Some games should not be played alone. World of Warcraft. Counter-Strike. Kiss-chase. Hide the sausage. Add to that list Jamestown: a 2D top-down pixellated scrolling shooter set on Mars. With four friends in co-op, all figuring out how their different space-boat-ship things work together and using the 'Vaunt' ability to protect each other, it's riotous fun. On your own, less so.
Here's how it works. You pilot a spaceship, and press fire. As the world scrolls by, baddies, and eventually bosses, come into view. You shoot at them, until they explode into points. So far, so shmup. The complication comes from how the different ships work together, and how the game gradually releases its goodies, rewarding repetition and risk-taking.
Jamestown is funny and cute, set in an adorably weird fusion of colonial steampunk and Martian invasion. The aliens, all tentacles and metal, explode into clouds of cogwheels and gears when killed. The ships are friendly blobs of pixels, the pewpew- pew they spew covering the screen in bright fluorescent bubbles. It's jaunty and exceptionally silly. Silly to the point that if you play it for long enough, you'll earn enough gold for 'Farce' mode, where the already exceptionally silly storyline is replaced by nonsense about plant monsters.
You have a choice of four ships, each with a different set of weaponry. I really like the 'Charge' ship: by holding down one of the fire buttons you can build up a giant sphere of death that cuts through any baddies on screen. Owen favours the 'Beam', the starter vessel. That just has a giant beam of death that takes up a quarter of the screen, but when you're firing it, you're unable to dodge any incoming projectiles.
That's where the Vaunt button comes in. If you collect cogs while killing, you'll fill a bar at the top left of the screen. When it's full, you can briefly activate a shield that absorbs all incoming fire. It's a great way to protect your friends during heated moments. Except that on the higher difficulty levels, Jamestown is one long heated moment.
It all comes together in the multiplayer: four of you shouting and jostling as you take on tentacle bosses and robots. “Vaunt! Vaunt!” you shout. “Well done! Now bomb him.” When you die, you yell at your friends to survive so you can respawn via the timer, or to pick up a respawn power-up. At the end of the mission, you do a little dance to the jaunty guitar/midi medley. It's pure fun.
But there's not enough of it. There are only five levels, each lasting about seven minutes. To access the last you'll need to repeat the earlier ones on escalating difficulty levels. There are a good number of challenges, but they don't disguise the paucity of game. With friends, you'll be done in an afternoon.
Jamestown is excellent. It's cheap, and exceptionally cheerful. But there's just not enough of it.