Weapon of Choice

There are a couple of types of game that I’m always surprised not to see on Xbox Live Indie Games. One is screen-by-screen action RPGs like the old Zelda games; the other is Contra-like platforming shooters. There are a couple but they’re generally either quite light on the shooting or just not very good. Weapon of Choice gears up for a hefty bout of Contra’s massed carnage but also coats it with a layer of Alpha Squad’s lightheartedness just in case earnest destruction is too much for your frail disposition.

The basic gameplay is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well. You are a soldier ploughing through enemy forces, blowing up everything that moves like a pre-politics Schwarzenegger. One hit will finish you off, so you have to be agile, and quick on the right thumbstick. It’s unusual to see a twin-stick control scheme in a side-scrolling platform shooter, but it makes perfect sense. Enemies will come from all directions, and the levels frequently offer several routes to explore that might see you clinging to the ceiling with your bizarre robotic spider backpack or leaping between unsettlingly organic outcrops, so precision control is a lifesaver.

‘Unsettlingly organic’ is a good description for a lot of the visuals. Right from the first level you’ll stumble across (or under, or into) writhing, chitinous beasts the size of trains, or eye-pocked maws big enough to pick bicycles out of their teeth. Brightly coloured, smoothly animated and bursting with occasionally unpleasant detail, Weapon of Choice is easily an upper-rung XBLIG in its presentation.

There’s more to fun than looking pretty, though. If there wasn’t, then cathedrals would have all the best parties.

Maybe I’d even go as far as ‘upsettingly organic’

From the outset the game spoils us with a wealth of options. There are six difficulty settings and several characters to choose from even before we unlock more. Your choice of character is far from superficial here, as each has their own special weapon that functions uniquely with primary and secondary fire modes, and also a power that activates during a double jump, such as a brief decoy or a short float.

Xerxes Remington, for instance, lugs around a jet engine that he uses as a gun. Its primary fire mode acts more or less like a high-powered flamethrower, but its secondary mode cranks up the engine’s output, increasing its range but also launching Xerxes backwards if he shoots while jumping. Each character has a short file that you can flip through to get an idea of how their special weapon works, and scraps of biographical info if that’s your thing.

Chantarelle Marmalade uses a gun that is more of a flailing quasi-chainsaw; Moses Longhorn unleashes robotic satellites that hover around and fight for him. Each character’s weapon is completely different from all the others, and comes with two distinct modes for different situations. All the characters also have the same back-up weapon, but it’s no mundane sidearm. An assault rifle on the surface, activating the secondary mode sends the gun out to roam around as directed on a sort of prehensile cable. Make no mistake, the weapons are the focus of this game, and the source of both success and sometimes failure if misused. There’s a reason the whole game was named after them.

Genetically engineered cows transformed the dairy farming industry

The roster of characters also does more than provide a selection of distinctive play styles – it serves as a ‘lives’ system too. Your chosen character has one life; if they die, you choose another character to drop in and take their place. The catch here is that you won’t be able to use your original character again unless you can carry them, whimpering like a scolded kitten, all the way to the end of the level. Once out of the level they heal up and can be swapped back in the next time you get killed – though then they’ll have to return the favour by carrying their fallen buddy home.

It’s an interesting system. Weapon of Choice gives you a chance to avoid actually losing a life if you can adapt to a different character’s play style well enough to survive the rest of the level. The game makes you earn your boon, and it works astonishingly well. Just to throw a bit more of a dilemma into the mix, you will occasionally see entirely new characters lying wounded and in need of rescue. If you can get them out, you’ll effectively gain a bonus life for this playthrough, and will have a new starting character to choose the next time. You can only carry one ally though, so if you’ve been killed already you’ll have to decide between saving your old favourite or taking a chance on the unknown soldier you’ve just stumbled across.

The aliens eyed his floating lightchair covetously

Eventually I realised that discovering new characters in this way has one more interesting consequence. It doesn’t just give you a 1UP for this playthrough; it gives you one more life for every playthrough thereafter. As you play the game on the lower difficulty settings and find more characters, it makes higher difficulties more manageable by effectively enlarging your stockpile of lives. But each death means you have to change the way you play, and you might end up stuck with a character you’ve never managed to get the hang of. It’s a beautifully elegant system, and for me it’s the real highlight of the game.

If the replayability of assorted difficulties and a multitude of characters aren’t enough, there are at least three (that I know of) story strands to explore. The route you choose to take in the first couple of levels will determine which plot you follow, which levels you visit and what the ultimate fate of humanity will be. It’s a lot of responsibility for the sort of person whose idea of precision marksmanship is ripping the propulsion from a Harrier and stuffing it in an alien’s mouth.

Jet engine, meet face. Still fractionally more finesse than MW3 TDM.

