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The graphic novel homage to gaming becomes a gaming homage to the graphic novel...
Conventional wisdom when reviewing games is that official licenses and tie-ins shouldn't really affect the final score - gameplay is the most important factor by a country mile; licenses are merely icing on the cake. In the case of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game though, gameplay and the official license to Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels seem so inextricably linked together into a complex ball of loveliness that it's nigh-on impossible to prise them apart. Strip away the license and the game could be perceived as little more than a by-the-numbers retake of side-scrolling beat 'em ups from the 8-bit days - take the license into consideration and it becomes an almost tear-jerkingly good homage to the foundry of modern gaming.
To anyone who's never read the books, then, or has managed to miss all the buzz surrounding the film (releasing later this month in the UK), Ubisoft's take on the saga might seem a bit confusing. In terms of its fundamentals, the game goes out of its way to not be original but, equally, that's kind of the point. It appears to so perfectly replicate 8-bit gaming that even the generation's infamous foibles have been loyally translated. There's a messy XP system that can be easily exploited, cheap workarounds to defeat many of the bosses, and near-flat hit boxes for enemies that cause as much mild annoyance in Scott Pilgrim as they did in classic 2D side-scrollers like Double Dragon or Streets of Rage.
In any other circumstance, these factors would be significant criticisms of a game but, in Scott Pilgrim's case, it's as if they've been purposely put there to lovingly recreate the subject material. Capturing all of these 80s gaming quirks in a modern title simply by chance just seems too unlikely. But the hallmarks of old-school gaming don't end there: successfully completing the story is a challenge not to be balked at, even on the easiest 'Average Joe' difficulty setting (although, admittedly, the two difficulty settings beyond that don't add as much additional challenge as you might initially think). Just the feeling of having to replay the final level in excess of 15 or 20 times before we completed it took us back to our childhoods, getting that tiny bit further on each subsequent attempt before expending our lives and starting all over again at the start of the level.
And then there are the cheat codes: Ubisoft has released a classic 'Up, Down, Right..' style cheat code for the supplemental 'Survival Horror' mode (where you take on waves of zombies), while an additional code or unlock for the 'Boss Rush' mode is yet to be revealed by Ubisoft or, indeed, discovered by gamers. Head on over to the 'Shopping District' and you'll find a game that's also studded with Easter eggs planted as references to the graphic novels, from the video rental store with a fine of over $500 in Scott's name (we still haven't saved up enough money to find out what happens when you pay it), to Wallace Well's Mystery Shop with all kinds of exotic goodies on offer (just find the graffiti painted star in the underpass and walk into it), and the very occasional random spawn of Mr. Chau in the game's Super Mario Bros-esque map (culminating in a boss fight and the reward of Mr. & Mrs. Chau as summonable strikers if you win).
Put simply, we've never played a contemporary game that nails the feel of old-school gaming quite to the extent that Scott Pilgrim does. Topped off by the pixel art graphical style of renowned artist Paul Robertson and chiptune soundtrack by Anamanaguchi, Scott Pilgrim is a rare example of a game that's been developed by one of the world's biggest publishers and yet still plays like it's been created by a group of indie developers. It feels deeply personal, unfettered by its branding, and built with love ahead of commercial interest, but you wouldn't think that possible judging by the huge list of names on the credits (seriously, it reads like Ubisoft's entire payroll). Perhaps in this way it's the most fitting homage to Bryan Lee O'Malleys original work that Ubisoft could possibly have paid, far above and beyond the many gaming in-jokes that are dropped and shared along the way.
And here's the really good bit: it only costs £7.99 on PSN. That's an absolute steal for a game that took us far in excess of 5 hours to complete on a first run-through (admittedly we died a lot). The inclination to keep playing after that though is beyond what we've experienced in most triple-A games of the past few years. Unlockable characters, additional modes, expensive items in the shops, and ranking boards all encourage you to play through the game again and again, increasing the abilities of Scott, Ramona Flowers, Kim Pine, and Steven Stills to the point where they're all fully levelled-up while revealing different endings along the way. These four are the default playable characters, which can also be used simultaneously via well integrated 4 player co-op support complete with a revival system, co-ordinated taunt special moves featuring the 'Sex Bob-omb' band, and the ability to steal or 'lend' lives from team-mates when you run dry or loan money between characters for use in the shops. The fact that this co-op is offline only, however, is a slight detraction.
Putting all of that potential entertainment against the price roughly equates to something ridiculously cheap like 50p per hour of gaming. One thing's for certain: it's a lot cheaper than the coin-op arcade machines of the 80s that it emulates. While PS3 users can already find the game available on PSN as a timed exclusive, Xbox 360 owners will have to wait until the XBLA launch on August 25th (the same day that the film releases here in the UK) when it will be made available for the even cheaper price of 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80).
All in all then, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim fiction has created great books and a great game. Now we'll have to wait and see if Edgar Wright et al. have made a great movie and, in the process, achieved the seemingly unachievable: an entertainment 'triple threat'.
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