Version tested: Xbox 360
If you got my fifteen-year-old self to design a game, and assuming you hadn't got me in one of my 20-sided-dice-with-everything moods, you'd end up with something which - at first glance - would look a lot like this all-action Xbox 360 Community Game.
I stress: at first glance. It wouldn't have been anywhere near as good. Not that Weapon of Choice's take on run-and-gun-isms is a modern classic, but the product of my fevered adolescent imagining would have been a big old pile of bobbins whose mechanics would barely hang together due to me spending a bit too much time thinking longingly of girls and/or the price of lead figurines and less time about the business at hand. But the obsessions and the approach... Well, it's deeply teenage.
Even it's hyperactive amateurish-yet-charming graphic style seems to have been torn-out doodles in the back of textbooks, where the only thing which could be better than giving your character an M60 machine gun would be to give him a M60 machine gun at the end of a bungie-cord. Oh, and a backpack with mechanical limbs. And something which explodes when you jump. And friends. And things which look like gonads to fight.
The obvious reference point is Contra (or, since we're Eurogamer, Gryzor), though I keep on being oddly reminded of Turrican occasionally. Moving across large levels, often with multiple paths through them, you're tasked to destroying pretty much everything. You're able to fire in any direction with the right stick, and do all the jumping, weapon-swapping and special-mode activating with the triggers and shoulder buttons. Which is all standard, until you realise your characters' abilities alter depending on who you select. Which is also all standard, until you realise that the choice is actually just for a single life.
When you die, you select another operative with their own abilities, and go in. When you run out of operatives, it's game over. You're also able to rescue operatives lost in the field, unlocking them for future playthroughs of the game or, alternatively, rescue a fallen agent who's just been killed. You'll soon have all seven characters available to pick from, and you're weighing up the relative merits between going into battle as the guy who can fly into the sky in some kind of space-snowflake and fires limpet-mines which then eject streams of flame, versus the lady who throws swarms of razor-knives and can duplicate herself mid-leap into a similarly-lacerating clone. Being able to change the way the game plays every life is one of its most attractive qualities.
Perhaps appropriately, if the main cast are one of the most charming parts, the secondary one is the antagonists, a gleefully demented cast of monsters for you to tear apart. From steadfast creatures like the floaty-eyeball things and attack-testicles, you rapidly expand into the realm of gargantuan multi-screen-wide maggots or the apes who leisurely throw their own eyeballs at you.
And that's not even dealing with the game's assorted bosses. A couple are a little under-inspired, but most are splendid and there's actually what I suspect is a mini-classic in their midst in the form of The Terrible Sun ("I Hate You Sun!" says your lead, and you can only concur), which managed to be a highly traditional boss battle, openly hilarious - before you even get to its ice-cream cones of doom - and really cute conceptually.
While the individual levels also allow a variety of routes, there are also multiple paths through the entire game, depending on who you want to trust in its campy b-movie plot (and it's a suitably vestigial plot). Depending which way you go, you head towards one of four endings, complete with its own end-of-game boss and cut-scene.
While its major mechanical flourish is how it deals with death itself, its secondary one is how it deals with approaching death. In what it calls "Death Brushing", if you're about to actually be hit, the game slows down, giving you a chance to manoeuvre away - a fairly neat simulation of action-hero survivability. As you improve, you end up actively courting the ability in order to deliver precise firepower in a dangerous situation. Equally, it adds a certain level of drama to your conflict with hefty foes. Finding yourself crouching inside the open jaws of a creature, opening up as time slows down is pretty cool. (Or coooooooool, in the parlance of my fifteen-year-old self.)
However, the Death Brushing also hints at the game's main fault. Its level of generosity means that it's simply not very hard, and notably so in a genre famed for its brutality. Rescuing your team-mates is an interesting mechanic (especially so when you've died twice on a level and your remaining character is only able to carry one of the others out - much to the annoyance of whoever you leave behind), but it means that, after a few plays, you have seven lives instead of the initial three. So the longer you play the game, the easier it gets to complete - just because you have more lives to achieve it. The multiple routes are all very well, but when you're any good, you're going to get through them in twenty minutes tops.
And that's if you choose to fight. Bar the bosses, you can dodge your way through the levels with no penalty (or, rather, no reward for doing otherwise, as there's nothing at all like a traditional score table, though the developer is running a high score contest). While there's a harder difficulty level, if you haven't seen all the game has to offer you after four hours I'd be highly surprised.
But while you wish there was a little more thought to extend play beyond all those blasts ("You have completed the game with just this character" awards or similar), it's still a highly likeable game. Yes, some of the enemies don't seem particularly interested in your existence. Yes, some of the characters' weapons are so brutally overpowered to turn bosses into braggart-mush with worrying haste. But the game doesn't really care, and neither do you. It's a run-and-gun that chooses to step back from the difficulty cliff and just show all the gleeful nonsense its managed to think up to anyone who cares to persist.
The model for the downloadable game on Xbox 360 seems to have been a small focus with a large amount of polish - following on from Geometry Wars - but this ignores all that and just spends its effort on frippery and pure joy. It's the true Mr Total Mental, a descendent of the best old two-quid budget games for a price of not much more than that (400 Microsoft Points). Pure B-movie, pure fun. The fifteen-year-old in you will like it a lot.
7 / 10