Complicating things is the fact that Mutant Storm make your failures count, too: each death will knock you back a multiplier level, while tugging your next belt progression a little further out of reach. Meanwhile, friendlier inclusions like time bonuses balance things out, encouraging you to think of individual rooms as puzzles, and asking you to 'solve' each one as quickly as possible to maximise your points.
Those are the compulsions that keep you playing, but it's that brilliantly disquieting enemy design that gives you something astonishing to look at while you do. There's something magically horrible at work in PomPom's character art: I love to watch those disgusting beasties swarming about on the television screen, but if I ever suspected that any of them actually existed, even in some diminished form, somewhere in the real world, I'd probably put my own head in an oven.
What a gaggle of freaks, eh? Kicking off with those mutating grunts who waddle after you almost pathetically, ramping up with the nasty fish that swim in quick little circles, through turrets and exploding egg sacks filled with wriggling electrical pond spawn, all the way to - yep - the Sperm Flower, a diabolical collision between some really old, wet, root vegetables and IVF, PomPom never misses a beat.
No matter how clean your house is when you sit down to play Mutant Storm, you're likely to feel an undeniable bacterial horror as the game's pocket monsters wriggle towards you in unbeatable numbers. After each round, I like to douse myself in Cillit Bang, and I swallow an entire Glade plug-in whole.
Reloaded also provided a solid basis for PomPom to build upon with Empire, the subsequent XBLA - and now PC - sequel. Lavishly designed, and filled with gorgeous touches, ranging from the little things like the door animations, through to a big floppy end boss who appears to have been dressed by Cher, and blessed with an entirely new combo system, Empire is a worthy addition to the series in every way. It's probably the closest PomPom has ever gotten to making a big-budget title, as well.
But it may have diluted the purer thrills of Reloaded ever so slightly. Linking its rooms together to create longer levels allowed the art design to go berserk, indulging in everything from deadly laser-grid squash courts to noxious blood red bubble baths, while lobbing bioluminescent sea urchins, exploding cheese footballs, and centipedes with metallic Mickey Mouse ears at you. But the caged intensity of the original was inevitably diminished.
How couldn't it be? Mutant Storm proves, above all else, that sometimes you need boundaries and restrictions. You need brutal, crushing difficulty as the walls seem to close in and the enemies respawn yet again. PomPom's greatest title proves that, sometimes, you need fewer choices, not more, and that survival can be a reward in itself when you have nothing else to look forward to but an extra life and an extra smart bomb if you make to the end of the next round of levels.
So it's a game where creativity and constrictions are in perfect balance, in other words: a shining example of what Dorothy Parker referred to as "the disciplined eye and the wild mind".
She couldn't unlock Black Belt Grandmaster either, incidentally.
Check back tomorrow for an in-depth interview with developer PomPom.