Scott Pilgrim vs. the World began as a comic by Bryan Lee O’Malley, first published in 2004, about the titular 20-something young man falling in love with a punky girl named Ramona Flowers. However, to win her heart, he needs to face off against her seven evil exes. It communicated this aspect of the story through retro video game metaphors (the fights against the evil exes representing the baggage that comes with life and relationships) along with numerous other visual references. Most notable, whenever Scott defeated one of the evil exes, they’d drop a bit of changes, much like in River City Ransom. While a cult classic at first, it attracted the attention of Hollywood executives, leading to a 2010 live action movie. Created to tie-in with it was a video game for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. While much of the actual story of the comic (and movie) is communicated through good old fashioned dialogue, the game tosses away that pretense and reimagines the whole thing as a 2D beat-em-up, most heavily influenced by (of course) River City Ransom.
With up to four players at once, participants can pick from Scott or Ramona, as well as Kim and Stephen, two other members of Scott’s band, the Sex Bomb-ombs. (Most of the band names are mashups of classic rock names and video game references.) The controls are fairly simple, with weak and strong attack buttons, along with a character specific super move. Your character has both a health and a “guts points” gauge, the latter of which will drain with these super attacks. There are plenty of weapons to use, plus you can pick up downed enemies and use them to whack other baddies. When you run out of health, this remaining guts will be applied to your life meter; to resurrect your character; so in a way, using these does drain your stamina, albeit indirectly. You can also call in assist character, taking the form of Knives Chau or her father, to provide aid, which depends on the character. Most characters play similarly, with the exception of some different special moves that unlock over the course of the game. Characters can also briefly enter a “hyper” mode by either beating up enough enemies in a row or consuming certain items (like coffee) which will greatly speed up their actions. If playing in multiplayer, you can also try to resuscitate downed characters, allowing them to get back into the fight without losing a life, though this is hard to do if you’re surrounded by enemies. Multiple players can also combine their abilities to perform a super attack, done by taunting (holding down the weak button for a bit) at the same time.
Now, Scott Pilgrim comes from the era of console beat-em-ups that came in the wake of Castle Crashers, who proved such games were still viable. It also borrows its RPG-lite stat elements, which makes sense, considering how much of it is inspired by River City Ransom. However, these aspects tend to cause problems when they’re not balanced well, and it’s here where Scott Pilgrim runs into some problems. At the outset, not only are your characters slow and weak, but their moveset is pretty thin; because of this, the first level is almost dreadful to play, as enemies take too long to kill. Defeated enemies grant experience, and once you hit the second level, you get a slide move that lets you take down turtling enemies; further levels also expand your moveset that makes dealing with the throngs of foes much more manageable, even if they still block way too often.
Experience levels only dictate your moves and your max HP; like in River City Ransom, your stats (attack, defense, speed, and will power, the latter of which influences your special moves) are powered up by purchasing food and other items from shops, using money obtained from fallen enemies. However, like its inspiration the game doesn’t actually tell you the effects of the item until after you’ve bought it, so you either need to waste your money to experiment (and spend time grinding enemies to build up cash) or just look up a FAQ so you can plan your approach. Further, River City Ransom was one (relatively small) open world, so if you needed to get to a store, you just needed to run to it. Scott Pilgrim, however, still has linear levels, connected with an overhead map screen, so you can’t just run off to a particular store at a whim. Thankfully, the game lets you enter the commercial district of the first level (the area with the most stores) directly from the map screen once you’ve beaten it, but for any shop in any other stage, you need to play through the whole level to get there. As in River City Ransom, there’s also a hidden shop, found in a tunnel in the first stage, which holds super powerful items; you can also elect to pay off Scott’s late fees ($504.25) at the video store which unlocks some of the best goodies.
Also a problem: each character is leveled up separately, and none of the progress carries over between them.. So if you start playing a few stages as Scott, and want to play a Ramona…well, not only does she start at the first experience level but she also starts the game from scratch, so you need to grind them up. This also makes multiplayer games troublesome if one player ends up significantly stronger than others. All of that being said, once you do get a lay of the land and know what to buy and how to power up your character, then the fighting does get really fun. After beating a few levels and powering up a bit, if you go back and replay the first stage, it’s remarkable how much more enjoyable it is when you’re stronger.
