I’ve always been a huge comic book fan. It wouldn’t take you long looking at either my desk or my living room to notice just how many comics and action figures populate the vicinity. While comics have had a fairly recent surge in popularity thanks to some rather large movie returns, the comic book video game has had but a few successes. Opting to use a newly created property instead of working with an already established license, Twisted Pixel developed the title Comic Jumper. Steeped heavily in homage and humor, Comic Jumper is quite a different take on the superhero oeuvre. Though there are a few awkward and frustrating moments, Comic Jumper is a fairly enjoyable downloadable title that does a lot of things right when it comes to storytelling. The gameplay, on the other hand, could use a bit of work.
Captain Smiley is quite the hero. Well, at least he was until the sales of his book plummeted. Along with the rest of his supporting cast, villains and all, Twisted Pixel buys Captain Smiley in the hopes of reviving the sales of some other struggling books. If Smiley is able to prove he can be a bankable supporting character, there’s a chance he might be able to once again star in his own title. Forced to appear in a Conan knock-off, a classic Silver Age story, and even relegated to appearing in a manga-inspired tale, Captain Smiley is none to happy about the situation. Begrudgingly, he accepts his mission, and with the help of his “side-kick” Star, Smiley hops into action. From the very outset of the game, it’s clear Twisted Pixel knows the ins and outs of each genre of comic books they introduce the player to. From the fantasy-inspired Howard satire, to the family-friendly (yet sexually confusing) sixties, to the over-angsty, ridiculously cutesy Japanese-flavored adventure, not an opportunity is missed to poke fun at the milieu. The writing is easily the strongest part of the entire experience, and is the reason you’ll keep playing the game. There are even a few fourth wall-breaking moments that in any other game would feel forced, but the way they’re presented here makes complete and total sense. It’s just a shame the rest of the game is so uneven.
Comic Jumper has two flavors of gameplay: side-scrolling melee and side-scrolling two-stick shooter. Technically, there’s a third-person shooting portion, as well as brief quick-time events, but neither is where you’ll be spending the bulk of your time. Melee portions are few and far between compared to the shooting segments, but there are enough of them to change up the game’s pace just a bit. Smiley has two attacks, and there really isn’t any combo system to speak of. There will be a few waves of enemies to punch through, and then it’s back to more weaponized combat. You will be able to unlock a special attack, which summons the staff of Twisted Pixel to clear the screen of all enemies, by performing well in melee sections, but the game actually penalizes your end score for using said special. While Comic Jumper won’t in any way be known for the depth of its beat ‘em up sections, there’s nothing particularly wrong with them. They’re just so easy that they become uninteresting, which is a pretty stark contrast compared to the shooting portions.
The bulk of any given level in the game will be spent blasting away at enemies with Smiley’s two large pistols. Foes can, and will, appear from anywhere on the screen, and by utilizing the right analog to shoot and the left analog to aim, you’ll be tasked with clearing your path before you can advance. While this might not seem like it’s that much of a challenge, it doesn’t take long to become over-encumbered by a handful of enemies while you’re blasting away at another bunch. The shooting isn’t actually that bad while you’re on the ground. It isn’t until you’re forced into one of the portions where you’ll have to shimmy across a pipe or climb a rope that things start to become a little less enticing. While the only real penalty for dying is a lower completion score, you’ll also be forced back to an earlier checkpoint to attempt the entire section over again. There were some portions, particularly during the Silver Age mission, where I struggled to make it past armies of paper doll geishas simply because I couldn’t shoot or evade them all fast enough. It happens in the other chapters as well, but the entire second chapter took me double the amount of time it took me to finish the others. I couldn’t tell whether it was my inability to hit the targets, or that Smiley just didn’t shoot fast enough, but needless to say, having to replay the same five minutes of a level upwards of eight or ten times can be a little grating.
Based on your performance, you are awarded money for finishing a level, which you can then use to upgrade Captain Smiley’s abilities, or purchase “making of” content. Upgrading Captain Smiley is a pricey venture, and you will have to replay portions of the game, or complete the game’s challenge levels, to earn enough dough to come close to maxing out his stats. Fortunately, the money you spend on the bonus content like concept art, comic books, and action figures will add a small, cumulative percentage extra for the money you make playing the game. The bonus content is worth buying on its own just to see how Captain Smiley took shape from a young boy’s imagination to the video game it is today, but adding in the extra earnings helps make sure you’re getting the most out of your buck. Taking on any of the game’s challenges is truly a task reserved for completionists and leaderboard junkies. While they’re certainly beatable by anyone, taking on wave after wave of enemies isn’t always a great deal of fun. Luckily, these portions are completely optional.
Even though the game’s story and humor are easily the strongest selling points, the style of Comic Jumper can’t be discounted. Each of the different worlds has a unique look and feel to it, almost making each new chapter an entirely new game. Captain Smiley’s real world looks like many modern games, with the trappings of a futuristic world, with the other comic universes each having their own distinct looks. Nanoc’s dark ages charm is bested only by the silly haircuts of the manga world. Despite being the most challenging portion of the game, the Silver Age cel-shaded style was my favorite, though that may be due to a bit of Stockholm syndrome after spending so much time there. The game’s voice work is top notch, and each of the worlds sounds completely different from one another as well. The personalities imbued into the characters by their actors fits perfectly, and every one-liner is delivered with expert timing. While there are more than a few repeating enemies with different color schemes, I’m willing to forgive Twisted Pixel, as this is a downloadable title, so some shortcuts have to be taken.
In spite of the game’s shortcomings as a shooter, I rather enjoyed my time with Comic Jumper. It’s always great to see someone present their passion for comics in a new way, and Twisted Pixel has shown their love in spades. Were the gameplay a little tighter, and more forgiving, I think Comic Jumper could have been a great title. Instead, thanks in large to its unevenness, it’s simply a good game with the occasional fault. With so many titles arriving over the next few weeks, I'm not sure Comic Jumper has what it takes to stand out. Comic book fans will get a kick out of it, but for shooter fans, it won’t provide the same amount of satisfaction as many other more complete titles. Like its hero, Comic Jumper just doesn’t do enough to stand on its own.