Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: Pixel Boarder

What the heck is up with the Indie Games section on Xbox Live recently? You might not have been following it very closely since its reputation has been pretty well established. Well, defying the odds, a number of solid indies have dropped in the last few months. Games like Leave Home, Pixel!, Office Politics, Along Came a Spider, Gerbil Physics and Kodu Game Lab are easily worth their $1 to $3 asking price. An tiny oasis in a desert of ugh you might say, but if Pixel Friends' Pixel Boarder is any indication, the future is bright.

Pixel Boarder is a physics based snowboarding game that requires the player to maintain balance and momentum until he reaches the bottom of a course. The boarder is controlled exclusively with the analog sticks, assigned to the left and right halves of the boarder. By leaning left and right, the player can shift the boarder's weight on the board to navigate obstacles and execute tricks. The challenge lies in staying on the board through successively more difficult courses. To be sure, the game doesn't break any new ground. There are a multitude of flash games that are established on these gameplay conceits. The camera position that allows you to only see the next immediate challenge in your path recalls the 3/4th perspective of Trials HD.

What makes Pixel Boarder compelling is the quality of its presentation, aesthetic and soundtrack. As the title suggests, the game is purposefully retro. Like early Playstation games, every polygon pops out in all its rectangular glory. Powder trails emanate from the back of your board in gray and white crosses and the ski lifts that dot the courses look like cardboard cutouts. Even the snow is pixellated. And if Playstation isn't retro enough, you can adjust the display to your desired amount of bits (8-bit is just about unplayable). An unusual amount of care went into modeling the boarders and tracks, evident in every aspect of the game's rudimentary appearance. To complement the aesthetic, Pixel Boarder has a large compilation of pretty stellar chiptune music from several different artists. The songs are catchy and relentlessly upbeat, even when you are falling on your ass rather hopelessly.

As much attention as has been spent making the game look out of date, Pixel Boarder has some unintentionally rough edges. For one, your boarder's weight seems to be distributed evenly and inexplicably throughout his body. As you can only control body parts, this becomes a painstakingly delicate process. If you don't land your jumps perfectly, you tip over. Then you have to flail helplessly while your fat head drags behind your board. Get used to hitting the retry button.

The other big issue is the slowdown that occurs without any warning or regularity during the course of a level. There doesn't seem to be a lot to render in Pixel Boarder, so the performance issue is a head-scratcher.
The reality is that enjoying the game isn't contingent upon the consistency of its physics or fine tuning. The huge relief that comes with completing a course can be relived through the game's amazingly intuitive replay system (weirdly enough, Pixel Boarder has the best replay menu that I've ever used), but the mirth of the game is in repeat attempts at high scores and fancy maneuvers. The courses are varied enough in scale and difficulty that they stay interesting, although nothing is too challenging except the "Master thesis" course. And really, 240 points is a pittance for what the game offers. Let it stand as an example for what to expect from the Indie games channel.