritating, demonstrating Twisted Pixel's firm handle on a character born of scientific accident - one who's supposed to make you feel both sympathy and fear.
In terms of feel, Ms. Splosion Man comes across like an asset-swap. This is a hyperactive 2.5D platform-puzzler that bears many of the traits and tricks of its predecessor, the aim always to reach the exit as quickly as possible. In contrast to the exuberant character design, the controls are wonderfully restrained.
Ms. 'Splosion Man can trigger three explosions in the air before she must momentarily recharge on the ground. Explosion jumps can also be restocked on walls and other surfaces, while moving her into proximity of a bar heater or crackling bolt of lightening will also replenish her stock of jumps.
The economy of the controls is thanks to the fact that a jump is also a detonation, granting the move the offensive properties to take out security cameras or any scientists caught in the blast. Explode near a human and they'll disintegrate into cartoonish cuts of meat, but without a ranged offensive attack you need to get in close for the kill. The volatile properties of Ms. Splosion Man's jumps are used further by the strategically placed explosive barrels, which act like bumpers on a pinball machine, propelling the character at breakneck speed.
For this sequel the developer has introduced a number of new ideas to go along with the closing walls and the key/switch puzzles that defined the first game. Ms. Splosion Man can grind along rails, an idea used to create a series of high-speed chases in which you must switch from power line to power line, avoiding obstacles and flinging yourself toward barrels that give you further propulsion towards safety. Indeed, the game has more of a precision platforming bent as it frequently breaks the confines of the science lab, requiring you to carefully jump between hover cars or risk falling to your death.
Likewise, climb into one of the Donkey Kong-style cannons and it will fire you across the level. These come in a few different varieties: some automatically aim and fire you towards a target, others spin, yet more must be aimed by hand. There is no visual distinction between the three types, which can lead to frustration when trying to make split-second decisions on when to hit the release button, but in general the idea adds welcome variety to an already rich high-speed puzzle game.
Ms. Splosion Man fits into the growing tradition of score-attack platform puzzlers such as N+ and, more recently, Super Meat Boy. Each stage is played for score (and now, with a hub from which you select levels, the structure is more inviting to repeat play), there are competitive leaderboards and it's even possible to download and race against top players' ghosts, useful for seeing how to get past any particular puzzle that has you stumped.
Where the game deviates from its inspirations' utilitarian puzzles is the character and humour that's interlaced throughout. But this humour is scattershot. At times, the jokes tear through their targets. "Your move, Unreal," says one of the developers into the camera before stroking his facial hair during the "Beard" sting advertising the bespoke engine the team created for the game. Likewise, the tutorial movie, edited and filtered like an eighties company instructional video, is laugh-out-loud funny.
Meanwhile, there's a lot to smile at in the incidentals, from Ms. Splosion Man's ADHD animations - flitting with Tex Avery flair between flouncy walks to tip-toe runs - to the riotous voice acting. In motion, Ms. Splosion Man has all the exuberant, bursting-at-the-seams insanity of her brother/lover.
But other jokes prod at female clichés to elicit smirks. You collect shoes - because a woman can never own enough shoes, amirite? - spend your tokens in The Mall - because women can't get enough of shopping, amirite? - and climb into the body of a fat scientist called Mandy when you want protection from laser beams. If you fail a section of a level too many times you're asked if you want to "Cheat On The Game" - because all women are untrustworthy, lying bitches, amirite? (In the first game, skipping to the next checkpoint was known as the "Way of the Coward".)
The character calls out Spice Girl lyrics and demands to nobody in particular that they "put a ring on it", while one of the multiplayer modes (in which you control two Ms. Splosion Men using one controller) is called "Two Girls, One Controller". Sometimes it can feel a little too much like the developer has typed "girl references" into Google and peppered the game with the results. There's no particular point to the scattershot female theme, but then again, neither was there with Ms. Pac Man, and perhaps that's OK.
Less easy to forgive are some of the mechanical niggles that have carried over from the previous game. The difficulty curve is all over the place, and some mean-spirited checkpoint placement leads to Trials HD degrees of repetition. The testing levels in which you must grind and hop between a series of rails to avoid obstacles fast become memory tests, while some of the platforming lacks the absolute precision of, say, Super Meat Boy.
However, the few boss fights here are far better executed than in the first game, and the electrically charged areas in which you are given infinite explosions - but must carefully negotiate a maze of deadly electricity - neatly turn the core mechanic on its head: barrels must be avoided, lest they propel you to your death.
Despite the riotous presentation, Ms. Splosion Man has a restrained logic that is pleasing to feel out. With just one collectable in every level, the emphasis is on perfecting rather than exploring, which helps to maintain the game's breakneck pace as you delve deeper. As with the first game, the multiplayer is far more than just an after-thought, and can be enjoyed locally as well as over the internet.
As such, Twisted Pixel manages to embellish what is undoubtedly the studio's strongest property without spoiling it. Ms. 'Splosion Man may lack the impact of its predecessor and the taut focus of rival Super Meat Boy, but it nevertheless offers an explosive start to the summer season of Xbox Live Arcade releases, a game surprisingly freshened by lipstick and a bow.
7 / 10