This replayability is important, because Weapon of Choice really isn’t very long. Higher difficulty settings will take longer to battle through, but the levels in each plot strand number maybe half a dozen at most. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about seeing different endings, exploring every level or challenging yourself with tougher replays, then Weapon of Choice might not be worth the asking price. For someone like me though – a chronic replayer of games even when there’s nothing left to discover – the combination of different routes and retrievable characters are a powerful lure. Even without those the hectic, over the top, manic carnage of the amped-up cartoon Contra gameplay is enough to draw me back for a quick blast through from time to time. If you like games about shooting things, and especially if you like them to be unique as well as explosive, this should be your Weapon of Choice.

Look what I ‘nade

“When life gives you explosions, make explosionade!” crows Atticus, the gluttonous mech-borrower protagonist of Mommy’s Best Games’ deceptively shooter-esque Explosionade.

Playing as the future/space/whatever army’s resident slacker, Atticus, you are left behind to guard the base while all your knucklehead fellows go charging off to fight the decisive battle. While trying to stave off boredom you stumble across a new prototype mech and take it into the sewer for target practice. Hey, who hasn’t stolen a piece of cutting edge military hardware and used it to shoot poo? War effort be damned, I want to get payback on that particularly flush-resistant floater from last night. What good is defeating an alien menace if we all still have unsatisfactory bowel movements? Might as well just roll over and give up.

The prototype mech doesn’t disappoint. Aside from having a very fetching, SNES-era chunky build, it’s tooled up to the teeth. And it’s a good thing the army didn’t decide to do anything logical like not putting live ammo in a dormant mech, as Atticus finds a lot more than stubborn excretions down in the sewer. Between the bats, enemy soldiers and huge missile-spitting monsters these pipes would make even the Australian sanitation system look deserted. The prospect of a venomous spider crawling out of your Sydney hotel room toilet seems less alarming when you’ve had to deal with an alien rifleman shoving its head up round the u-bend for a reccy.

Imagine this thing lunging out of the bowl. A bottle of Toilet Duck seems pathetically inadequate

Titling the game Explosionade creates a certain expectation – an expectation of things going ‘bang’ with gleeful abandon. Those old enough or faux-retro ‘cool’ enough might glance at the SNES-y explosions, the chunky mech sprite and the industrial sci-fi environment, and think Cybernator or maybe Super Turrican. I know I did, at least for the first couple of rooms. But Explosionade is one of those games that are not what they seem to be. All too often on XBLIG, that’s a disappointment – a city management sim that turns out not to be (Megalopolis) or an inventive platformer that turns out to be a bare-faced troll that giggles mockingly while rubbing its groinal regions on your face (Game 35). Not Explosionade though. It’s not what I expected, but is no less enjoyable for defying my assumptions.

It wasn’t long before Explosionade stopped reminding me of a platform shooter like Cybernator, Turrican or Contra and started evoking memories of the (more recent) classy XBLIG release Escape Goat from Magical Time Bean. Escape Goat seems to be a platformer and Explosionade seems to be a shooter with platform bits, but both games are actually room-based puzzle-platformers.

Your mech’s weapons, while impressively powerful, are less for destroying everything you see than for finding your way to the exit. The game is a series of single-screen rooms with hazards and enemies laid out in such a way that it takes a bit of thought to cross them. Explosionade isn’t as puzzley as Escape Goat, and certainly features more combat, but they are in the same ball park. It also has hints of the trap-dodging nimble platforming that we see mainly in punishment platformers (though mercifully free of the obnoxious difficulty).

Why do so many people electrify their floors? Is it cheaper than carpet?

While your basic gun is useful only for combat, your other abilities are far more versatile. You’re given an unlimited supply of ‘meganades’ (grenades), which can destroy many platforms and walls, and stick to surfaces or rattle around like pinballs. Your emergency shield ability has a more strategic secondary use in enabling you to bounce off walls and floors. And many manoeuvres require you to combine one or more of these tools with judicious use of the jetpack.

Enemies in Explosionade are typically not just cannon fodder, but more like roving, well-armed obstacles in each puzzle. These rooms won’t test your brain too much and can usually be navigated with just a few seconds of forethought, but this, combined with the single-room-based format, pushes the game away from 16-bit scrolling shooters into more thoughtful territory. The exception is the occasional boss enemies which simplify things down to their shooter roots with a ‘shoot the big thing while not getting shot’ grenade-spamathon.

None of this is a bad thing. Although there aren’t that many SNES-style platform shooters on XBLIG, there are even fewer well executed hybrid shooter-puzzlers. If you want a Contra-alike, check out the same developer’s earlier release, Weapon of Choice. It’s a well done and charming, if short, example of the formula. But Explosionade offers something that shooter fans, platform fans and puzzle fans can get behind – it is none of these genres, but provides enough of each to be well worth playing regardless of your preferences.

Plus there was no poo after all. And there’s no higher praise than that.