At the beginning of Metroid Prime, our armor-clad heroine Samus Aran explores a derelict ship, the Orpheon, belonging to space pirates, and she does this by launching missiles, firing charged shots from her beam weapon, and dropping bombs in her morph ball form. She kills a handful of surviving pirates and puts down the rampaging Parasite Queen before fleeing the doomed ship, but shortly before reaching the safety of her ship, she’s smacked into a wall by an explosion.
The impact causes her to lose most of her abilities. She’s no longer able to charge her shots or fire missiles. Her Grapple Beam and Morph Ball stop working, too. Even her suit itself malfunctions with the Varia Suit devolving back to her standard Power Suit. She went from badass to comparatively weak within a (literal) flash.
Headlander is full of these moments.
We play the titular Headlander, a disembodied head who is the last flesh-and-blood human amid a civilization of robots. She (or he, if the player chooses) can fly thanks to her special helmet, granting the player the ability to soar unrestricted around a room. The catch is that a body is required to pass through doors. Mostly.
Like Metroid, doors also open if fired upon, but hijacking robots comes with the added benefit of a second health bar for the bodies. Once that extra health is depleted, the bodies explode, again rendering the head vulnerable to damage, so attaching head to body is an important defense, especially early on. Taking control of Guardian robots gives the player offensive options, varying from simple Mega Man-like blasts to more complex aiming patterns.
Using weapons is, of course, important. Simply firing at enemy bodies destroys them, but careful aiming allows the player to destroy only the head, allowing the player to switch robots for additional health or to acquire a specific color needed to open a door.
Everything about being a head and stealing bodies is a fun twist on the standard “Metroidvania” progression. Instead of gaining a long list of permanent upgrades, most abilities in Headlander are temporary, lost once that body is abandoned or explodes (which is easy since they’re flimsy). To make matters worse, being a head in the first few hours of the game is dangerous. The Headlander can’t escape since she can’t open doors by herself, and she lacks an offensive weapon beyond vacuuming heads off bodies, which is also dangerous.
With a loss of offensive and defensive abilities that come with bodies, including a second health bar, the player is weakened and at a severe disadvantage. And this happens dozens upon dozens (upon dozens) of times during a full playthrough.
Dozens upon dozens (upon dozens) of instances where Samus loses her upgrades. Such an event is a major blow in Metroid Prime, along with in Prime 2 and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, this same event is a regular occurrence in Headlander.
A funny thing happened as my game progressed. Headlander does feature upgrades and unlockable abilities, albeit only a handful, including the ability to boost, transforming the defenseless head into a rocket able to damage enemies by delivering a hell of a headbutt. Not only am I able to crash into enemies and immediately retreat to the relative safety of the ceiling, but I can swoop down and behead a handful of foes with a single boost. That’s pretty badass, by the way.
Meanwhile, I neglected upgrades centered around bodies, partially because they require button combinations I rarely remembered whenever the opportunity came. Besides, who care about those fragile bodies when I’m a human freakin’ rocket capable of decapitating enemies? Consequently, bodies transformed from combat necessities to breakable keys required to progress through doors. Keys I quickly ditched once the shooting starts, I might add, since it’s faster to do the whole rocket thing.
By that point, with the head’s health extended a number of times and its offensive capabilities more fun than straight shooting, the head and body traded places. I started with staying as a head as little as possible because it just wasn’t safe, but later on remained away from bodies as often as I could because I felt more powerful as a head. Losing a body no longer felt like Samus losing her abilities at the start of Metroid Prime. Instead, that moment came when I attached to a body.
Naturally, using bodies almost exclusively is still a viable option, but to the developer’s credit, the opposite is also true. I played through the final boss almost entirely as a head because it’s not immune to my boosts. It would’ve been easy for Double Fine to make tougher enemies able to shrug off my headbutts and force players to attach to similarly tough enemies, but I don’t recall running into a single enemy that I couldn’t dispatch as a head.
I like having that option.
Final Say: Headlander is a fun and breezy adventure not lacking in style or humor. We’ve seen no shortage of “Metroidvania” games in recent years, but Headlander is worth purchasing. RECOMMENDED.