Stuff I bought instead of Perfect Dark, No.1
As alert viewers will know, the 800 Microsoft Points I'd been saving up for several weeks in anticipation of the arrival of Perfect Dark went unspent due to the useless inadequacy of its developers. Rather than let them go to waste, though, I've been browsing through the work of some people who actually care about what they do.
The section of the Xbox 360 Marketplace called Xbox Live Indie Games (or XBLIG henceforth) presents a slightly off-putting face to the world, thanks to its already-huge catalogue of stuff to wade through, which isn't filtered by any equivalent of the App Store's review system. With little online coverage either, purchasing decisions are often a leap in the dark, based only on a judgement of a couple of screenshots and a sentence or two of blurb. Luckily, Pixelkiller (80 MS Points, about 61p) scored highly on both fronts, and the judgement proved true.
The game is pure old-skool platforming, all about reaction and exploration. Your task is to collect 10 gold coins secreted about each of 10 large scrolling caverns depicted in wireframe monochrome. The caverns feature many secret passages and destructible walls, and are populated by various creatures (some armed with guns or rocket launchers) and defended by invulnerable wall-mounted cannons.
And that's it, really. You have a fast-firing pistol and infinite lives, checkpoints respawn you a maximum of three or four seconds back from where you died, and each level has a highscore, increased by collecting more coins, losing fewer lives and reaching the exit more quickly. (At least, I'm assuming so – in keeping with its minimalist ethos the game doesn't actually do anything as vulgar as explain the scoring.)
If you're a modern gamer prone to complaining loudly every time you have to play the same section of a level more than once, Pixelkiller isn't the game for you. The later stages don't call for pixel-perfect jumping as such, but you'll need to execute long sequences of bounding across small platforms while under a barrage of gunfire and rockets flawlessly in order to reach the next (unmarked) checkpoint.
I say "long sequences", but the game's accelerated pace means we're actually talking about no more than 10 seconds at the outside, because this is a game stripped down for speed as well as spartan aesthetics. It's not so fast as to be unplayable, but you rarely find yourself required to stop. Think Bill And Ted's Excellent Gameboy Adventure with shooting and you won't be too far off the mark.
Occasionally Pixelkiller pulls a slightly cheap trick, like long drops down chasms with secret-passage entrances in the side, where by the time you've worked out that that's where you need to go to collect a particular coin, you have no way of getting back to the top of the pit to try again. But there aren't many such instances, and since you don't need to collect every coin to complete a level and unlock the next, it's not the worst flaw in the world.
The game comes properly alive halfway through, when the increasing ferocity of resistance is balanced by your acquisition of a "jetpack" (actually a double-jump) which enables your little pixel fella to really cut loose and perform some extremely beautiful feats of breathtaking agility in pursuit of the shiny coins.
I love Pixelkiller. The pace is glorious, the difficulty is set just right, and the level design is excellent – while there's scope for exploration and solving particular problems in more than one way, the game always keeps you heading in the right direction.
The absence of any kind of online leaderboards is a real pity, as is the fact that each level doesn't keep three separate records for best time, best score and fewest lives, but you'll have plenty of fun beating your own scores and times and trying to one-life each level.
720 points to go!