A Look at the Latest: Comic Jumper (Xbox 360)

While comic books may be most famous for the superhero stories they tell, the medium does offer more variety than that, a fact Comic Jumper quite literally explores as its hero hops between the genres, although unfortunately it doesn’t dig quite as deep as that idea might first suggest.

 

Captain Smiley is the headliner of a fairly typical action superhero comic, packing super strength and two guns with endless clips to dish out justice. The symbol on his chest isn’t just part of the costume though, the star actually being a constant criticizer of Captain Smiley who is named, quite appropriately, Star. In their comic, they fight against their archrival, a pompous jock named Brad who has his own theme tune and makes waves of robot ladies who are designed to fawn over how awesome he is. While the Brad idea is a bit of a funny concept for a villain, Captain Smiley and Star are a bit off-putting, both of them being a bit ugly in their character design and showing themselves to be unlikable protagonists. Captain Smiley is self-absorbed and Star is constantly mean to everyone save for hot women and Brad, who he admires much more than the man he’s attached to. The two main characters have plenty of banter with each other over the course of the game, the relationship remaining fairly hostile as Captain Smiley’s ego and Star’s bristly temperament lead to some humor that can sometimes crop up a bit too frequently or demand too much attention. In general though, despite leaning a little hard into the constant joke-telling, it does enhance the experience by making the game generally goofy and light-hearted even when characters are outright saying they hate each other or leaving tied up hostages to explode. The game is certainly angling for an over-the-top and irreverent tone, and new characters bring new personalities to feed into that, such as Smiley’s old villain the Puttmaster being overly loquacious and Dr. Winklemeyer seeming to be an insane schemer and constantly trying to pass his eccentricity off as him being a model employee who just acts like a typical mad scientist.

 

The important aspect of Captain Smiley and Star is that their off-putting behavior and designs are actually intentionally included by the developers. Captian Smiley’s comic, in the context of the game world, is absolutely reviled, leading to its cancellation and leaving the hero and his supporting cast in limbo. However, the people at Twisted Pixel, the actual development team that made this video game, get in contact with Captain Smiley and his crew, seeing them as perfect test subjects for their new comic jumping system. Here is where we connect to the namesake of Comic Jumper, a name sometimes extended to Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley. To try and increase his public profile and get the money needed to relaunch his independent series, Captain Smiley must enter other comic books for crossover appearances, the washed-up superhero entering three distinct comic types on his journey. The game begins with Captain Smiley’s own comic book world, but it soon has him leaping into a Conan the Barbarian parody story for a crossover with the Sword and Sorcery comic genre, he plunges into old back issues of a comic created back when the Comics Code Authority condemned any violence but allowed some now regrettable things to slip by like stereotypes and misogyny, and perhaps the most stark jump is Captain Smiley entering a Japanese manga that mixes magical girls with high school romance. Each of the four comic types has a distinct visual style, Captain Smiley’s design even changing to better blend in with the new art direction. The old comic segment mimics the bright solid colors of 50s and 60s comics, and the manga world is black and white and even moves from right to left instead of the typical left to right to mimic that book style’s reading format. It’s a bit of a shame that Comic Jumper couldn’t have taken us to more worlds, and when you start unlocking the concept art, it’s basically a gallery of intriguing ideas they couldn’t implement, but the new worlds do keep things distinct and varied, the variety within the books even fairly good as new angles of the genre are explored between stages.

Comic Jumper even varies its approaches to gameplay, although it makes an odd first impression by throwing you in first with its weakest one: brawling. The beat ’em up gameplay in Comic Jumper is so simplistic that it would have no hope of holding up a game on its own, as nearly every enemy you face with it can be dispatched in three hits from your regular attacks and your only other attack is one used to push back enemies if they surround you on both sides. Movement isn’t important since it’s done on a 2D plane and enemies only approach from the left or right, often walking right up to you to get punched, meaning that most of these segments are utterly brainless and would make Comic Jumper actually pretty bad if they were the main focus. Luckily, these barely crop up and hardly last very long, and there is one variation you find later on where the game gives you a weapon and makes the enemies a bit more competent, having attacks to dodge and some self-preservation instincts. Outside those moments though, the brawling is an unfortunately shallow gameplay type, but it’s also perhaps the rarest of the three main approaches outside of boss battles that actually change the mechanics of it enough to be interesting.

