Over the past few months, a plethora of original titles has graced the Xbox Live Arcade in the hope of bringing something new to the table, and consequently making a noticeable mark on the download service. Amongst many others, THQ is more than willing to draw advantages from the ample potential offered up by the service, as witnessed by their recent announcement of a slew of mostly original XBLA games set to prove their mettle. The first title brave enough to venture into the competitive field is Frozen Codebaseâ€™s Screwjumper!, which just so happens to be the 100th XBLA title released. Does it have what it takes to be remembered as a refreshing offering, and more importantly, a worthy addition to the library or does it simply fall into the abyss so many other wannabe original games have ended up in?
The story centers on a crew of ex-mine workers going by the name of Screwjumpers. Having become unemployed due to the automation of the mining industry, the team of six takes up the role of reckless mercenaries. In an ironic twist, the home planets to the precious resources desire the mines built by the mercenariesâ€™ former employer, the EAC, gone for good and hire the Screwjumpers to do so. Suffice to say, this is as far as the story goes in Screwjumper!, rather shifting its focus on the inspiring gameplay formula. Apart from the time gamers spend in the slick main menu and flicking through many pages of the tutorial, the plot is nonexistent. Itâ€™s there to serve one purpose and one purpose only and that is to vindicate the premise behind the game â€“ players willingly pummeling down precarious mineshafts at white-knuckle speeds.
The selling point of Screwjumper! is undoubtedly its free-falling gameplay mechanic. After picking from a selection of twenty different mineshafts scattered across four planets, the player is then sent rocketing down a gaping shaft filled with a bevy of green-glowing mining equipment, red-glowing obstacles and other hazardous clogs. The goal is to smash into as many green objects as possible and avoid red objects at all costs. Each of the twenty levels requires a particular amount of mining equipment to be demolished so as to lower the shield protecting the nuclear reactor sitting at the bottom of the shaft. Once the indicator on the right side of the screen notifies the feat has been achieved, the next thing on the to-do list is hit the rock bottom and toss a stick of dynamite at the now unprotected main reactor. In case the player reaches the reactor before taking down the specified number of equipment, a lethal toxic gas is unleashed and death soon follows.
Up until this point, a top-down perspective is employed in order to make it easier for the player to hit objects accurately. However, when the mineshaft is about to be shot to hell, the action shifts to first-person mode which again facilitates the process by offering a better view. Before calling it a day though, the player has to blast back out of the shaft in a limited period of time. This last part of the level would be a piece of cake to accomplish were it not for the red obstacles still standing in the way and the aforementioned time limit. Thankfully, there is another life on hand if things should go wrong in either of the two level sequences, replete with continuing from the last checkpoint and the current damage done to the shield intact when on the way down.
Throughout each mineshaft, a number of various power-ups are placed, ranging from the somewhat helpful bubble shields to additional dynamite ammo and speed boosts. There isnâ€™t much need to pick these up early on in the game, as a mission can be cleared by simply smashing into green objects. However, as the player progresses to the last two planets, the special items become vital to the survival of the Screwjumper. Dynamite proves very useful in destroying the incoming hazards, such as the dreadful power cores, and lowering whatâ€™s left of the shield, while the bubble armor provides invulnerability for several seconds, and as such, works a treat in confined spaces populated by say lava tubes. As for the speed boost ring, itâ€™s pretty much useless considering the jet boots net the same result.
While the gameplay remains fresh through and through, and makes for some truly intense moments, particularly when darting out of the shaft, there are several drawbacks that bog down the overall experience. For one, the aiming mechanic is flawed to the point that chucking dynamites at dangerous objects becomes a nuisance, as the reticule keeps resetting itself to the middle of the screen, thus preventing the player from focusing on a specific object for longer than a second. Adding to the annoyance are the miniscule EAC enemies that come chasing after the Screwjumper at a certain point in the level. Not only are they extremely difficult to hit with a stick of dynamite, but they also pose no threat whatsoever. In fact, they are pointless and should have been scrapped from the equation entirely. The list of gameplay flaws doesnâ€™t end there however; the controls which play the most crucial role in the game arenâ€™t perfectly executed either. More often than not, moving while free-falling feels rather clunky, like at times when the player transitions from low to high velocity and vice-versa, all the while effortlessly trying to hit an incoming green object. Strangely enough, the controls can also prove overly-sensitive. This becomes quickly apparent when carefully worming through a short tunnel-like segment which is oftentimes filled with threatening hazards. A simple flick of the left analog stick in a particular direction sends you slamming into a nearby wall and then right into the previously mentioned obstacle. Itâ€™s frustrating as hell to say the least.
The bulk of the time is spent in Normal mode which consists of twenty different levels spanning across planets Scruto, Libitino, Floratone, and Hecateus. Taking into consideration that it takes from two to five minutes to finish a level, the duration of the main component of the single-player is more on the short side â€“ three hours at the most, including retries. In order to add to the longevity, Frozen Codebase threw in three other modes which become unlocked upon completing the first mission. The Race mode sees the player and three other CPU-controlled Screwjumpers hurrying down the shaft and back up again in the hope of finishing first, the Time mode tasks the gamer with completing a level under a given time limit, and finally, the Endurance mode is all about getting through as many levels as possible with a limited number of lives. Sadly, none of the additional modes are different enough from Normal mode to bump up the lasting appeal too much. The same can be said for the gameâ€™s selection of six playable characters, as the differences between them are purely cosmetic.
Having said that, one would think the multiplayer portion of the game would somehow counterbalance the short longevity offered by the single-player component. However, that is not the case here. While it does allow for four-player online competitive play on any of the twenty levels, and two-player local play on select seven levels, thereâ€™s not a soul out there to play with. The lack of players rears its ugly head when it comes to the leaderboards as well; the purpose of bragging rights is totally lost when thereâ€™s so few to compare with. The twelve Achievements are just about the only incentive to keep playing beyond the gameâ€™s short-lived single-player mode.
From the moment Screwjumper! is fired up for the first time, itâ€™s crystal clear that Frozen Codebase was thinking outside the box when creating the game. The free-falling dynamic feels fresh and acts as the element that sets the title apart from the rest of the pack, but due to the poor execution of the intriguing gameplay formula and downsides, like too little â€śbang for the buckâ€ť, Screwjumper! falls flat on its face. At the end of the day, itâ€™s one of those games that sounds good on paper but falls short of expectations in practice.
Final Score: 5 out of 10 â€“ Below Average (How do we rate games?)