Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Developer: Twisted Pixel / Platform: XBLA

I don’t envy Twisted Pixel. Putting so much work into developing what was sure to be 2011’s Sexist Game of The Year, only to watch Duke Nukem Forever swoop right in and steal the title out from under you has to hurt.

I kid, I kid. The reality is that Twisted Pixel’s Ms. Splosion Man isn’t all that sexist. Or rather, it is, but unlike Duke Nukem Forever, it at least makes an attempt to satirize the sexism in a way that’s actually funny. It doesn’t always succeed, mind you, but most of the time it seemed fairly clear to me that they’re aiming more for “isn’t the stupidity of sexism funny?” rather than just “isn’t sexism funny?”

I just want to thank all the people that are saying Im Sexy *blink blink. Wait….sexist? What’s that?”—Ms. Splosion Man (via Twitter)

One sexy yellow sphere.

Why not ‘Splosion Woman? The game’s title is a simultaneous homage and parody of Ms. Pac-Man, the oddly-titled sequel to Pac-Man. To ensure that there would be no confusion as to the gender of the character, Ms. Pac-Man was given a pink bow, eyelashes, make-up, and high-heeled shoes worn on shapely legs. Ms. Splosion Man makes light of this by defining the character based on her differences from the “default” ‘Splosion Man—from the bow in her hair, to her love of shoes over cake—rather than making her a ‘splosion creature that just happens to be female.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Ms. Splosion Man and her male counterpart is that ‘Splosion Man speaks mostly in gibberish, while Ms. Splosion Man is capable of forming actual sentences. This resulted in some controversy early on, when the first official gameplay footage showed her speaking mostly in cliches. And not just any cliches. These were cliches that could generally be categorized under Things Men Hate Hearing From A Woman. “Do I look fat in this?” “Who left the tiolet seat up again?!” “Not tonight, I have a headache.”

The problem being: who wants to spend an entire game with a character who’s annoying (to both men and women, incidentally)? If ‘Splosion Man had spent the entire game saying things like, “Wanna grab me a beer while you’re up?,” “I’m not lost, I know exactly where we are!,” “Is it that time of the month?,” etc., it would’ve gotten old pretty fast.

Thankfully, they went in a different direction with the final game. While those phrases can unfortunately still be found in the game, they are now fairly uncommon, replaced instead with quotes from random pop songs, and the occasional TV or movie reference. It’s as though her entire vocabulary and personality were generated from an archive of MTV broadcasts. In the opening sequence that tells Ms. Splosion Man’s origin story, we see her pop into existence at a party celebrating the capture of ‘Splosion Man, where a scientist manages spill champagne on some random lab cables. We have no idea the function of these cables, but I wouldn’t consider it much of a stretch to imagine the cables belonged to the lab’s stereo system that was supplying the party music. If only they’d made that more clear, it would explain her being pop culture personified.

Indeed, while it may seem at first glance that Ms. Splosion Man is more intelligent than ‘Splosion Man due to her ability to speak, closer inspection reveals that her brand of mindless gibberish simply comes in a different form.

But I perhaps the real question is: in invoking Ms. Pac-Man, a sequel that many consider to be superior to the original, does Ms. Splosion Man manage to accomplish the same feat?

Yes, and no.

There are many things that I think Ms. Splosion Man does much better than the original ‘Splosion Man. While I usually consider video tutorials in videogames to be an example of Doing It Wrong (Brink being a notable recent instance), the tutorial in this game (narrated by Lisa Foiles) managed to be humorous and entertaining enough that I couldn’t imagine them having done it any other way.

Replacing the list of levels with a Super Mario World-style world map is a welcome improvement visually. It also allows the player at times to choose between two levels to advance forward, which some may find a relief if they’re struggling with a particular level.

There are even secret exits in some levels that will unlock hidden extra levels on the map. As though they were prepared for the inevitable Super Mario World comparisons, a quick glance through the achievement list reveals that one of these hidden areas is a Star Road waiting for you to find. I won’t say any more, other than that the area does contain a delicious jab at Capcom related to a game in which they ripped-off Twisted Pixel.

The levels themselves are also more varied in terms of obstacles, game mechanics, and visuals. Going outside and seeing the sky in a ‘Splosion game for the first time seems so strange and fantastic—doubly so when you discover you’ll be platforming across the Jetsons-style flying cars. You’ll also encounter ziplines, rocket-cars, and the Ms. Splosion Man version of Donkey Kong Country-style floating barrels. Meanwhile, the donut man has been replaced with a woman that Ms. Splosion Man is shockingly able to climb inside and wear (like a suit…an Edgar suit.)

Unfortunately, there’s just as much bad with the level designs as good. While the first ‘Splosion Man contained plenty of obstacles that required a degree of dying-and-memorizing, the sequel resorts to this variety of challenge much more often, and earlier on.

On top of that, there is a degree of artificial challenge created through poor design decisions. In the first game, the orange ‘Splosion Man popped out nicely when against blue-gray backdrops, making him easy to see. But a pink character against backgrounds that are purple-gray or anywhere in the red spectrum becomes much easier to lose track of on the screen. Combine that with explosions and debri that can temporarily obscure your view of your character, and sections that sometimes zoom out to try and be helpful, but make your already sometimes difficult to see character character even smaller on the screen, and you have a recipe for unintentional frustration. Except that these issues are so obvious, it makes me wonder if the designers actually did design the colors and debris that way on purpose, thinking that the difficulty it added would be clever, instead of just cheap.

Can you spot the Ms. Splosion Man in the above image? As if a pink character set against pink/purple tinted buildings and clouds wasn’t bad enough, debris can sometimes obscure your view completely.

Trying to track a black and red bomb against a red and black background while moving a pink character, with the camera zoomed out, was difficult even on my 37-inch HDTV.

The checkpoints also seem a little more spread out, making me kind of wish there had been an Easy Mode that contained more checkpoints, in the same way that Hard Mode removes all the checkpoints. I know there is a certain type of gamer who particularly enjoys levels that require quick reflexes and fine precision mixed with dying-and-memorizing style gameplay, but an Easy Mode might’ve made the game more accessible to a wider audience, like people who enjoy creative platform games, but not being filled with the desire to throw their controller at the wall.

But if you can get past all that, there is plenty of fun to be had. The game also contains a co-op mode with completely different levels, that is just as much fun as single player, if not more. Having a player die in the middle of a difficult section, resulting in the other player continuing on to see how far they can get on their own, and only narrowly making it to the next checkpoint and to revive the fallen player, can be a thrill And for those who want a real mind-bending challenge, there’s an unlockable novelty multiplayer mode that allows one player to control two characters at once, naturally titled 2 Girls, 1 Controller.

Ms. Splosion Man is a fantastic but flawed platformer, filled with dumb-but-fun humor that doesn’t always hit its mark.