 

The most common gameplay type and the one that makes up maybe 75% of play is the run and gun action. Captain Smiley’s two guns can spray wherever you point them, one control stick moving the captain while the other points the guns where you wish to shoot. Captain Smiley’s moves are somewhat limited here too, the only options besides moving, shooting, and jumping being a slide he can do for brief invincibility and a super move where he calls in the Twisted Pixel developers to clear the screen of baddies, but the way the game makes this mode of play work is by making its enemies incredible competent. You may just be shooting your guns to take them down, but the enemies will keep you on your toes, attacking in manners that require tight dodging and constant movement so that your focus isn’t on how you’re hurting them so much as how you avoid being hurt. Captain Smiley will have to climb, run, fly through space, and ride sparkling unicorns as he fights aggressive foes, all while having no way to heal if he takes any damage. He can survive a few hits well enough, but tackling the whole level on one life isn’t a concern. On death, you’ll be sent back to a checkpoint, usually at a point in the level that feels like a natural division, meaning you still have to play well to progress but won’t suffer too much if you’re struggling with a segment. Dr. Winklemeyer sells upgrades for your health and damage output as well, the player being rewarded at the end of a stage with money to buy it with if they do play well and avoid death as much as they can. Challenges also exist both selectable from the base and cropping up during levels that, if completed, will reward extra cash, and if failed, don’t really hurt you in any way. The run and gun’s simple controls do mean it can get a bit dull if done for too long, some stages hitting that because, while the enemy variety in the totality of the game is pretty good, a level usually uses a small pool of them to harass you.

The last way you can expect to play are also run and gun segments, but rather than being restricted to 2D platformer movement, you’ll move forward with your gun able to aim anywhere on screen, walking left and right to dodge enemies as they appear in front of you. The normal run and gun segments can go on a bit long before the game moves on to something new, and one way it breaks up the building familiarity is by inserting sections like this one where you now have to be much more precise with your aiming and your dodging is more limited. These battles are more time sensitive than most, as most foes will linger and give you a chance to shoot them before executing their attacks. Your forward movement is controlled by the game as well, so the focus is on aiming your reticle right and avoiding the attacks that do slip through. This gameplay style can get pretty intense in later stages as the screen is crowded and your window to attack before the enemy attacks you shrinks more and more, so its greater frequency over the boring melee battles is welcome as it keeps things tough and helps split up the regular run and gun segments.

 

The boss battles in Comic Jumper definitely fill their role of being the most challenging segments. Even though they have patterns to learn, each foe brings some new angle with them. Brad fights you from the Bradcopter and keeps pestering you with his robot women. The Puttmaster forces you to fight with a sword in one of the moments the melee combat is done well and his caddy actually puts up quite the fight, requiring excellent dodging to overcome. One highlight though is a sock puppet looking character named Benny who fights you in a large drill you have to outrun, it having various attacks that require anticipation and dodging to overcome, all while he reminds you in countless different ways that he has five kids to feed in a Total Recall reference. The unfortunate fact about these boss designs is some of their challenge does just come from having a lot of health, which pairs poorly with the manga universe where the black and white graphics can make their attacks hard to see, especially when it comes to the cupid kid who uses clear bubbles for her attacks. They are worth looking forward to as they best express the level’s concept and often offer up a few funny moments before and after their battles, but like a few too many things in Comic Jumper, they just last too long.

THE VERDICT: Comic Jumper is a humorous exploration of various comic book styles, the game offering many things to keep you moving like crazy boss battles and quirky characters and situations. The run and gun gameplay is deceptively simple but finds its energy through needing to be on the move to avoid damage, and while the other gameplay types are even simpler comparatively, they break up the action, which is much needed in this game that is all about things going on too long. Whether it’s the joke telling, the gameplay segments, or its boss battles, the content of Comic Jumper is excellent on its own, but it’s made to fill more space than it should, leading to the action dragging at points and a few duds when it comes to the humor. Overall, it’s a kooky action romp through different comic genres, but it can’t alleviate its tedium just by being stylish.

 

And so, I give Comic Jumper for the Xbox 360…

 

An OKAY rating. Most of what Comic Jumper does it does well, save of course the thankfully rare basic brawler potions, but segments start to lose their shine after being around for too long, the player already knowing how to tackle the troubles they’re facing and just needing to go through the motions for a bit. The gameplay shifts and the stark differences between the game worlds helps this from being a problem with the grand design, only affecting segments that do their job well until they’ve done it for too long. If Comic Jumper had the time to implement more of its unused ideas they could have shortened these portions so that they’re snappy, but as it is, the game on the whole is a bit stretched despite individual moments being challenging as your dodging skills are put to the test.

 

Captain Smiley and Star may be abrasive protagonists, but they inhabit an interesting video game world that delights with its genre variety. If more time was spent jumping into new comics instead of wearing out well-designed but simple mechanics, then Comic Jumper might have leaped up a rating level.

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