I’ll be honest, the allure of The Maw escaped me somewhat, so I never played past the limited explorable area that the demo presented – Twisted Pixel might have nailed the visuals and the humour was certainly present and correct, but something with the gameplay itself just didn’t click. When I heard that the team were working on another game with tighter mechanics and a simpler premise I was overjoyed, seeing through the April 1st announcement and just holding on that the next few months of screenshots and hands-on impressions would convince me that Twisted Pixel knew what they were doing all along and that ‘Splosion Man, as its tongue-in-cheek title, would be everything I’d hoped it would.
Fast forward to July 22nd, then, and ‘Splosion Man lands on the Xbox Live Arcade with, quite literally, a bang. Happily, the gameplay has remained precisely as I’d wished – the 2D platformer (with fully polygonal graphics) is not only absolutely packed with character and charm but it’s also an utterly brilliant idea executed with perfection. Essentially, there’s just one button in addition to moving ‘Splosion Man with the left stick, and that, as the controls screen so effortlessly tells you, is the “Splode” button. The illiteration is obviously explode but the reality is that this single dynamic has defined an entire game spread over a hundred levels and is so precisely constructed that it carries over to multiplayer without a single tweak.
The story is as ridiculous as is necessary, but sets up the rest of the game with just a flicker of a cut-scene: ‘Splosion Man’s locked in an underground military lab and he’s not altogether happy about his new found ability. This doesn’t stop his rather mincing saunter or his happy whistle, but this is meant for comedy juxtaposition against the war-like backdrop of the ‘Splosions. That button, then, which is actually any face button, makes ‘Splosion Man Splode. There’s no ‘jump’ button but, as you’d expect, self combustion tends to have a similar effect and thus, with a limit of three before recharging, ‘Splosion Man can leap gaps, scale walls and, yes, take out most things in his path.
Chunks of meat aren’t often a source for amusement, but when you’re taking revenge on the scientists that created you the eruption of raw steaks and other culinary delights make for a smart alternative to the usual pre-manufactured gore. The scientists are genuinely petrified of you and with good reason, beyond a sentry gun or special Splosion-proof doors they’re altogether rather vulnerable to your gifted talent – the expressions and screams as your flaming avatar skips towards them continues to be fun from the very first level to the last and whilst some of the men in white coats are there to set up puzzles many are purely for your incendiary amusement.
Visually, ‘Splosion Man is a treat. It’s sharp, nicely animated and packed with character. I do have a slight issue with the obvious continuity between the themes of the levels (this is an underground lab, after all) and whilst I understand that the game has to have a setting it would have been possible to see a few alternative themes dotted around without Twisted Pixel falling into the Lava/Ice/Forest world trappings. Still, there’s nothing here that’s aesthetically ugly, although the menu screens and loading intervals appear rather functional even given the intentions of the developers.
Where ‘Splosion Man excels is the gameplay – the single button might seem simplistic but when you’re dealing with crushers, spinning platforms and massive walls the puzzling quickly becomes quite challenging. The introduction of other hazards, such as the aforementioned scientists determined to stop you by any means necessary (which includes guns, robots and other various traps), is handled well and the difficulty curve is expertly pitched. Combined with the four player on and offline multiplayer, a devious sense of humour and a mastery of the platforming genre, ‘Splosion Man is an absolute treat. It’s even convinced me to take another look at The Maw, which must be a good thing.