There is an incredibly unlikely chance that you have seen this reporter’s name on The Nerd Mentality before. Even less likely that you will note from my position on a few games, that the human who writes these articles is a big fan the genre known as Metroidvania. If for some reason you aren’t aware what that is, that’s a-okay. A Metroidvania game gets it’s genre from two genre-defining franchises – Metroid and Castlevania. The idea is that you have nearly full access to roam free through a huge game map. Parts of the world are not often accessible at the outset. Instead, as you play the game, you are often granted new abilities and upgrades that then allowed you to access other parts of the map. In Metroid that could mean getting the ability to jump higher or shoot a new kind of missile that breaks the specific color coded locks on doors. In Castlevania it was more often abilities like turning into a wolf or mist, or being able to double jump.
The idea here was that your abilities gave you the opportunity to access the greater depths of the world around you. These two games also tend to feature a great deal of beautiful art direction in the forms of brilliant music and haunting imagery. Headlander is a little bit of a deviant from these qualities while bringing its own characteristics to the table.
Headlander is developed by Double Fine Productions under the esteemed publisher Adult Swim. Double Fine has previously brought us Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and Grim Fandango Remastered. This is the company that Tim Schafer, the God of Point and Click Adventure and gaming comedy, founded. Adult Swim brought us irreverent humor in things like Squidbillies, The Venture Brothers, and games like Viva Caligula. Not a pair I expected to see in action together, but here it is. And boy does it enjoy phallic imagery. Seriously. Every rocket ship is long and has two pods at either side, cutting a wang-shaped silhouette like a dirty shadow puppet.
That seems to be where the Adult Swim part of the show ends. Mostly. They seemed to dial back the weiner jokes in favor of a pulpy late 60’s early 70’s Buck Rogers meets LSD/Disco motif. The title screen scrolling in reminds me of an old VHS tape without the scan lines. The game has you choose a face out of a small handful of personas, because as the silent protagonist, your voice will always match your face, because you have one. The game addresses this right away, pointing out that you have no lungs and therefore cannot scream.
From here, Headlander game puts you through a sort of tutorial to learn the basics of what to look out for. Frankly, it does a great job at being short and sweet, while still being informative enough to let you learn the style of puzzles you are about to tackle. Headlander in practice plays more like a puzzler than a platformer. So much so, that you do not even have a jump button. In many other Metroidvania games, a vertical elevator shaft is barely an obstacle. In Headlander you can fall down easily, but getting back up is a challenge.
Headlander hovers around an interesting gimmick – all of humanity has their brains installed in robot bodies, and you appear to be the last ‘pure’ human. That said, you are just a head in a helmet equipped with a jetpack propulsion system. You can pop the heads off any other robot and many other things, and attach yourself to the powered down husk to control it. Red Robots can open red doors, orange bots are a higher security so they open orange doors AND red doors. Yellow is even higher and thus opens their color and everything below it. This moves all the way through your ROY G BIV of colors.
As you control security robots of varying builds, you’ll often get an arm mounted laser gun to defend yourself. Use your right stick to aim awkwardly and try taking a potshot at the heads of enemies to instantly disable them. Combat in this game feels a little sloppy. One of those easy to learn, difficult to master control schemes, because suddenly playing a twin-stick shooter when the camera changes location from room to room never lets you get used to your aim. I had better luck flying around as a head and vacuuming the noggins off enemies.
More Metroid than Castlevania, Headlander has sections of the ship that you can explore without a body and just as a head, which reminded me of Metroid’s morph ball power. These sections have their own pace and rhythm that feels a little different than the main sections of the ship, and feel like you’re discovering secrets off the beaten path. They required you to have an eagle eye everywhere, not just in the rooms you knew had problems for solving. While these were usually signaled with blinking blue lights or barely obscured tubes, this makes more sense than the infinitely more complex hiding places from Metroid games. Headlander exists in a state of 2.5D. In that I mean it uses three dimensional models and graphics, but you maneuver on a two dimensional plane. Because of this depth, the camera can float around wherever it needs to be and can hide things in plain sight.
The puzzles in Headlander range from “Yeah I get it, you showed me red lasers open red doors” to “How do I get this robot up that elevator without dying.” One thing this game doesn’t do a lot of is show you puzzles you aren’t meant for yet. Most of the game is met with sections you have the pieces needed to solve it, making this a bit more casual option for people looking to try the genre without pouring twelve hours into Super Metroid on SNES. The trouble there means that veterans of the genre might get bored early on and not face later challenges. Or worse, not view this game as a challenge as much as an obstacle.
If Double Fine wanted more money for this game I might be grumpy about it. On Steam they are marked down for $19.99, which is pretty reasonable. Headlander is not a bad game. While it isn’t likely to be a timeless classic like some of the rest of Tim Schafer’s work, it still has some value to the experience. Nothing else is quite like Headlander, and that’s a good thing. The lack of a jump function in a platformer feels a little more like an obstacle than a design choice, frequently causing you to backtrack long distances to get back up a little higher. 2.5D does not show off all the hard work of the character artists well, but does show off a lot of pretty locations.
Is it worth it? I’d say so. The puzzles they put in front of you get harder and more complex the farther you get along. They do start to feel really satisfying, but sometimes completing them just takes more time to maneuver around the map just to get to that right spot, which is awfully annoying to deal with. Backtracking in any capacity tends to be a boring feat to gamers.
Overall, I’m not unhappy with Headlander. It simply hasn’t knocked my socks off. For this, I’m happy to see the price tag it has because it’s worth that. I feel as though the developers achieved what they wanted to and that everything I didn’t love about it were choices that were made on purpose and not caused by some hardware limitation. It is a interesting and fun little game that I think you’ll squeeze some juice out of too.