If you’ve ever stepped into Samus Aran’s boots for a Metroid adventure, you’ll instantly recognize parallels in Headlander’s world structure, outfits, and animations. It doesn’t beat around the bush: you shoot laser guns, explore sprawling maps, and hunt for hidden power-ups–Metroid in a nutshell.
On the other hand, years of experience with Samus can’t prepare you for Headlander’s lead character: a head in a rocket-powered jar. Without a body to call home, you have to decapitate robots and steal their bodies to fight back. This is but one of many refreshing concepts on display, not the least of which is a stylized 70s sci-fi aesthetic that’s immediately appealing. Headlander is dripping with color, laced with humor, and anything but typical.
This side-scrolling adventure takes place in a world populated by hedonist robots, who at any given moment are tripping out, trying to get laid, or dancing–just another day in the Pleasure Dome. The denizens’ penchant for all things pleasurable is Headlander’s primary source of humor, but you find that even service robots–that provide maps and dust floors–offer multiple lines of entertaining dialogue. That said, I could do without the sardonic AI that mans the game’s security doors: I know you lead a repetitive life, but don’t poison the Pleasure Dome’s inkwell with your attitude.
You’re guided through this world by a man named Earl–a voice on the other side of your communication equipment–who’s trying to help you escape the clutches of the lead AI, Methuselah. Earl’s southern drawl and lackadaisical personality are a breath of fresh air, portraying a level-headed and helpful gentlemen in a sea of far-out characters. Methuselah fills the perfunctory antagonist role, but your interactions with him are minimal. Headlander puts gameplay and moment-to-moment interactions with quippy NPCs ahead of its overarching story, but the game as a whole is so delightfully entertaining that it’s hard to feel too bad about that.
When Earl first jars you from a deep sleep, you awake in a state of shock. Without a body, you can’t speak or fire back at gun-toting robots. As you venture through the Pleasure Dome and beyond into the belly of Methesula’s fortress, you take over robot bodies to gain access to weapons and security doors. Robot bodies are color-coded to security levels, and with each new level, the shots from those robots’ laser rifles bounce off one additional surface. Lasers can be used to open doors if you can’t walk up to them with a body intact, which becomes necessary for one very important reason: you can’t jump. It’s a weird omission at first blush, but once you get used to flying your head around in low gravity–a satisfying experience on its own–you quickly forget why you cared about the lack of jumping in the first place.
Your head has unlimited propulsion and vacuum power, and it is graceful in flight, carrying momentum and turning on a dime if it needs to. To take over a new host, you can either propel into them to knock their head off after you’ve upgraded your helmet’s thrusters, or use your vacuum ability to pull it off. When you’ve upgraded your abilities further by collecting scattered bits of energy, you can head-butt other robots to swap heads in a flash. Every victim you possess has its own life bar, but the one associated with your helmet is the one that really matters. Thankfully, it replenishes automatically over a short period of time, so it’s easy to recharge if you can fly into a corner and tuck yourself away for a few seconds. Even if you manage to die, Headlander is extremely forgiving, allowing you–in most cases–to respawn in the same room.
Multi-stage boss fights and objectives are the only exception, where you are forced to restart from the beginning of your task upon death. This is only troublesome during the game’s two boss fights, where death comes at the drop of a hat should you fly erratically and wander into a projectile. The last boss is especially frustrating because it’s uniquely challenging–remember, Headlander is typically forgiving, allowing you to play fast and loose–and despite clearly providing tools during the fight to inflict damage, the best way to fight that boss boils down to ramming your head into his weak point and retreating for cover.