It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for Metroid-like gameplay. It’s difficult to recreate the magic from that original series, but there have been several attempts over the years. Double Fine’s “Headlander” (published by Adult Swim Games) is a humorous, quirky entry in this genre that shakes up the familiar gameplay in an interesting manner while also offering a progression system that continuously pushes me to keep playing. It’s not Metroid for sure, but it’s also not trying to be. This is a game that I would have enjoyed even if I had never played as Samus on the planet Zebes so many years ago.
The setting takes cues from 1970’s science fiction, where humans have chosen to upload their consciousness into robots in order to carry out their day to day lives away from their own bodies. In typical sci-fi fashion, an artificial intelligence (that goes by the name Methuselah) takes over the robots, forcing them into slavery. Your character is the last remaining human tasked with stopping Methuselah’s terror, but there’s one problem. All that’s left is his head. That’s right, you are a disembodied head for the entirety of this game.
How does one navigate the environment with not body, you ask? Simple. Your head’s helmet is equipped with propulsion jets that allow you to fly around in all eight directions. You also have the ability to inhabit the bodies of other robots around you by ripping off their heads and attaching yourself, giving you full control of the empty shell. This adds the backtracking element to the game by requiring certain colored robots in order to gain access to different areas. In addition, different robots have different weapons and traversal techniques that add to the puzzle challenges. There’s one oddity with the gameplay. You can’t jump. I know, that sounds insane for this genre, but Double Fine makes it work. Instead of jumping from one platform to the next, you simply disconnect your head from one robot body, fly over to the next, and reattach to the next one. This makes for some interesting head-scratcher moments that are never overly difficult, and last just long enough to keep from getting old.
What really sets this game apart from other games of its kind is its sense of humor. “Headlander” has Adult Swim’s brand of funny written all over it. Whether it be the random lines over the intercom, the twisted facial expressions of the main character who is literally limited to that alone to convey his emotions, or the hilarious one-liners delivered by countless NPC’s throughout the game. Seriously, if random humor is your bag, then you won’t want to miss this game.
After feeling like so many other games tried and failed to deliver what I wanted out of a 2-D backtracker, “Headlander” was a nice surprise for me. It’s paced nearly perfectly, made me laugh, and provided just the right amount of challenge that made me feel smart without being overly simplistic. If you’re a fan of the Metroid formula, then don’t hesitate picking up this hidden gem of 2016.