Version tested: Xbox 360
The previous XBLA offering from Twisted Pixel, The Maw, was a benign pleasure. High on production values but low on challenge and depth, it was an agreeable diversion that lasted only a few hours. For this follow-up, it seems that the developer has taken the criticisms on board. At the risk of alerting the Oo-er Police, 'Splosion Man is both longer and harder than his gelatinous predecessor.
The hero this time is a gurning creature of plasma and fire, created for some unknown reason in a secret laboratory. Escaping from his cell, it's up to you to guide him to freedom using his solitary gift: exploding. Press any of the face buttons and 'Splosion Man 'splodes. This works as a jump, and also an attack. It's also how you interact with objects, such as the explosive barrels and grenades which can be used to enhance or modify your combustible exploits.
You have three explosions until 'Splosion Man's energy is depleted, shown by his transformation into a charred husk, and while he recharges almost instantly he can only do this when standing on solid ground. This means that long chains of wall jumps are impossible, and working around the limitation is the basis of many puzzles.
With its simple control and accessible "reach the exit" gameplay, the design owes more than a little to N+. You fling your fiery friend around the screen, ricocheting off walls and smashing through glass panels. You'll avoid hazards more than you tackle them head-on, and there are the obligatory switches to open doors and shut down defences. Robot sentries can be destroyed if you explode close to their weak spots, while the base's human occupants - a babbling collection of mad scientists - shriek and squawk in panic at your approach. Go boom-bang-a-bang nearby and they turn into steaks, sausages and other cuts of meat.
Much like The Maw, there's something inherently appealing about the goofy, playfully sadistic world Twisted Pixel has created, and the simple act of blamming yourself around the level elicits the kind of base gaming joy that so few games manage to capture. Everything looks and moves in hilarious fashion, not least the title character whose Muppet grin and manic gesticulating make him look like The Human Torch as redesigned by Tex Avery.
With 50 single-player levels it's a much more substantial undertaking than The Maw's two-hour romp, but as the game progresses the structure starts to feel a touch lumpy. Of the three broad chapters (a division that feels more than a little arbitrary) only the first really stretches the concept. Introducing myriad new ways to use your explosions to get around, it's an impressive opening set of 16 levels that sadly gives way to over 30 more that fail to maintain the pace. Rotating wheels with moving platforms, walls of spikes, pits of acid - there's wit in the way these clichés are used, but clichés they remain over the span of the game.
There are also some ill-advised boss battles, which sit awkwardly with the platforming core. The first, for example, pits you against a giant robot that attacks with instant-death laser beams. The only way to avoid them is to stand in the right spot beneath a moving platform, so that its slow descent blocks the incoming beams. It's a fussy, frustrating task and one that stops the game in its tracks for no good reason.
Irritation also creeps in when sequences of pixel-perfect leaps must be carried out with split-second precision, while some less than generous checkpoints can make each failure sting that little bit more. To balance things out, you have infinite lives and repeated death enables the Way of the Coward option in the pause menu, allowing you to skip to the next level.
These concessions mean there's nothing that feels completely impassable, but when 'Splosion Man sails past a vital platform without grabbing its edge, for no apparent reason, or when the camera shifts to an unhelpful view beyond your control, it's hard to quell the feeling that the challenge isn't always coming from smart level design so much as the occasionally vague controls.
Minor but persistent niggles, they're never quite enough to counteract the innate sense of fun that Twisted Pixel naturally conjure up but while this goodwill keeps you playing through the difficulty spikes, sometimes your grin will be hiding behind gritted teeth.
There's also a co-operative mode, playable online or off with up to four players, which adds another 50 levels to the game. These rely rather too heavily on the idea of using each other's mid-air explosions to power yourselves to unreachable areas, and, even with an on-screen countdown mapped to the left trigger, mastering the timing required to pull of this manoeuvre is a bit of a fiddle.
It seems a little flaky to criticise Twisted Pixel for making one game easy, the next frustrating, and 'Splosion Man is certainly an improvement over The Maw, if only because it feels more like a game you can sink your teeth into for more than an afternoon. Its immediate charms are tarnished only by some repetitive level design and some minor control frustrations. It's an undeniably strong opening salvo in the Summer of Arcade season, but frugal players may want to wait and try some of the other treats in store before committing their Microsoft Points to a game that nudges greatness but never quite embraces it.
7 / 10