For most of us who grew up during the 80’s and 90’s, videogames were pretty harsh. Contra, Castlevania, Battletoads, and Ninja Gaiden are probably the most tossed-around titles when it comes to defining the meaning of “Nintendo Hard”, but there are more examples out there–good and bad. These games raised us to endure one-hit-kills, few if any extra lives (unless you cheated), and ridiculously difficult levels filled with treacherous terrain and the most annoying bastards to ever cross your 8-bit path. I’m talking flying assholes, shooting assholes, and hopping-around assholes. They were all assholes, we all hated them, and they all ended up either building our gaming character or costing us some bloody knuckles, shattered TVs, and a hole in the wall.
In a nutshell, this is what They Bleed Pixels is all about: intense, bleeding-edge trial-and-error trials with a steep but rewarding difficulty curve. Well, here’s my first review ever! Presenting Spooky Squid Games’ They Bleed Pixels.
If you’ve played Super Meat Boy, They Bleed Pixels adopts the same basic gameplay of jumping and wall-sliding and adds a fun layer of kicking-and-stabbing combat to spice things up–the spice being copious amounts of pixelated blood, or if you’re Yahtzee, lots of jam. In this game, you’re rewarded with the ability to create checkpoints called Save Sigils throughout each level for executing fancy combat moves like kicking Shamblers into into buzzsaws, deflecting tiny Sephiroth posers from above with an up-swipe before knifing their little bodies in midair, and kicking things into buzzsaws. It’s worth mentioning the buzzsaw fatality twice because not only is it a lot of fun, but the game rewards you for being so terribly sadistic. You get three hits until you yourself dissolve into a watery mess of pixels, but fortunately each Save Sigil regenerates your health, so spill and collect as much blood as you can, as quickly as you can. Don’t rely too much on mashing X, X, X to stab the enemy over and over again, or according to Tak Fujii, you’ll be sucked.
You start out with a tutorial level learning your basic kick, high-kick, claw-jab, and jump-stab moves you’ll use to clear slow-moving Shamblers and other Kingdom Hearts-like baddies from your path; you can unlock tutorials to even sweeter moves as you progress, like the Exploding Fist. You also have a double-jump, ducking, and sliding if you want to speed past enemies instead, but only do so if you’re okay with not having a single checkpoint to respawn from besides the beginning. Don’t flatter yourself; you will die a lot. Later in the game, you’ll be begging for a break, even with checkpoints. Platforms become fiendishly small and slippery, preventing you from creating Save Sigils, and increasingly more and more surfaces crawl with buzzsaws or are riddled with spikes, and all of this madness combines with flying enemies that will wreck your concentration and send you screaming into a pit of pikes–for the 500th time. Sometimes the game will tease you by allowing you to collect enough pints of blood to make a checkpoint, but only by leading you into an area with slick floors where you can’t stand still to make it. Also, you’re probably down to one more hit. The only technical drawback I experienced was slowdown in the later chapters, but this can be fixed by disabling Parallax under the options. You won’t be missing much. As an aside, though: the slowdown inadvertently helps you to act and react much faster when the speed picks back up again, but it also screws with your rhythm. Other than that, it’s worth noting that there’s a distinct lack of bosses in the game, which I think is a shame, but your mileage may vary: the game’s challenge is more as an obstacle course than it is about a traditional beat-the-hard-boss scheme.
[+Save Sigils][+Bloody Combos][+Kicking + Saws = Fun X Evil][-Parallax Slowdowns][*Frustrating Difficulty Spike][*No Bosses]
They Bleed Pixels is brought to you by Spooky Squid Games, the same people behind the lovely-looking Guerilla Gardening and Night of the Cephalopod. In conjunction with a foreground of simple 8-bit level assets and sprites (and suspiciously 16-bit buzz saws), the backgrounds for each of the four chapters are large, sprawling dreamscapes straight out of a Lovecraftian horror classic, or to compare it with something I’m more familiar with, Yahtzee’s Chzo Mythos. The terrain assets themselves are little more than monotone bump maps with white outlines save for the slick surfaces, and much of each stage’s surface area is covered in bloodied pikes or stubby spikes. While there’s plenty of atmosphere to get lost in with the background art, you’ll be spending most of your time focusing on the near at hand foreground action lest you get horribly butchered by a buzz saw or manage to impale yourself. Still, props for having it break up the monotony and adding to each chapter’s distinct mood.
