Nostalgia’s a funny thing. You can look back on old platform games fondly, reminisce with friends about how cutting-edge their graphics were, marvel at their grandness of scope in design and how much fun they were to play, and ruminate about how times have changed and how we’ll never see the likes of them again in this modern age of gaming. Then you boot up your 8-bit machine, load an old game and realise how utterly dated they are. “I can’t play this!” you exclaim, as you shudder at having a mere three lives, the lack of any sort of save point, and the requirement to make pixel-perfect timed jumps and shots to navigate labyrinthine levels designed by the most twisted of sadists.
Mommy’s Best Games are obviously fond of old-school gaming. Their latest offering – Serious Sam Double D XXL – practically screams “AMIGA!” from every facet of its being. SSDDXXL is an unashamed throwback to an age where platformers consisted of little but shooting things and collecting power-ups from secret areas. Think a Turrican/Forgotten Worlds mash-up with gore and a sweary redneck friend, and you’ll be halfway there. MBG’s previous effort in the series, Serious Sam Double D, was a 2D sideways-scrolling platform game which originally appeared on PC in 2011. To call XXL a port, however, would be to do it a disservice. The team have crammed in updated graphics, more levels, more challenges and more features to make SSDDXXL capable of standing on its own merit.
For those unfamiliar with the Serious Sam series, you play Sam “Serious” Stone, a wise-cracking, time-travelling meathead, sent back through the ages to defeat a villainous enemy known as Mental who, in best traditions, is intent on destroying all intelligent life. The FPS entries in the series were generally well-regarded, and compared more favourably to similar titles such as Duke Nukem 3D which was obviously a significant influence. So how would the transition to 2D hold up?
The good news is that most of the fun elements from the series remain. NETRICSA – the sassy computer in Sam’s brain – proves to be a wry foil to Sam’s dumb humour. The surreal nature of the environment and its varied inhabitants is intact, and many recognisable enemies such as the Headless Kamikaze and Gnarr return to wreak havoc. The plot, flimsy as it is, offers knowing winks to longtime fans and the dialogue doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall if it can garner a few chuckles (which it does regularly). Gameplay takes place across three expansive missions, split into a number of levels each. You’ll start in Ancient Egypt, move through the Jurassic period and end up in pre-eruption Pompeii. As with other Serious Sam games, not much is required other than blasting everything on screen until it stops moving, and then moving forward and doing the same thing a little further on. It’s simple, unsophisticated fun.
To aid you in the carnage you’ll find a variety of different guns scattered through the levels, as well as “connectors”. If you have two guns and a connector, you can stack the guns on top of each other using the game’s Gunstacker mechanic. Up to six weapons can be stacked this way and you can create various stacks to switch between in order to conserve ammo as needed. You’ll always have a machine pistol with unlimited bullets, but this is practically useless after the first couple of levels due to its low power. Fear not though, as shotguns, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, grenade launchers and chainsaws are soon available to choose between, and you can stack multiple types of the same weapon as needed.
If that weren’t enough, you can buy power-ups (as well as ammo and ammo clips) from the creepy shopkeeper who pops up at various points in the missions. The power-ups extend the flexibility of your arsenal by adding extra attacks and features to them. For instance, your machine pistol can be upgraded to provide an air buffer which slows down your rate of descent, allowing you to rain down death from above for much longer periods. Alternatively, your shotgun can be modified to shoot swarms of cybernetic bees at enemies or you can adapt your chainsaw to suck in cash from the surrounding area. Most weapons have multiple upgrades, and finding the right combination that works for you is a lot of fun. This is especially true with the more humourous upgrades, such as the ability to trip enemies up with pats of melted butter or fire balls of flesh-eating beetles at them. Any unwanted augmentations can be sold back too, so you don’t need to feel stuck with a certain upgrade that isn’t working for you.
In addition to the Gunstacks, players have access to a jump pad. This is essentially a round disc that is fired at a surface and propels anything that touches it into the opposite direction. Unlimited in use, it can be fired at the floor to add extra height to your jumps, or cause enemies to get hurled into the air. It’s also a useful aid for accessing more remote secret areas.
The newest and most important enhancement over the original PC game is local co-op. Xbox Live Free account holders can rejoice: SSDDXXL has a two-player full-screen mode that doesn’t need an internet connection. The second player takes on the role of Dan “Huff” Huffington, a beer-swilling redneck who has somehow been brought back into the past with Sam via a fairly flimsy plot device. Huff has the same abilities as Sam and is given the same weapon stack as him, which is not customisable. From a playability point of view he is a clone of Sam with a different skin, but Huff does have his own personality and the banter between the two characters is amusing or irritating, depending on how much you enjoy the humour. Aside from being a lot more fun to blast through levels with a second player, the new character also adds another layer of replayability to the game, as different dialogue is presented between one and two-player modes. In true arcade style, Huff can also drop in and out of the game as needed, which is great news for casual gamers who want the flexibility of co-op but don’t want to commit to playing an entire run-through with a friend. A lack of online co-op is surprising, given how well the local multiplayer works.
