Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is a celebration of retro gaming. I know similar statements has been thrown around a lot given the recent surge of retro revival games, but Scott Pilgrim, with its old school beat em’ up game design, gorgeous pixel art, rockin’ chiptune soundtrack, and countless references and in-jokes, is so comprehensive in its execution that I feel it deserves special mention. All of this is very fitting given the source material, and Pilgrim is indeed a wonderful realization of the world from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s excellent series of graphic novels (they’re one of my favorite things ever, so you should seriously check them out). The game manages to capture the spirit and style of the graphic novels and successfully translates a story based on the plot of a retro video game into an actual retro video game (or at least a retro-style one).
Scott Pilgrim: The Game is a classic beat em’ up a la River City Ransom, Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, and Streets of Rage where you move from left to right, beating up hordes of “bad guys” on your way to a showdown with a fearsome boss at the end of each stage. Like River City Ransom (which is one the clearest inspirations for the Scott Pilgrim story as well as for this game’s design), Pilgrim is also part RPG, where building stats such as “strength” and “defense” by buying food, drinks, and other items is crucial to a player’s survival. As they fight the many hipsters, brawlers, bouncers, ninjas, and robots, players gradually level up, gaining a new skill with each level, such as a neat diving kick and a dodge roll. Because leveling up and acquiring money are both tied to mowing down mooks, expect to do a lot of grinding here, especially early in the game. This is one of Scott Pilgrim’s biggest flaws: it’s not an easy game to just jump into and immediately start enjoying like many of the classics that it calls back to (at least if one is playing single player, like I did; having three other friends to join you makes the adventure easier, I’m sure). This isn’t because the game is all that particularly difficult, only because your character (choose from Scott, Kim, Stephen Stills, and Ramona, in addition to one unlockable character and two DLC characters) is so overwhelmingly underpowered at the start of the game. I struggled to get through the first stage on the normal “Rough & Tough” difficulty and it was only with a lot of patience and after leveling up sufficiently and getting enough money to build my stats that I was finally able to move on. I did try switching to the easiest difficulty setting to initially get through the first level (and switched back to normal for the rest of the game after that), but I’m not sure if it really was all that easier, or if it was just simpler because I’d already built up my stats quite a bit on normal. I think it was mainly the latter, because I replayed the first level on normal afterwards and was able to get through it without much trouble. Things only get tougher as the game goes on and I had to fiddle around in the first few levels for a bit until I had good enough stats to not continuously get pummeled in the later levels. Once I was leveled and powered up though, the game became a breeze until the final level and even then, with just a little more stat boosting, it wasn’t too bad. All this grinding didn’t take too long but I’d rather just take a more straightforward path through a beat em’ up like Scott Pilgrim, not meander about the first few levels and waste time grinding.
But let’s talk about the good stuff now. Right away Scott Pilgrim brought me back to the countless times I played the Sega Genesis Streets of Rage titles (especially Streets 2, one of my favorite games of all time) and other beat em’ ups like the 2003 retro-inspired Viewtiful Joe on the GameCube. Appeals to nostalgia are surely overused in video games today, but Pilgrim does nostalgia well, constantly injecting me with a warm dose of the essence of simpler times. The moment that the music of the first level kicks in, I felt at home. Scott Pilgrim features a fantastic soundtrack by electronic and chiptune artist Anamanaguchi. While some songs definitely stand out more than others for me, there is no denying the retro quality on display here. Just listen to some of these. The sound here is retro but also incorporates elements that couldn’t be done on an 8 or 16-bit console; it feels familiar but also original.
One of the aspects of Scott Pilgrim that struck me right away, besides the music, is the beautiful, detailed artwork. The environments in the game are lovingly painted with copious detail and are populated by brilliantly animated sprites. Familiar faces from the Scott Pilgrim books can be seen on the sidelines of each stage and seeing the likes of Stacey Pilgrim and Wallace Wells and even less central characters such as Joseph hanging out in the various locales of Toronto is not only really cool for a fan of the novels such as myself, but also lends a cohesion and a lot of personality to the world in the game. All the sprites are full of energy, and in classic video game fashion can be seen swaying and bopping in place, as if everyone is dancing to the killer soundtrack. Player character and enemy sprites are equally vibrant (I especially love Scott’s overly-enthusiastic idle animation and his end of stage celebration). This attention to detail carries over into every facet of the game, from humorous descriptions of the items Scott can purchase to graffiti and posters decorating the borders of a stage. As I mentioned, the game is also full of references to the retro gaming golden age of the late 80s and early 90s: there’s nods to Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, all of the aforementioned beat em’ ups, and much more. All of it is here and often in some unexpected and hilarious places that made me chuckle to myself more than a few times. If you’re a retro nerd like me, you simply must play this game.
|The Super Mario World-inspired world map|
Scott Pilgrim is a very solid game, but it could be more enjoyable to play. Character movement, especially at the start of the game, feels stiff and slow. I played the game on PlayStation 3 with a standard DualShock 3 controller and there’s an option to use either the D-pad or the left analog stick for movement. Personally, I always find the D-pad to feel more natural for 2D games like this, but unfortunately only the analog stick has an option to make running the default movement option, whereas running with the D-pad requires a clunky-feeling double tap. Movement becomes more fluid with new skills and an increase in the speed statistic, but never as much as I would have liked it to be. I often found myself struggling just to get away from attacks and position myself where I wanted to be in the game. There were also several times where I thought I was exactly lined up with an enemy correctly, but wasn’t and would fail to attack them. This perspective problem has always been inherent to 2D beat em’ ups like Scott Pilgrim, but this issue in conjunction with other issues can be very frustrating. For example, Scott has two different attacks in the game that require the same button inputs, but one attack is triggered if Scott is close to a downed enemy while the other occurs at any time besides this situation. I would frequently find myself wanting to pummel a downed enemy, but not be lined up with them correctly because of the wonky perspective and instead perform the other attack (which happens to be a charging attack that sometimes landed me in a bottomless pit during these instances). This problem could have been addressed by simply having different button inputs for these two attacks. It also doesn’t help that the AI in the game likes to gang up on the player, sometimes pitting them in inescapable hell cycles. One particularly annoying moment was in the second level, where I found myself pinned between two duos of enemies on either side of me, all four of them constantly spamming projectile attacks that kept constantly knocking me down as soon as I got up. It’s safe to say that Scott Pilgrim made me rage more than once thanks to what felt to me like cheap design.