THE WASHINGTON POST – Unlikely geek folk hero Scott Pilgrim recently became the accidental icon of another kind of struggle: game preservation.
Ubisoft’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game from 2010 became the face of how the games industry has failed in preserving its titles. The game, which was a tie-in to the Universal Pictures film of the same name, had been delisted from digital stores by 2014 for reasons that were never fully explained. Popular speculation suggested it had to do with the licences for the film, the comic and the game. The game was never sold on discs, so if players missed grabbing it in those four years, that was it.
Ultimately, Ubisoft was able to move enough pieces to rerelease the game this week. It came after some public urging from fans as well as the comic’s creator Bryan Lee O’Malley, who apparently was unaware that Ubisoft was already moving toward a rerelease, according to Kotaku.
Scott, his girlfriend Ramona Flowers, his drummer and ex Kim, and lead singer Stephen Stills are back in all their retro brawler glory, and really, it’s like Ubisoft barely touched the old game. They didn’t need to. If you played the game before during the Xbox Live Arcade heyday, here’s my review: It’s still the same, great thing.
If you haven’t, here’s the gist: It was a game made to bank on the release of the Michael Cera movie, and all created within just months, first by Ubisoft Montreal and then by the then-inexperienced Ubisoft Chengdu studio. The game was famously under crunch to release in time for the movie, and Chengdu stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. It’s very reminiscent of the NES classic River City Ransom, and that’s by design: The comic was heavily influenced and inspired by that game’s aesthetic and rules, including coins dropping every time an enemy “dies”. Scott and the three other characters can use these coins and level up by buying stat-boosting items in stores as you run from left to right punching anyone in your way.
Both the comic and film follow Pilgrim navigating a complex relationship with Ramona, a girl he’s head over heels with, but who has her own baggage – in the form of seven evil ex-boyfriends. Scott has his own issues, namely how he treats other people, and the two learn to accept the challenges of being in a relationship, all while fending off the superpowered toxicity of her ex-boyfriends. In the game, this premise is boiled down to seven stages with seven boss battles, all within distinct, colourful levels filled with unique bad guys and contextualised by famous moments from the comics and film.
Probably the biggest indication that this game was a rush job can be seen in just a handful of the boss battles. First ex-boyfriend Matthew Patel is an early highlight, featuring three different phases of a boss fight, like any great beat’em up baddy should have. But other blasts from the pasts flame out like, well, ex-flames. Skater boy Lucas Lee is basically a bigger regular goon with a skateboard, and ninja ex-girlfriend Roxie is also barely distinguished from the rest of her squad of ninjas.
The only other thing that doesn’t hold up as well in 2021 is how the game feels. I played Streets of Rage 4, one of the best games of 2020, just before diving into Pilgrim. Streets of Rage is a series that understands that the punches have to feel great to throw, and that all lies in the animation and audio design. Streets of Rage 4 made every punch feel like bricks, while all of Pilgrim’s punches land like so much glitter on skin. It’s too bad that Ubisoft couldn’t be bothered to beef up the brawling.
What didn’t need any touch ups are the music and graphics. New York chiptune band Anamanaguchi’s tracks for the 2010 game were an infections blend of dance and Sum 41-style pop punk, a pixel-perfect match to the game’s art style, both of which are retained here in all of its aliased glory.
If you played Scott Pilgrim back in 2010, there’s a good chance that you’ve already decided to get the rerelease, even if it offers nothing new. For everyone else, the experience may vary. In 2010, games with retro aesthetics were a bit of an anomaly, whereas today many games and genres strive to honour gaming’s roots. But none did it with quite as much precision and validity as Ubisoft’s little brawler that came out of nowhere, like your dream girl at a house party.
There’s a reason why Pilgrim’s return is such welcome news, and finally others can see why.