Most gamers, when asked to name a key franchise for the PlayStation brand, normally spout the obvious: Killzone, Gran Turismo, WipEout, Ratchet. Indeed, they’re all hot properties and highly lucrative IPs for the company, but they don’t tell the full story, one that in this case would ordinarily side-step the PS3’s digital download service; and whilst the likes of all of the above have appeared on the Store in one form or another (Behind the Bullet, Prologue, HD and Quest for Booty respectively) they’re generally considered to be disk-based retail games, not something that gets pulled down the fibre-optics.
One set of such games bucking the trend is the PixelJunk range, titles of Japanese origin (emerging from Tokyo-based Q-Games) but with a Brit at the helm, Dylan Cuthbert – none of which have graced a Blu-ray despite now being four strong, notwithstanding DLC and portable versions. With a fifth in the pipeline and a sequel to the last, Shooter, ready to roll, we thought we’d take a look at each of the present titles already available to see just what makes them some of the best games available on the increasingly populated Store, starting with a personal favourite and a perfect entry to the series, the top-down squeeze and go Racers.
Launching in September of 2007, Racers didn’t do a great deal to persuade curious gamers of its core qualities: screenshots look basic, the gameplay mechanics are simple and – at the time – high definition television penetration wasn’t nearly as widespread as it is just now. As a result, the brilliantly crisp visuals were muddy and crude, simple 2D sprites rotating around a flat, pre-baked track as you pulled the trigger to accelerate and dodged left and right with the stick, switching between lanes like a slot car.
The trick, though, is that the first PixelJunk game was as addictive as any narcotic on the street: the first level in particular saw hours of investment from this author as he battled with the other gamers for rule of the leaderboard, the top spot flicking back and forth between myself and another. I’ve long since given up the challenge, mind, and I’m sure I’m no longer even in the top ten, but for a while, those simple tracks and graphics that required squinting just to be able to pick out your car were a perfect marriage with the instant, exacting control method. In retrospection, Racers is probably too hardcore for some, but I loved it and, one day, I’ll boot it up and see what’s new.
The second title, PixelJunk Monsters, was a far more commercial proposition. It appeared at the beginning of 2008 (with expansions and a PSP version following on) and was essentially a Tower Defence game, albeit one with pre-set levels rather than an open grid like Fieldrunners – and was all the better for it by virtue of its principle character and associated aesthetics, the 2D sprites exceptionally detailed and animated with a charm rarely seen in the genre.
By making the player physically move around the screen to be able to build towers (you could only build where trees were planted) Monsters introduced a twist that meant you had to avoid the oncoming monsters whilst all the time building and upgrading towers to suit the particular type of encroaching swarm. It was tough, very tough, although a second player added to the mix would mean that you could distribute the responsibilities even if the coins you needed to collect from downed monsters wasn’t doubled. A great game, and one that set the studio up nicely for the third, Eden.
Eden launched to much hype, its unknown mechanics remaining a surprise for many until they got their hands on the game itself, or the demo which pre-empted the release. Although once again an entirely 2D affair, Eden was a complete departure from the previous two games by offering up a pseudo-platforming affair set to pulsing electronic music from Japanese producer Baiyon.
Controlling the Grimp (a play on words between grip and jump) provokes a joyous sense of freedom, your extended leaps as you make your way around the organic, evolving landscape precise and exacting, your mission to collect the various Spectra a delicious one, especially after the game was patched to make completing each ‘garden’ much easier by removing the otherwise devilish timer which could be topped up with crystals but only at the expense of a certain amount of rote repetition. Eden is a powerful, expressive audio-visual treat and one that I personally adore.
The final game to be released though, was Shooter, and it’s undoubtedly the best. Shooter hit the Store at the very end of 2009, and saw the player at the helm of a small spacecraft sent in to rescue survivors trapped in large subterranean caverns – doing so opens up additional levels which revolve around various rock and elemental types, from magma to ice. The fourth game in the series stands out for several reasons, not least of all the wonderful visuals, but also the brilliant way in which the elements play against others, your ship and your missiles, creating smart puzzles and some impressive physics.
Shooter represents the zenith of the current PixelJunk crop, its scope way beyond previous games and the production values outstripping most of what we see on the Store with ease – it’s supremely playable on a basic level but dig deep and the collection of the hidden crystals and the desire to save each and every underground surviver is compulsive, not least of all for the 100% complete level select screen and the collection of accompanying Trophies. A must own for every PlayStation 3 owner.
Hopes are high for Shooter 2, due this year, and whatever ends up being PixelJunk 5.