From the hypnotic neon landscape and constant barrage of spraying bullets to the way the playing field bends around at the edges of the screen to replicate the look of an old arcade cabinet monitor, everything about the latest entry in the ever-creative PixelJunk series from Q-Games seems designed to push your nostalgia button. That's not a bad thing, but looking past the allure of the dazzling visual design reveals a short, minimalistic arcade shooter with a few faults that almost outweigh the fun. PixelJunk SideScroller's twitchy gameplay evokes fond memories of playing games like Life Force and Gradius, but it feels weak when compared to the PixelJunk Shooter games that preceded it in the series.
Because it's based on an unlockable secret stage found in the previous PixelJunk game, it's not surprising that SideScroller cannibalizes the exact same spacecraft, some of the same foes, and a few other hazards from PixelJunk Shooter 2. Familiar environmental elements like flammable gas, water, ice, and lava also make a return. Taking damage once overheats your craft, and you can restore your two-hit health meter by flying through water to cool down as in the past two PixelJunk entries. But whereas the two Shooter games are geared more toward exploration and puzzle work, SideScroller is all about the straight-up action. Like the old-school classics that the game pays homage to, you pilot your small ship through forced scrolling stages while battling waves of enemy fighters, bullet-spewing sentry cannons, and more elaborate boss encounters. The chaotic dodge-and-shoot gameplay is enjoyable yet straightforward; it's kill or be killed. Unfortunately, some design elements make it hard to do your job.
Your ship's three main weapons options--machine guns, lasers, and bombs--offer a limited means of cutting through the swarms of baddies that come your way. Each can be upgraded independently up to five times to boost its power and reach. Sadly, none of the weapons are totally effective against every foe you face, and switching between them in the heat of combat is unwieldy at best. Instead of triggering each attack with a different button press, you're stuck with cycling through them one at a time using a single button. To make matters worse, every switch is accompanied by an irritating female robot voice whose grating nature further encourages you to pick a favorite and stick with it through much of the game. There's also a chargeable ramming attack, but it's more effective at accidentally getting you killed than taking down foes. The game's checkpoint system sometimes works against you as well. Running out of lives toward the tail end of a stage lets you restart from the last checkpoint infinitely, but it robs you of all your power-ups and makes it tough to progress without starting over. While these limitations do get in the way, it's not that difficult to look past them and still have fun.
SideScroller's biggest redeeming quality is its creative, colorful presentation. Each captivating little area is simply beautiful. The initial simplicity of the glowing geometric stage designs soon melts away into complex networks that spread throughout the foreground and background. There's a lot to soak in, even if you have precious little time for sightseeing with all of the flying bullets and other dangers to plow through. Levels feature a good blend of natural and mechanical obstacles, like crushing pistons, jets of flame, falling rocks, and combustible gas. The boss battles waiting at the end of each run of stages ramp up the clever level designs in intense, multifaceted encounters that are truly impressive. What's disappointing is it takes so little time to cut a path to the final credits. SideScroller's three main stages feature four short levels apiece, and there's an unlockable final boss battle stage too. Tougher difficulty settings featuring crazy visual filters that change the look of the gameworld and frustrating multiplayer co-op that has you sharing limited lives don't offer much in the way of replay incentive.
As visually stimulating as it may be, PixelJunk SideScroller's supershort length and bare-bones arcade shooter gameplay drag down its retro charm a few notches. While fleshing out the bonus stage from PixelJunk Shooter 2 into a stand-alone game wasn't a bad idea, this brief download flounders under clunky implementation. It doesn't hold up well next to its more robust brethren.