Purely as a beat-em-up, Scott Pilgrim has some issues, but it remains well regarded largely thanks to its graphics and music. All of the art is chunky pixel 2D, but is also far more advanced and more detailed than anything found in most actual retro games (save for perhaps a small handful of Saturn or Neo Geo games). With character designs by popular sprite artist Paul Robertson, it perfectly replicates the look of the comic while bringing everything to life with expressive style and elaborate animation. Much like, say, Konami’s The Simpsons games, there are a lot of low level mook characters that aren’t actually from the comic but perfectly fit in the universe; meanwhile, some recognizable side characters make cameos in the backgrounds. You even get to fight Lynette Guycot, the drummer with a bionic army who only had a minor appearance in the movie; Knives’ father shows up as a random encounter; and there are the Katayanagi twins’ robots, which were only in the comic. The seven evil exes are fantastically rendered, based on their comic book appearances (first level boss Matthew Patel summons his flying demon hipster chicks to attack) along with original attacks (third level boss Todd Ingram uses his vegan powers to morph into some kind of laser-firing monstrosity a la Akira; ultimate baddie Gideon Graves presents himself as a minor god). The new retro style was just beginning to become popular at the time of its release in 2010, as the indie game renaissance began thanks to digital distribution platforms, but in Scott Pilgrim it’s no mere novelty – over a decade later, it’s still a brilliant looking title.
The levels are some of the sorts you’d typically find in beat-em-ups, but they end up feeling so much different thanks to not only the aesthetics but also the offbeat source material. The first stage is the usual “streets at night” theme, but it explicitly takes place in Toronto during the winter, with distinctive houses and buildings that set it apart greatly from the usual urban decay you’d fight though. The comic has a big emphasis on music, so more than a few battlefields are dance clubs, but there’s also a movie set, which includes stunt men and enemies in goofy costumes (Lucas Lee, the second ex, is a film star after all). There’s a brief stage that takes place on a bus, as well as an elevator section, the kind which is almost legally required for these types of games. Not counting any grinding you may need to do, all seven stages will probably take a few hours to beat. There are a few unlockable modes, including a Boss Rush (self explanatory) and Survival Horror mode, which is a typical Survival mode but against hordes of zombies.
Much like the comic, Scott Pilgrim bathes in parodies of other video games – the opening cinema is an obvious tribute to Street Fighter Alpha 3, while the character select screen is taken almost directly from Super Mario Bros. 2. Out of the many weapons you can find, there are giant turnips, too. The pause music is super bassy thumping, much like Battletoads; there are several sections with large bowling balls that roll out from the backgrounds, taken from the first level of TMNT: The Arcade Game. The costume party has characters dressed up like Billy “Big Bang” Blitz and Tom Guycot from Clash at Demonhead, and the fortress of the twins is straight out of the final level of Double Dragon, complete with spiked pits. A fantasy-type level includes little dwarves you can bash for cash, straight out of Golden Axe. Even the last level of the game is basically the Technodrome from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Area transitions are handled with a Super Mario World-style scaling wipe; there are “subspace” bonus stages that are filled with intentionally glitchy graphics, along with flying pigs that contain bonus change, if you can smash them.
The soundtrack was provided by artist Anamanaguchi, whose style is a blend of NES-style chiptune synth and live guitars. Their style was always excellent, but their studio album tracks tended to lack structure. With Scott Pilgrim, they’ve honed their sound into the sixty-to-ninety second long clips typical of retro game video game music. By focusing their energy on strong, imminently re-listenable melodies, they take the best of old school music but give it a refreshingly modern sound. It’s filled with touches for retro video game music fans; the song “Bollywood” features low fidelity steel drum samples, vaguely similar to the type you’d hear in Super Mario Bros. 3, and the tune “Techno Man” has a rhythm characteristic of Mega Man tracks. The opening level theme “Another Winter” evolves over the course of the level, adding in tracks as you progress to the mid-way point, and the dance club tune “Rock On” grows muffled whenever you step outside of the building. Almost every track here is brilliant, and it’s no exaggeration that this is one the best video game soundtracks of all time.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game ran into some development issues, as it was begun by Ubisoft Montreal, by some of the same staff who worked in the (surprisingly decent) Game Boy Advance TMNT beat-em-up in 2007, then handed up to Ubisoft Chengdu to finish up in order to time it alongside the August 2010 release of the movie. The end result of this can be felt in the off-kilter balance – it could’ve used some more time to polish up things to reduce grinding, or at least very least, make the base character stronger and more robust. And there are some technical issues, as the game is prone to crashing, and drops framerate regularly when there are tons of enemies on the screen. According to interviews, lots of material was cut as well. Still, the fact that it looks and sounds so incredible is a huge credit to everyone that assembled it – the game has its issues, to be sure, but they eventually resolve themselves, and it looks and sounds so brilliant, that it’s no wonder it became a cult classic, along with the (underappreciated) movie.
The game continued to receive support long after release – a first set of DLC adds in Knives Chau as a playable character (who otherwise just popped up as a side character). Also added are Dodgeball and Battle Royale modes, homages to other Kunio-kun spinoffs, but they’re a little simple in execution. A second DLC set added Wallace Wells (Scott’s roommate) as well as online multiplayer, a long requested feature since the original release only offered local. However, the game was pulled entirely from the digital distribution marketplace in late 2014. With no retail release, that means that the game was only available for a little over four years. Finally, in 2020, Ubisoft resurrected the game for multiple modern platforms as a Complete edition, including all of the DLC, allowing a new generation to finally discover it.