Every superhero has it tough; defeating villains and foiling their diabolical plots is a full-time job, and the benefits package usually isn't great. But Captain Smiley has even more on his plate than your typical costumed protector of the innocent. As a fully self-aware comic book star, he also has a dwindling readership and a tarnished public image to think about. In developer Twisted Pixel's hilarious new action game Comic Jumper, Captain Smiley must earn some serious cash to relaunch his own canceled comic book by running, climbing, clobbering, and blasting his way through three other comics of very different styles. Captain Smiley may be a bit of a loser as far as superheroes go, but despite the occasional frustrating moment, solid side-scrolling arcade action and a near-constant stream of laugh-out-loud-funny gags make his adventures a triumph.
Yes, poor Captain Smiley has seen better days. After the tremendous failure of an issue of his comic book, his series is canceled. Adding insult to injury, his archnemesis, the sickeningly cool Brad, is crashing at his base for a while. But all is not lost. Thanks to some help from the good people at Twisted Pixel, Captain Smiley has a shot at a comeback, provided he makes guest appearances in a series of other comics first. This concept lets Twisted Pixel constantly break down the fourth wall and play with the idea of a comic book character in some surprising and very funny ways. You often see Captain Smiley soaring out of a panel on one page of a comic and diving into a panel on the facing page. Comic Jumper is jam-packed with terrific film references, as well as some sharp and funny commentary on changing social attitudes. (Mistress Ropes, the villain in a level styled after a 1960s comic, wants to destroy the status quo and unleash the evils of feminism into society.) Captain Smiley regularly spouts one-liners so embarrassingly inept that they go past terrible and come back around to being hilarious, and the banter between him and the gruff talking star on his chest (whose name is Star) will have you in stitches. The developer even takes a few funny cracks at its earlier releases. Check out the The Maw arcade cabinet in Smiley's base, and Star will complain that the game was way too short and the DLC was a rip-off. Add in the occasional, very clever use of live action, and you have a game that's almost as entertaining to watch and listen to as it is to play.
Playing Comic Jumper is simple, but often far from easy, and the action has a straightforward, arcade-style appeal. Most of the time, you run from left to right (or in the case of the levels set in a manga, from right to left), using the right thumbstick to independently aim Smiley's guns in any direction and blast the enemies who are constantly coming at you. Whether you're running and leaping your way through a modern-day city, flying through space, or fighting a floating head that's coughing up mines while you ride a unicorn, much of the focus is on avoiding the projectiles sent your way. Captain Smiley can withstand a fair amount of damage, but you need to play cautiously. Charging heedlessly through swarms of enemies will rapidly see you suffer an explosive, Mega Man-style death. You'll invariably find yourself repeating some sections multiple times, which can get frustrating. But you're never sent back too far, the challenge never feels unfair, and finally making it through a particularly difficult stretch carries with it that pleasant feeling of accomplishment and relief.
It's not all side-scrolling and shooting, though. Comic Jumper changes things up frequently. At times the camera swings behind Captain Smiley for on-rails shooter sequences in which you can move Smiley from side to side to evade incoming attacks while moving an aiming reticle about with the right stick. And there are times when Smiley relies on his fists rather than his guns, in some very simple but satisfying sections where you knock the living daylights out of thugs, murderously lovesick high school girls, or whoever else makes the mistake of getting too close to our hero. Finally, there are a small number of quick-time events, which are very easy to handle but are enjoyable just for the actions that happen as you press the indicated buttons.
In the first level, which introduces each of these styles of gameplay, the action shifts so frequently and each new style is so surprising that the overall impression is of a brilliantly fast-paced game whose constantly changing gameplay will keep you on your toes. Unfortunately, Comic Jumper doesn't maintain this level of excitement over the course of its 11 levels, and it sometimes falls into predictable rhythms, lets certain sections drag on for a bit too long, and forces you to fight certain enemies a few too many times. Still, the variety of gameplay types prevents things from getting too repetitious, and the changing art styles that accompany each new comic book you jump into keep the game visually interesting, while also providing plenty of new material for Smiley and Star to crack wise about.
In addition to the modern superhero look he sports in his own title, The Adventures of Captain Smiley, you see Smiley transformed into the hero of a 1970s fantasy comic, a silver-age superhero comic, and a black-and-white manga. Although there's the occasional graphical flaw, such as characters passing through each other, on the whole the visuals are terrific and nail the idea of a comic book brought to life more literally and successfully than perhaps any game before. The audio design is outstanding as well, providing a near-constant stream of jokes, character theme songs, and other delights. The very different voices of Captain Smiley and Star (who are both voiced by actor Christopher Sabat) provide a perfect sense of their strained relationship and make the often antagonistic banter between them much more entertaining.
There are some very good extras on offer in addition to the 11 levels of the core game. A series of very tough challenges give you the chance to earn more money by completing difficult sections without getting hit once. And the money you earn from both the main levels and from challenges can be spent not only on leveling up some of Smiley's attributes, but also on rewards like a premium theme, avatar awards, new 'Splosion Man levels, and a whole mess of videos, audio clips, concept art, and other stuff. But what really makes this game great is its simple but varied gameplay and the way that Twisted Pixel makes the most of its comic-jumping concept to give us a hilarious tale of a hero who has become a laughingstock, and the long road he must travel to become cool again. The occasional lull in momentum or frustratingly difficult moment isn't nearly enough to outshine the charms of this fun, challenging, and very funny game.