Headlander review: Metroid meets 1970s retrofuturism meets disembodied heads

Moonage daydream

You awake to find you’re just a head. That’s it. You’ve got hair, two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, maybe even a mustache—if you play your cards right—but down at the bottom where there should be a neck there’s...well, nothing at all. Air.

Or, actually, there’s a rocket thruster. Through whatever miracle of science, your disembodied head is contained inside a spacesuit helmet with the aforementioned thruster retrofitted to your neck-hole.

A man named Earl gets on the intercom and tells you not to panic—and not to bother screaming, since you don’t have any lungs. The title of this game says it all: Headlander.

Mind over matter

Headlander ($20 on Steam) is the latest from Double Fine, the studio of Psychonauts and Brutal Legend fame. I’d call Headlander a 2D Metroidvania—our second of the summer—but if so it’s a lightweight one.

Headlander

Your ultimate goal is to overthrow a rogue AI, Methuselah, but doing so entails about five or six hours of exploring a space station beforehand. Sometimes you fly around, a disembodied head careening through hallways. Most of the time you take over other bodies though—accomplished by vacuuming the heads off other robots and then fastening yourself in like some high-tech marionette.

Robots come in a variety of colors, and this is Headlander’s main means of gating your progress. White robots (citizens) have the fewest privileges, red possess slightly more, orange more than that, and the spectrum continues up until violet—the robots with the most access. Much of Headlander entails finding a body with sufficient door privileges to enter the next area.

Headlander

It’s not very difficult, nor is there really any catch. The game’s five or so main areas are all largely self-contained. Connected, sure, but you won’t (for example) find a violet door in the opening area that forces you to return later. Thus why I say it’s a pretty lightweight Metroidvania—Headlander mostly follows a linear progression, with the option to return to earlier areas if you missed something.

You don’t have to, though. If you want, Headlander is a straight shot, start to finish. And I mean that literally, as much of Headlander’s length is padded by combat. You either blast enemy robots until they explode or shoot their heads off, which is much easier with a mouse. Or just suck their heads off with your vacuum-neck. Next room, do the same—and so on down the line until the end.

Headlander

Later in the game you start to encounter simplistic shoot-all-the-targets-at-once puzzles which break up the repetition, but these feel almost like an afterthought given their delayed appearance.

Oh, and there’s a pair of horrendous boss battles. They’re not particularly difficult. Merely dreary, as you chip away at their health one tiny fragment at a time and wonder why games even bother with boss battles in 2016 considering most of them are terrible.

In the year 2000…

Phew, that’s a lot of negativity. And for good reason: Headlander is just a ho-hum game.

Headlander

But Double Fine’s greatest talent is picking fantastic source material to emulate. Be it Brutal Legend’s classic rock-inspired hellscape or Broken Age’s Hasbro spaceship, the studio has a knack for drawing on aesthetics other developers have ignored. And it’s a talent that’s served them well, often making Double Fine’s titles worth seeing even if the game itself is nothing special.

Such is the case with Headlander.

Here, Double Fine has tapped the retrofuturist aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s. This spans books (the covers of Asimov or Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke novels) and film (2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Logan’s Run) and even industrial design (lava lamps). See if you can spot that last one in the background, here:

Headlander

Headlander is all browns and oranges and purples, shag carpeting and disco floors and people talking about transcendentalism, balloon lettering and VHS scan lines, pastel-shaded spaceships and chunky mainframe computers and slim androids. There’s even a bit of music that sounds suspiciously like “Space Oddity.” It’s a pastiche of the 1970s with 1970s fiction, the realities of the day mashed up with their dreams of the future. And it’s fascinating.

Most brilliant of all is a level designed around an out-of-control Chess AI. Here, in an echo of Tron, you’re forced to participate in a game that she calls “The future of Chess.” Robots in this area each take cues from Chess, so the Bishop can only shoot lasers on a diagonal while the Knight’s laser fires in an “L” shape.

Headlander

Shoved into the midst of Headlander? It’s a bit of an odd tangent, a wholly-unique bit that doesn’t really match the rest of the game. But I’d be loathe to lose it, because it’s so damn creative.

Bottom line

That’s an apropos summary of Headlander as a whole. It’s a bit tedious at times, both combat and puzzle-solving. None of it makes much sense—the story is thin, and the entire denouement seems to be missing, with the story just cutting off after the final boss fight. It’s by no means an incredible game.

But it’s so damned creative I found myself drawn to it in spite of myself. I wanted to see what came next, what weird aspect of retrofuturism would be crop up in the background. Headlander is proof—as if we needed it, at this point—that a creative concept and aesthetic can get you quite a ways, provided they’re slapped over the bones of serviceable-if-uninspired mechanics. And at five or six hours, Headlander gets in and out quickly enough it doesn’t really overstay its welcome. It’s perfect for an afternoon or two of light entertainment.

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Hayden Dingman

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