Back in the day, Solar Jetman on the NES was my most favourite of Nintendo games. Pushing Mario to one side, I could happily spend my time drifting around far off planets in a small spaceship, searching their underground warren of caves for hidden bounty. Built in the same vein as Thrust and Gravitar, it kept me amused for hours on end with only its brutal difficulty stopping me from plundering all that it had to offer.
Continuing Pixel Junk’s obsession with two syllable naming conventions, Shooter is what I have wished for ever since the demise of the NES, for it is effectively Solar Jetman resurrected in HD. Once again you pilot a ship through a planet’s network of underground caverns, but this time your goal is a little less selfish. Rather than loot, a mining colony has gotten itself into a pickle, and whilst exploring the subterranean world you are tasked with picking up those colonists who have gotten themselves lost.
Armed with a basic guns and missiles you are able to blast your way through the fragile rock to rescue many, but the deeper you travel the more natural hazards will block your way. Underground rivers will meet with lava flows, pockets of toxic gas and dark, liquid metals will all be found lurking beneath the planets surface. Most prove hazardous to the miners and so each level is set out like a puzzle, with skilful manoeuvring and a careful trigger finger required to extract those you’ve been sent to rescue without burning, gassing or suffocating them in the process.
Every Pixel Junk game attempts to have a standout moment or piece of tech that they showcase, and in Shooter’s case it is the interaction between the elemental forces. All slosh and flow with superbly realised fluid dynamics: enabling lava to belch forth dramatically from an underground volcano, liquid metal to gloop off at great speed when attracted by an electromagnet, and water to break forth from a damn as if it were being staged by Hollywood itself. Better still, when two such elements meet they change the world itself. Drop water on lava and it will cool into rock; should liquid metal be exposed to water both will turn to gas; should the screen then be filled with too much gas, just add fiery lava and all will go up in flames.
It is this cross play between elemental substances that truly defines Shooter and is where most of the magic in the puzzles can be found. Having so many combinations from such relatively few components has allowed Pixel Junk to create some seemingly fiendish puzzles that are then conquered by applying just a few core principles. Attempting to pull out miners from a seemingly unreachable nook takes equal measures of thought and action but once a successful method has been found there is always scope to either do it quicker or with a little more pizzazz. In fact, it’s not really a shooter at all. That name conjures up images of something more akin to Gradius, whereas the truth of the matter is that the majority of the game is spent exploring and manipulating the elements.
The whole thing leaves you wanting an open level, a sandbox where you can throw off the shackles of rescuing everyone and just play with the toys you have been given. So many times I found myself using the retry option from the menu because I wanted to see “what if?”
To top off the experience, each of the episodes (there are three in total) comes to a climax with a satisfying and gigantic boss fight. Normally I have reservations about such a change in a game’s flow but each one continues to use mechanics that are by that time so familiar to the player that they do not feel out of place. Large flashing indicators still strongly hint that you may wish to think about shooting/grabbling/bashing a particular area of your amply sized foe but that doesn’t take away from their appeal.
The one reservation that I do have regarding Shooter is that it never lives up to its potential. With such a riotous playground at its finger tips I was expecting to be thrown some truly nasty levels that would test everything I had learnt throughout my adventure, but that never really came. Barring a few misjudgements regarding just how many shots it would take to break through damns holding back certain fatal liquids, I never felt pushed. The game plays through at a leisurely pace and before I knew it the credits were rolling.
However, with the immortal “to be continued” emblazoned across the final scene I daresay that Pixel Junk might just try and placate me. If the quality of the DLC episodes is even simply on a par with the trio that I have just encountered then Sony will once again see me emptying up my virtual wallet. Until then, I’m off to find the Golden Warpship.