"The Gunstringer" started out as a downloadable game before morphing into a budget retail release.

If you know the history of Twisted Pixel’s “The Gunstringer” for Kinect, it’s impossible to play the game without wondering whether it should have been a lower-priced download. (The game, originally slated for release via download in the spring, was pushed back to Sept. 13 and turned into a budget-priced retail game.)

Pricewise, “The Gunstringer” (rated T, $40 for Xbox 360, Kinect required) falls into a weird middle ground. On the one hand, it’s considerably more ambitious than Twisted Pixel’s previous, download-only games. Given that “Comic Jumper,” the “‘Splosion Man” games and “The Maw” launched at $10 or $15, it’s unsurprising Microsoft, the game’s publisher, would charge more for the fullest realization of Twisted Pixel’s potential yet.

That said, “The Gunstringer” takes maybe four hours to complete, and its $40 budget price means it’s only $10 cheaper than the typical Kinect game. Microsoft has tried to sweeten the deal by providing a code to download the excellent diversion “Fruit Ninja Kinect,” normally $10, but if you already bought that game during the Summer of Arcade promo, it’s less of an enticement. You’ll have to be satisifed with the game’s first downloadable add-on, “The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles,” also free on the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Judging games by how long it takes to finish isn’t fair, provided they have plenty of replayability, but after playing “The Gunstringer” and struggling with its controls in some stretches, I’m not sure Kinect allows the precision required to master the game and rack up high score after high score, at least not in my living room.

(One of the things that’s becoming clear about Kinect is that games never control as well in my home as they do in the controlled environments in which publishers exhibit titles at trade shows or preview events. While I occasionally struggle to control Kinect games at home, such struggles may be a result of my particular Kinect setup.)

Caveats aside, “The Gunstringer” has a lot going for it. At a time in which the game industry is cranking out copycat after copycat, Twisted Pixel’s tale of an undead cowboy marionette out for revenge against his treacherous former running mates is whimsical and wholly original.

In the most inspired use of Microsoft’s full-body, camera-based controller yet, players are cast as a puppeteer who’s putting on a marionette stage show for a live audience. The game opens with live footage from the Paramount Theatre in Twisted Pixel’s hometown of Austin, Texas. As theatergoers take their seats, we see some of “The Gunstringer’s” developers readying the puppet for his big moment on stage.

At the start of each level, players use their left hand to pick the Gunstringer up off the ground, then guide him through each of the levels. The Gunstringer runs automatically, but players move the strings to guide the puppet around numerous obstacles. (In most cases, a quick tug up on the strings makes the Gunstringer jump, for example.) Players’ right arms controls the Gunstringer’s six-shooter. You’ll sweep your hand over on-screen targets to highlight them, then jerk your arm upward in a kind of blasting motion to shoot any targets you’ve highlighted. (A lefty option allows you to swap your arms’ functions.)

Each level features tons of obstacles or enemies that can kill you, and you’re likely to get nailed and die a lot your first time playing the game. Mercifully, the penalty for dying is fairly low. You just lose points each time you get hit, and when you die, you’re allowed to resume at basically the point where you left off. As long as you’re not trying for gold medals on the levels, you can play through a stage in 5 to 10 minutes.

Because “The Gunstringer” is a stage production, you’ll hear audience feedback throughout each of the levels. Screw up a bunch, and the audience will start jeering. Perform well and they’ll cheer wildly. After each chapter concludes, the curtain closes and the game awards you a medal based on your performance, as well as quotes from critics. (One example: “Nice shooting! Dirk Dorkelson is like a young Dick Cheney!”)

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The game likes to encourage players to remain seated, a Kinect rarity. When I played while sitting, the controls felt less precise, most likely because my couch and TV stand (and therefore my Kinect) aren’t very high off the ground; my ottoman may have partly obstructed its view. For precise controls, I had to move from my couch to a wooden chair from my dining room table, making sure I sat up straight so the game could recognize my arms. This wasn’t very comfortable, so I just played standing up. (An unexpected bonus of “The Gunstringer’s” arms-only controls is that you don’t need to move your coffee table or ottoman out of the way.)

Even though “The Gunstringer” feels short, by the end, it feels like Twisted Pixel has wrung about as much variety as it can out of the game’s central conceit of a stage show and a puppet. The stages have you controlling the Gunstringer while he runs away from you, as well as toward you. You’ll guide him through some side-scrolling 2D stages that look a little bit like “Donkey Kong.” You’ll pilot a couple of vehicles through obstacle courses and dual-wield pistols that automatically fire as you move your hands around the screen to pop swarms of enemies. Periodically, the Gunstringer will stop running and take cover, forcing players to pop out from cover to blast their foes.

These various control schemes are all executed competently, but some of the later stages, in which you’re dodging obstacles, hurdling ravines and shooting enemies all at the same time, can be quite difficult, like trying to rub your tummy and pat your head while reading a book. An achievement awarded for playing through the entire game in the unlockable Hardcore Mode without dying feels more like a cruel joke by the developers than something someone might hope to actually achieve.

Despite its flaws, “The Gunstringer” has some of the best art direction of any game released this year, and its unexpected, goofy ending that blends live and animated footage is one of my all-time favorites. The game ought to be experienced by everyone who owns Kinect, but whether you pay $40 is up to you.

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