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Headlander review: Metroid meets 1970s retrofuturism meets disembodied heads

Hayden Dingman | July 27, 2016
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.


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.


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.


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.


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