The cartoonish nature doesn’t mean that it’s a family-friendly game, however. Far from it; in one inventive puzzle you have to use bad guys as a platform…as they are being slowly fed into a meat grinder. It has some mean surprises in store too. You’ll be lured into a crevice by a shiny armour shard, only for its value to be negated entirely when a host of critters spawn right next to you after you pick it up. Blood spurts from every enemy you kill, but - should you wish - you can alter this on the settings menu to anything from “zombie” through to “donut”. Tripping up a biomech dinosaur with butter and pumping bullets and rockets into it as it lies helplessly on its back is as gratifying and funny as it is visceral.
On the sound front, tracks range from lounge to hard rock and somewhere in between, and the excellent title screen music owes no small debt to another tongue-in-cheek franchise, No One Lives Forever. The cutscene dialogue is fully voiced, and the cheesy banter between Sam, Huff and NETRICSA plays out well. Some harsh cut-off was noticed between loading screens though, and the eclectic soundtrack - whilst fairly appropriate, given the nature of the game’s ludicrous scenarios - may not be to everyone’s taste.
The enemies are creatively designed. The first mission alone will see you battling the aforementioned headless, bomb-wielding kamikaze attackers who scream at you before exploding, Alien/ED-209 hybrids, gibbering masses of pancakes embedded with vuvuzelas (no, really), and tough mid-level bosses in the form of rhino beetles which, as you might expect, look and charge like rhinos. Wave after wave of attackers will bombard you throughout the game and they can prove to be a challenge at times, especially if your trigger-happy gameplay has left you bereft of ammunition and you find yourself left with just a machine pistol and a chainsaw. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the end-of-level bosses. At the end of the first mission you’ll face a massive jet-powered ape with a buzzsaw and laser cannon for hands, who initially seems like a worthy adversary. That is, until you realise you can just shoot off-screen in his general direction and watch his health drain away in relative safety. It isn’t an isolated problem either; the other mission-end bosses can be similarly dispatched. Balancing a boss fight is a tricky act; too easy, and you can dampen the feeling of achievement, too difficult and you risk alienating the player. The journey is a lot of fun, and it’s a shame that the challenge is not maintained through to the end of each level.
In addition to the campaign, there is a Challenge mode and Head-to-Head Arenas to engage with. As is becoming a disturbingly frequent occurrence in recent games, these are only accessible when you unlock them through the main campaign - in this case, by collecting MBG pies which are scattered throughout the levels either in plain sight, or in hidden areas. The use of this mechanic may not concern the completist who is willing to explore every facet of the main campaign anyway, but the casual gamer who fancies a quick ten minute arena battle with a friend or a solo challenge attempt may be a little peeved to find their choices limited due to their lack of exploration within the campaign.
The Challenges are a series of survival encounters which see you bombarded with waves of similar enemies. For example, “Biomech BBQ” has you attempting to roast forty bipedal mechanoids with nothing but a flamethrower and butter gun, whilst “Vuvuzelator Vendetta” demands at least one hundred of the titular pancake stacks to be killed by bouncing proximity bombs. Whilst none of the challenges will pose a particular problem for the experienced gamer, the online leaderboards may hit a competitive nerve as you battle your friends to rack up the biggest tally.
Faring less well are the Head-to Head Arenas which pit you against a friend on a single screen filled with hazards. The arena objective is simple: empty the other player’s allocation of lives, or finish with a larger overall life tally after the timer hits zero. Customisable settings include the number of lives you start with, the time limit, the damage multiplier (including one-hit kills) and gameplay speed. Whilst manipulation of the latter two options could ostensibly make for some crazy battles, the enforced three-second respawn kills any potential momentum instantly. Worse still are the arena layouts themselves, some of which simply don’t zoom or scale to allow you to see the entire screen, meaning that your character practically disappears from the field of view at the very top and bottom of the screen. Given that many of the hazards and platforms rely on you seeing exactly that (pits of spikes, flying pterodactyl platforms, and so on), this is an unforgivable error which renders many of the arenas almost unplayable.
Also present in the game are several other issues. The meat grinder puzzle mentioned earlier was more difficult than it needed to be due to the erratic actions of enemies being fed into it. Instead of remaining static and providing platforms for the player, they moved outside of their designated area, breaking the puzzle and leaving no choice other than to reload in order to continue. Quality control on the text is similarly lacking, with a few choice typos further reducing the game’s polish. The menu system is also counter-intuitive, requiring you to exit to the main menu each time you want to try a different challenge or arena, rather than taking you back to its respective sub-menu.
Whether the asking price of 800 MS points is good value or not will depend on how prepared you are to overlook the game’s flaws, and how much of a fan of the franchise you consider yourself. With a single player campaign of around four to six hours to complete (depending on your discovery of all of the secrets), it’s a fairly reasonable length. Since the hardest difficulty level is locked until you complete the game on normal though, hardened players may question the value of replaying a game which, at best, presents scant challenge on its first run through. Similarly, whilst the campaign co-op is a lot of fun, the arenas are badly designed, and the challenge levels fairly forgettable once completed.
SSDDXXL is an odd beast, one which seems unsure whether it’s trying to be a genuine throwback, or ironically retro; the graphics and gameplay indicate the former, but its difficulty level and tone suggest the latter. Like Sam himself, the game is trapped outside of its time and it is unable to fully commit to a specific path, leaving an unsatisfactory end result and an uneven overall experience that could have, and should have, been more.