Slam Bolt Scrappers is one of those funky games that some creative thinker dreams up but rarely finds the courage or resources to make. What if Tetris had guns and explosions? What if you could clobber other players with flying avatars while sorting blocks? And what if you could pilfer power-ups from airborne ninjas? All of these questions find an answer in this ambitious new game by Fire Hose Games, which emerges as a curious mixture of puzzle, strategy, and brawling that feels at once nostalgically familiar yet like nothing you've ever played before. Though it makes a good first impression, Scrappers ultimately falls short of its tremendous potential on account of some conspicuous shortcomings and the absence of an online multiplayer mode.
The basic goal of Slam Bolt Scrappers is to destroy your opponent's tower before he or she destroys your own. This involves using a jetpack-toting avatar to beat up hostile creatures that hover above your grid, collecting the colored blocks that they drop, and then stacking the blocks to form like-colored squares that automatically unleash powerful weaponry or life-saving defenses. For instance, if you make a red square, missiles rain down on your opponent's towers; if you build an orange square, a massive Ping-Pong paddle knocks back your opponent's attacks. And because the sizes of the squares you make determine the power of the resulting weapons or defenses, it's best to concentrate on the colors that provide the best situational advantages. All the while, your opponents are frantically building towers of their own or assaulting you directly in hand-to-hand combat to steal the blocks you've collected. Should they succeed, you're knocked out of combat for a few seconds (which equals an eternity in Slam Bolt Scrappers' breakneck matches), although you can speed up the process a bit by tapping out a button sequence indicated by an onscreen prompt.
The melee combat itself is one of the weakest features of Slam Bolt Scrappers. Most battles devolve into a disappointing mashfest of heavy and medium punching attacks, thanks to the unresponsive combos. You may find it worthwhile just to block incoming attacks with your invulnerability shield at the expense of free movement and valuable time. That time, in fact, is one reason why engaging your opponent in a brawl usually isn't worth the effort except when defending yourself. By the time you defeat your adversary and take his or her blocks, it's quite likely that your own tower has suffered from the strain of being unattended for so long. Instead, it's best to use your brawling skills against the ninjas that hover around your towers because they drop one of six useful power-ups that could turn the tide in a hectic moment. One, for example, triggers a supernova that obliterates every onscreen baddy and stuns your opponents, while another lets you steal your rival's largest weapons and claim them as your own.
Most of the levels in Slam Bolt Scrappers follow this pattern, but most levels feature their own quirks, such as platforms that descend into lava when your stack gets too heavy or towers that periodically switch positions onscreen. The only exceptions are the boss levels, which invariably require you to bash in the boss's defense mechanism so your tower's missiles can knock it into submission. When combined with the acts of defending against your opponent, battling your enemies, and building your towers (particularly on the more challenging ranks of the game's four difficulty settings), these little changes turn the already-hectic gameplay into a heart-pounding experience. As a result, it's best to play the campaign cooperatively with up to three of your friends because the towers go up faster, the addition of more players adds to the game's excitement, and you have a better chance of beating your previous record time for completing a level.
Needless to say, there's a lot going on in the campaign alone; so much, in fact, that the game's psychedelic color palette and wild, cartoonish visuals sometimes leave you hunting for your avatar in the uproar. Even when you do manage to find yourself, the constant beatings you receive from opponents and the creatures above make the act of dropping your blocks in the right places a frustrating combination of luck and skill. The good news is that all of this eventually makes some sort of chaotic sense; the bad news is that the short campaign concludes just as you've gotten the hang of it. If you miss some of the unlockable bonus levels scattered throughout the smallish world map, you can finish the campaign in only a few hours even on the harder settings.
Yet, Slam Bolt Scrappers provides plenty of opportunities for replay through its multiplayer Battle mode. Here, you can play in teams or singly against up to three other players at once based on parameters set before the match. These are largely based on maps, as well as avatar and weapon options you unlock by completing levels in the campaign. The team option is particularly welcome because your towers rise much more quickly with the help of a seasoned partner. Although playing against one or even two other players feels much like the campaign mode, tossing in the fourth player suddenly turns the map into a relentless spectacle of flying missiles, careening drill bits, and unexpected explosions that makes it easy to lose track of what's going on. The free-for-all Mardis Gras spectacle is fun to watch, but playing at this level requires an intimate understanding of the game's mechanics that casual visitors simply won't have. This wouldn't be a bad thing if the multiplayer mode weren't limited to local play. Given a decent online multiplayer mode, Slam Bolt Scrappers could have provided many hours of nonstop multiplayer entertainment. As it stands, however, playing "with a large group of people who are yelling at each other and the TV" (as one of the loading screens suggests) isn't much fun unless all four of you have conquered the game's steep learning curve.
Slam Bolt Scrappers can entertain in spite of its flaws, but the absence of online multiplayer means that its replayability depends on having a few enthusiastic friends and controllers on hand to make the most of its cooperative and versus options. If you're willing to overlook this fundamental weakness (and some curiously long loading times), it's hard not to admire Slam Bolt Scrappers for its skillful handling of scraps from multiple popular genres.