Speaking of mood, the music starts out strong with the first chapter. After completing the first tutorial, you’re greeted with the tinny rock sound of upbeat electronica that sets a good starting pace for the game. The pacing slows down with each level/chapter, but nevertheless stays pretty consistent until the end. The music is composed by DJ Finish Him and bears a really nice retro-PC-sidescroller flavor, although I think I would’ve appreciated a bit more Mortal Kombat aggressiveness to my music, especially considering that my character is basically Baraka. She kicks, stabs, AND trips people: a shoe-in for MK.
Last, and arguably least, are the little cutscene intermissions between each chapter. Minor spoilers below:
Outside of the first and last ones, they’re basically the same thing: girl wakes up and finds her hands turning into claws, looks over to her night stand to find the Necronomicon, frowns, and goes to dispose of the book before laying down to sleep at the end of the day and dream of slaughtering hellions. They’re not bad, and I certainly appreciate the little scraps of story as a reprieve from exhaustion, but even Super Meat Boy’s cutscenes had a lot more meat to them.
YOU SAW THAT? IT’S BECAUSE HE’S MADE OF MEAT!
[+Immersive Dreamscapes][+Upbeat Electronica][-Fluffy Cutscenes][*Music Mellows Out]
For $10, you get a solid gameplay campaign reminiscent of classic NES sidescrollers; not big on story, but very big on action and difficulty. You also get unlockable stages that consist of a palette-swapped main character and an entirely different mood and art style to the original game. With the first bonus level, Seraphs Bleed Stardust, you control a luminous seraph that controls the same as your original character and fights sprite swaps of the same enemies against a starry moonlit backdrop. Better yet is They Bleed Ponycorns, where you play as a blond-haired little girl fighting floating lemons as an adorable little girl sings something about ponies in the child-drawn background. The third one I didn’t manage to unlock, so I’ll leave that to you hellseekers to find out. In the meantime you can unlock one of several badges on the next screen and gain keys to unlock some sweet artwork, all interpreting the game’s heroine differently; most of these you can just grab from the main site’s front page. This is all here just to serve as that little side-morsel of motivation to really dig into the meat (there I go with the meats) of the core gameplay–and if you’re really made of sturder stuff, you’ll be back for more after the first playthrough. You DO want to be an elder god, don’t you?
Yeah, me neither. I beat the game. That’s good enough for me.
By the way, the game is two bucks off on Steam until September 5th, so beat the rush! Or you can grab the game-and-soundtrack bundle for just 39 cents more on the cover price!
[+Solid Core Value][+Hall of Badges][-Meager Extra Levels][*Artwork Already Available Elsewhere]
They Bleed Pixels is an addictively painful experience. It’s not for the faint of heart or limp of dicks. Whether you consider yourself a seasoned speedrunner, a veteran videogamer, or a casual commoner, you will be punished, broken, and hardened by this game. Where games like VVVVVV or Super Meat Boy are designed solely around the act of platforming, Spooky Squid Games’ entry into the hurt-me-plenty sidescroller throwback genre combines frenetic platforming with perilously-close-quarters combat, which in itself is a novel departure from traditionally projectile-based sidescrollers like Contra and even Ninja Gaiden to a large extent. They Bleed Pixels may be one of the most punishing games I’ve ever played–harder even than the unbeatable NES classics of old–but I accept it for what it is. It’s not as fun or rewarding as VVVVVV is for me, but for those of stout hearts and no sleep, it is worth the reward of being awesome enough to 100% it.
And no, I don’t know how this compares to Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls in sadism. You be the judge, you hip modern gamers, you.
[+Save Sigils][+Bloody Combos][+Kicking + Saws = Fun X Evil][+Immersive Dreamscapes][+Upbeat Electronica][+Solid Core Value][+Hall of Badges][-Parallax Slowdowns][-Fluffy Cutscenes][-Meager Extra Levels][*Frustrating Difficulty Spike][*No Bosses][*Music Mellows Out][*Artwork Already Available Elsewhere]