Review – Popslinger

There’s really nothing worse than not liking a game you desperately want to like. For years, I continue to find titles that people absolutely rave about – Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, even Final Fantasy XV – and don’t jive with me. With bigger titles, it doesn’t feel so bad that I don’t like them. After all, they certainly don’t need my money, and people will either be intrigued and ask me to explain why, or they’ll assume I’m a contrarian and just end the conversation there. But when it comes to indie titles, it really bums me out to not like them, because I love supporting the smaller dev teams. As far as I can tell, Funky Can Creative has made exactly one title, and I can see and feel that it’s a work of love and fantastic ideas. However, the execution of Popslinger is one that I simply cannot work with.

The premise is cool: there’s this alternate world where everything is dripping in 90s clichés and banging music, and it’s unfortunately being taken over by the Corazones, which are people who’ve gone to the dark side in terms of their hearts. It’s very Kingdom Hearts, but a lot more straightforward and less confusing. There’s also a person called the Popslinger, who can fight back against the baddies. You play Ria, who is chosen to be the new Popslinger, and is mentored/monitored by Gin, one of the former Popslingers.

The game really just drops you into the story with almost no preamble, and Ria is just as confused as you are (though she masks it with bravado and foolishness). Moving forward, you need to bring back the groove to the people everywhere, help restore the hearts of the Corazones and make the world a funky place once more. There’s nothing here that’s earth shattering in setup, but the presentation is great, so you forgive any laziness at first.

It almost looks like I’m in Threed, and that does a lot for me.

Once you get into Popslinger, the execution is pretty straightforward. You walk around with your special soda-powered gun and shoot the aforementioned evil baddies. You want to try and shoot them in a colorful sequence, however: try to get four or even eight of the same colored dudes in a row. Shooting four will grant you a single use powerup, such as a shield or having Gin act as a second shooter. Four and four gets you an addition upgrade and a boost to the soundtrack. Eight of the same color is a massive upgrade, and will also change the soundtrack depending on the color you shoot.

As far as I could tell, eight (either two fours or eight of the same) is also the only way to summon the incredibly useful Healing powerup, which you will need. Now, look at me, and make sure you heard me the first time: you need that healing powerup. You’ll need it all the time. From my own playthrough, there is never a time you won’t need the healing, and you’re a fool if you think otherwise.

Pictured: Gin doing friggin nothing to help me.

Popslinger really does a great job of selling the magic in the tutorial. The controls are simple and the enemies are clear, so you can appreciate what’s all around you instead of how the game performs. The art style definitely captures the vibe that Funky Can Creative was going for, as everything is awash in neons and popping colors. The character design really locks into that early 90s anime vibe, giving me some Bubble Gum Crisis meets Project A-Ko minus the overt sexiness. While the initial monsters are all just goopy piles of sadness, you do see the ideas of the game come forward in the backgrounds, stage setup and random inserts that pay homage to the time period that Popslinger attempts to emulate. 

BAM! That’s how you…pop someone’s heart? Wait, am I the good guy?

Once you get out into the world, though, that’s where Popslinger starts to take a turn. In an effort to really mimic some of the gameplay that we saw in the 16 bit era, I think it was overlooked that some of the games at that time frankly weren’t great, and we loved them because we couldn’t get or hope for anything better at that point. For example: Ria is a 2D character stuck in a 2.5D world. She can only shoot immediately to her left and right, and she has to navigate a very large, open space in order to make this happen.

The enemies can damage you just by running into you, so you’re inherently operating at a deficit. If you need to get in a straight line to hit an enemy that can attack you at a diagonal, you automatically need to recalibrate how you survive. If your dodge covers a fixed amount of distance every time but also takes a moment to recharge after use, you need to keep that in mind. And if you’re really determined to follow the ideas of the game and hammer out a set of colors in a row, then you need to make sacrifices as soon as the game truly begins.

This is where things really begin to get frustrating. Popslinger has ideas about how you should play it, and it feels like the game punishes you for not getting it. You get baddies in sets of four at the beginning, perfect for sequencing, but then you quickly start to get a mishmash of creatures that require a lot of finesse in order to navigate and eliminate in colorful order. The maps are much larger than your available screen, but the enemies have no problem positioning and moving without you seeing them, so you need to be ready for a sudden onslaught coming from all directions while you’re totally limited in how to react to them.

Additionally, the powerups have a delay before acting, which can really mess up your gameplay. I used a Healing action, which involves Gin appearing, saying something and then refilling a single health bar. Before Gin could heal me, though, an enemy ran into me, both canceling the heal and taking another point of health. What the hell? It felt unfair and almost vindictive.

Action sequences are hard to screenshot, so just know there was a lot of running to get this photo.

It took me several tries to get through the first level, and, by the time I figured out the way of this world, I was already over it. The first boss battle was a nice change of pace, as it at least allowed for the game to feel a little more balanced overall. Yet from finishing Waveform City, things just sort of stayed the same. Waves of enemies to defeat, challenging balances to color, and the necessity to never get hit even once.

The different powerups are so helpful, particularly the Double, but it all goes to seed the second you get hit. Combo broken, powerup gone, and Ria trying desperately to scramble back from a single instance that turned everything on its head. It was a chore instead of being fun, and it left me less appreciative of the things this game does wonderfully. The soundtrack, which is almost exclusively future funk, is a pleasure to listen to. The voice work is surprisingly awesome, and the whole thing gave me some serious Scott Pilgrim vibes. Even the filters work well, with occasional scenes being overlaid with a grainy VHS filter.

Clearly I wasn’t great at the game, but I don’t think that matters.

As much as Popslinger ticks all the boxes for me – great setup, banging soundtrack, beautiful aesthetics – it just isn’t fun. It turned from a game into a chore, one where I felt obligated to try and go further and see more to justify where I was. I think, with some gameplay tweaks, this could be a really successful game. As it stands, however, Popslinger just doesn’t hit the high notes and leaves the player feeling pretty flat.

Graphics: 8.0

High saturation neon with the right kind of bubbly anime graphics makes for a visual feast in this 90s toned design.

Gameplay: 6.0

The sidescrolling shooter aspect is simple enough, but the lack of directional control and slow shooting is a real drag.

Sound: 9.5

If I could just groove to the amazing songs without needing to play the game, it would make my life.

Fun Factor: 5.0

Shoot baddies. Shoot more baddies. Shoot a boss baddie. Listen to Ria and Gin fight, then shoot more.

Final Verdict: 6.5

Popslinger is available now on Nintendo Switch.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Popslinger was provided by the publisher.