‘Sideway’ puts new paint on classic gameplay

Graffiti has been around since the days of the Roman Empire, but it’s always had trouble being accepted as a true art form. Perhaps this is because graffiti favors style over substance. After all, there’s nothing deep or moving about “Jeff wuz here” on the side of an overpass, no matter how stylish the lettering. “Sideway: New York” takes all the style and hip-hop cool of graffiti and marries it to traditional “Mario” platforming gameplay. However, just like it’s inspiration, it won’t make the argument for video games as “art.”

Nox is a graffiti artist living in New York City. An ordinary “tagging” mission goes wrong when the graffiti he tries to paint over comes alive and sucks him into the two-dimensional world of graffiti in which every spray painted doodle is a living creature. Nox must rescue his friend Cass from the clutches of the graffiti boss and figure out a way to get back to the three-dimensional realm. The idea is fresh and fun, but the linear levels and lack of characters to interact with makes the novelty of the setting feel like a missed opportunity. “Sideway” is a platformer, plain and simple, so the story is really just garnish for the gameplay.

Nox can only move in two dimensions on the walls, rooftops, and signage of New York. Pipes and bits of graffiti become platforms and walls, and every time the player leaps from a wall to a rooftop, for instance, the perspective (and gravity) shifts. It’s disconcerting at first, but soon becomes manageable, at least when only one player is on the screen. The gameplay is a mix of “Mario” and “Castlevania” with a focus on jumping over obstacles and unlocking new abilities like slide kicks, double-jumps, and projectile paintballs as you progress through the game.

The enemies are varied and the rhythmic pacing makes for a fun and intuitive experience, though the controls are on the sluggish side. Nox jumps like he’s on the moon, taking too long to achieve liftoff and then staying airborne for a surprisingly long time. It may seem like a minor gripe, but when jumping is what you spend most of “Sideway” doing, one can’t help but wish that the controls were more sharply tuned.

A second player can join the game for a little co-op action. While it’s fun to stomp graffiti monsters with a buddy, it’s clear that the two-player mode is just a tacked-on afterthought. None of the puzzles or enemies benefit from multiple players, and the frequent perspective shifts mean that the other player will suddenly lose sight of their character at the worst possible moment. Unless you’ve got some sort of psychic connection with your pal, expect to kill each other off pretty often. Fortunately, the difficulty curve is well-tuned and checkpoints are liberally sprinkled throughout each level, meaning that you never have far to backtrack.

The funky art style is the main reason to pick up this game. The concept of a living graffiti world comes to life through colorful and kooky character designs and expressive animation. The hip-hop soundtrack perfectly matches the urban setting, but too few musical tracks means that the player will get very tired of hearing the same tunes over and over. Sadly, “Sideway” doesn’t allow players to turn off the game’s music and listen to their own playlist. If the developers weren’t going to spend the time to make enough musical tracks, the least they could have done was allowed the player to provide their own.

Gamers can blaze through “Sideway” in six hours, but collecting every little doodad strewn throughout the levels and getting the highest score on the online leaderboards can significantly lengthen the game’s lifespan. If you can’t put a game down until you achieve 100% completion, “Sideway” will satisfy. For a low price of only 9.99 though, it’s not hard to recommend it to casual players just looking to enjoy the art.

For the cost of a movie ticket, gamers can take a journey through the truly unique world of “Sideway.” It’s not perfect, and it may not be as deep or well-developed as “Mario” but its got way more style.

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