Like any good ’70s sci-fi yarn, Double Fine’s new side-scrolling metroidvania is bathed in lava lamp neon, shellacked with a thick layer of self-aware goofiness, and rooted in a near-future dystopia ruled by an evil supercomputer. Loosely structured around traditional locked-door puzzles, security clearances, and non-linear character upgrades, Headlander hones in on a very specific aesthetic and commits with wild abandon, right down to a fascinatingly-produced soundtrack using real vintage sound equipment and synthesizers recorded to an honest-to-HAL reel-to-reel.
Double Fine’s sense of playful humor is everywhere in Headlander, from its promotional material all the way on down. In the short time I spent with the game I body-hopped onto a dog, saw some suspiciously-shiny Barbarella pleasure-model cyborgs, and watched a lot of stuff blow up in wildly different ways. If this game’s soundtrack doesn’t release on Laserdisc with an airbrushed slipcover I’ll be frankly surprised.
Headlander tells a darkly-comedic story centered around the player as the last living human head in a transhumanist retro-future where mankind has traded in its organic bodies for slickly produced robot ones. The player spends a lot of their time navigating their rocket-powered flying head and suction cupping onto a headless body, or if you fly in deftly enough you can actually vacuum an enemy’s head right off their metal shoulders and puppeteer them. Laser-armed enforcers roam the halls looking for suspiciously un-robotic lifeforms while Methuselah, the passively evil AI villain, drugs and amuses its playthings into submission. Most of the demo I saw was based around a pleasure-city populated with cyborgs on artificial vacations, plugged into headsets and isolation pods, unbothered by the AI plotting around them and seeking my destruction.
The meat of Headlander’s gameplay is in navigating the player’s head from interchangeable character to character according to the situation, ducking in and out of cover, and strategically utilizing laser weaponry that bounces off walls. In the demo Adult Swim presented me I saw a few different combat situations in various level of bullet hell—one that was relatively straight-forward, and several that dissolved into a pretty hilarious mess of plasma fire and frantic body-hopping. The laser-dodging is quick and dynamic, and there are also teleporters in most rooms that allow for players to time a teleport-smash. Wait for one of the Cylon-voiced security droids to bumble into the radius of one of these and you can jump in and crush him.
Character upgrades include a deflector shield that you can rotate around your head’s radius to block lasers. There’s a degree of nonlinearity in these upgrades and in how progress can be made through areas that feels a little different than in a Metroid game, which would normally shunt the player through a proscribed route along the various security doors and clearance levels. Numerous sidequests were dotted along the area, which Double Fine said would be optional and not a grind-requirement but would provide some interesting color to the story and world and provide extra XP for upgrades.
Headlander is pulling from a lot of familiar, well-worn places and it’s not necessarily promising anything revolutionary in its gameplay, but there’s a level of aesthetic commitment in this game I was dialed into. The idea of actually recording with a reel-to-reel, using real vintage Moog synths, especially grabbed me. I asked about the aesthetic and when they knew they had hit that sweet spot of loving parody, and I got the answer “if we could put wood panelling on it, we totally did.” If there’s that kind of commitment to a bit it doesn’t even feel like a gimmick—it can feel like a team is having fun with their premise, and hopefully that translates across to us when we get a fuller look at Headlander.