What the hell is this?” is what I asked myself for the first half-hour I sat down to play Double Fine Productions’ newest game: Headlander. And seriously, what can I say about it? There are few moments in time when a game comes out of no where and gives a me a surprise I was never expecting and Headlander is one of those moments. From the first moment of sitting down to the very end there was never a moment I didn’t enjoy the entire experience from top to bottom.
Headlander is a retro-inspired, 1970s-style Metroidvania sci-fi shooter to its core. You could almost call this game “the poor man’s Metroid,” and you’d be absolutely right in doing so. However, what results from a conglomeration of classic 2D side-scrolling, platform-shooters comes down to pure genius in Headlander. Sure, it doesn’t have the scale of Metroid, or the enemy types of Castlevania, but it has humor, excellent puzzles, side quests, and cool and varying abilities you’ll soak up throughout the whole game.
"From the very beginning, running around from room to room, trying to figure out what is needed to open up one door, then the next is so much fun."
You start the game by finding out that you are simply just a head… yes, a head in a space helmet and you can use the helmet’s thrusters to dart around the spaceship from location to location. Getting from one place to another often requires a body to do so, and the head can attach to any form of robot body that can be found in the game. Attaching to robotic bodies allows the use of rifles which are used to open colored doorways (think Metroid) and flip switches, so flying through the entire game just as a head won’t be happening.
A voice from an intercom tells a story of humans uploading their consciousness to servers and occupy robot bodies for a longer life. But the A.I. named Methuselah has taken control of these uploaded minds and now uses the robots for its own evil deeds. The voice tells you that you may possibly be the last human(-ish) alive and the only one who can stop Methuselah before it’s too late.
Headlander is a beautifully rendered 2.5D side-scroller that puts level design, puzzle solving, and treasure hunting at the top of its list. From the very beginning, running around from room to room, trying to figure out what is needed to open up one door, then the next is so much fun. Much like Metroid, you’ll eventually run into doors that are colored for specific robots to enter. These robots are strategically placed throughout each level to allow accomplishments to be met before being able to move on from one room to the next before it’s time. These colored robots carry the same colored laser rifles that allow you to shoot open doors from far distances, or just simply walk through upon approach. Entering and exiting rooms and hidden antechambers often become puzzles unto themselves, along with unlocking platforms, thrusting your head between platform smashers, and so on. There is no jumping so getting from one platform to the next in most of the game is also a unique puzzling challenge.
"There are several different colors of robot enemies, and each robot can be taken over, allowing you to use different colored rifles."
As the head, you’ll gain different abilities that cannot be used when you are attached to a robotic body. For example: thrusting your head through rooms and chambers is not possible when in body form. But some abilities can be unlocked later on that transfer between the two. This allows for a totally different variety of puzzles and challenges separate (quite literally) from the body challenges.
After learning how the game plays and the ease of the controls and the perfection of the thrusting of the head, you’ll quickly be introduced to the Upgrades screen on the touch pad menu. These upgrades are both automatically unlockable as you progress through the game, and unlocked by collecting Upgrade Points from certain locations that mostly only the head can enter. These upgrades include better melee attacks and some really fun and hilarious abilities that really come in useful throughout the game.
That brings combat into the forefront which is also quite solid. There are several different colors of robot enemies, and each robot can be taken over, allowing you to use different colored rifles. However, besides using these bodies to open different colored doors and shooting different colored lasers, there really didn’t feel like there was a difference in power between any of them. Also, you can use a melee attack if you are on a robot that is not designated for combat and has no other way to fight back. But I found a more enjoyable way to take them out quicker with just the head. I’ll just keep that my little secret.
"As the game progresses, so does the difficulty, but it’s more in the form of shooting enemies a little bit more, and not much else."
Headlander, as I stated above, is a retro, 1970s inspired game that really digs into that decade. From its faded rainbow palette of colors, to robots with afros and bellbottom legs, to even the disco-centric music and lighting effects in every corner, this game bleeds oldies. This falls into how humorous this game is, but it’s not laugh out loud humor, more of a subtle and extremely enjoyable experience that had me smiling every moment I wasn’t concentrating on trying to figure out how to solve opening a door.
As the game progresses, so does the difficulty, but it’s more in the form of shooting enemies a little bit more, and not much else. There is a tiny hint at cover-based shooting mechanics that allow you to hide behind kiosks from room to room, but it’s often times just easier to shoot the enemies down rather than hide and take them slowly. Keep in mind that this is a very fast paced game. You can take your time to think about what to do next on the map screen, but often times it’s fairly obvious and you’ll know where to go next and how to do it as you progress with more and more abilities.
When it’s all over with, Headlander has become one of my favorite games so far this generation. With so much nostalgia jammed in, then coated over with a hilarious and new premise I’d really like a sequel or even a TV show series that expands upon this concept. Make it happen!
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Excellent platforming, puzzle solving, and old fashioned adventuring.
Solid but bland shooting mechanics, and increased difficulty doesn't amount to much more than shooting the enemy a few more times.
This game will have its players enjoying the experience from beginning to end with a smile over their faces.