Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the Game is quite a pleasant surprise. Not only is it a licensed game that does justice to its license, but it’s also a fantastic beat ’em up in the vein of the legendary River City Ransom for the NES with one of the best soundtracks out there. Like the graphic novel and the film, the title character is out to win Ramona’s heart - in order to do so, you’ll have to defeat seven evil exes. The core gameplay of SG is basically identical to that of River City Ransom, only with some tweaks that help it stand out.
Both games feature a blend of beat ‘em up action with RPG-esque leveling up and shopping. Here, you can purchase the usual upgrades to boost your stats faster than just grinding through the game, pick up health, buy books to learn new moves, and even pay off a tab to unlock a secret part of a store that grants you access to super-cheap 1-Ups. There’s even a hidden shop with gaming references galore in its item names, with everything from Sonic the Hedgehog to Final Fantasy getting a shout out in parody title form.
Aside from a far more warped sense of humor, the main thing that sets SG apart from RCR is the ability to toss objects at enemies and hit them so they fling right back into your foe as many times as needed, or you can uppercut them and send them flying into the air where you can then juggle them directly and do massive damage. The rest is exactly what you would expect from an RCR game - kick, punch, and toes foes to their doom. Attack them with baseballs and ball bats if you must, and absolutely slice them with a sword whenever possible. Thanks to the razor-sharp controls, all of the enemy-destroying tactics available to you are easy to do.
Pacing has been a major problem in beat ‘em ups, but isn’t one here, which actually shocked me. No matter how much I’ve replayed the Streets of Rage and Final Fight games, they always wind up seeming kind of boring. Much of that has to do with the pacing of the games and the lack of things to do. Here, you can go at any pace you’d like. If you want to dash through stages and beat up foes quickly, you can. If you want to beat up enemies then go exploring, you can. There are a lot of hidden areas to find that will make the game much easier if you find and make use of them, but they aren’t a requirement. Enemy selection is also far more varied than most beat ‘em ups. You’ll fight your garden variety bullies, swarms of fan boys and girls for celebrities, paparazzi, destroy a costumed Gozilla who transforms into a Charizard, space aliens, overweight tonfa-using Asian chicks, ninjas, and take part in timed Street Fighter II-esque car destruction sequences - including one where you have to beat up paparazzi while doing it.
Boss battles are similarly varied and incredible pretty epic, especially as you progress towards the end and go from battling Unfortunately, there are no giant crab monsters, but there is a large, freaky-looking mutated creature that would be right at home in the Akira anime, a giant mech monster that seems ripped from a Power Rangers show of some sort, an emo wizard, psychotic twins, and a rocker with a penchant for transformation and Guitar Hero mini-games.
You’ve also got four characters to choose from who all play differently enough to warrant inclusion - Scott uses an everyman approach to fighting with punches and kicks, and of course, hurricane kicks, while Ramona uses a giant hammer, Stills is more of a brawler, and Kim is the fastest of the bunch but does the least damage. Each character has four color schemes, so if you’ve got a group of four people and they only want to play as one character, it’s possible. Any groups playing in a quick session will probably just go with using alternates of the highest-leveled character, but if you’ve got a group willing to sit down and play it for a few hours with you, take advantage of that time and level up the other characters. It’ll make the play session more rewarding, and successive ones will be more fun since you can experiment more with each character without feeling like the weak link on the team.
Unfortunately, SG lacks online play, which definitely hurts it a bit, but didn’t hurt it as much as I thought it would since it is going for a totally retro vibe here, and that was an age when local multiplayer was king. However, that doesn’t do much for when you’ve got a craving to play this with friends at 3 AM and you don’t want to risk anyone’s life by having them drive over and play it.
Visually, SG is a mix of 8 and 16-bit art styles and it uses each to great effect. Long-time gamers will no doubt chuckle when they enter a bonus stage and see the same kind of binary code and wonky graphics that you’d be treated to upon entering a dirty NES cartridge into the system, and folks of that same age group will also laugh uproariously at the enormous stretch limousine version of KITT from Knight Rider that makes a quick cameo. The game’s unique incarnation of Toronto features loving homages to Super Mario World with its world map, Super Mario Bros. series with its coin blocks, Pac-Man’s ghosts tagged on the side of a tunnel,, and Mega Man with Scott’s animation being identical to Mega Man’s upon beating a boss battle.
There’s a lot more color on display here than any 8-bit game could possibly allow, and the shading is definitely right out of a 16-bit game. The animation is some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen in a beat ‘em up, and I’ve been playing a slew of them recently. One constant for the genre is moves having very few frames of animation, which worked well at allowing you to switch from enemy to enemy, but makes the games seem a little cheap visually with hindsight. Background characters were either completely still or just had a couple of frames of animation (something that even the Street Fighter II games have been guilty of). Here, even the background characters have very fluid animation, and while the moves don’t take much time to do, they’re still fluidly-animated and have a lot of little flourishes that add a lot to the presentation. In theory, seeing a character go from a bland facial expression into one of great joy as he uppercuts a foe into the sky shouldn’t add much, but the execution of it, which includes wacky ’60s Batman-esque graphics that pop up when you make contact, winds up adding a lot.
SG’s fast-paced 8-bit style arrangements are incredible. Pretty much every song in the game is addictive to some degree, but that’s especially true for the boss fight music. The musical style reminds me a lot of the Mega Man series with how fast-paced it is, and how memorable it winds up being. There are plenty of soundtracks that are enjoyable to listen to during the game, but few original ones have you humming the music in your day-to-day life and this is one of the few that had that effect on me. The sound effect work is, nothing seems out of place, and there are more sound effects here than one might expect given the genre, but sadly, they usually wind up lost in the aural shuffle due to the stellar soundtrack.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: the Game is a must-have for anyone who has ever loved beat ‘em ups - especially River City Ransom. It’s the best downloadable beat ’em up on the market, and has everything great about the genre, but has raised the bar for the genre by offering up more gameplay variety and delivering one of the best soundtracks you’ve heard this gen. At $10, it’s a great deal on the PlayStation Network, and when it hits the Xbox Live Arcade soon, try it out ASAP.