I’m a huge advocate of old-school gaming; so much so, that I still even in this age of bump mapped textures and Unreal Engine 3 inspired browns and grays fire up a no-continue attempt of Metal Slug, and go to town. There’s an undeniable charm that these titles hold, and it reminds me of a time when developers, unconcerned with realism, had to really try to grab a gamer’s attention. We hardly see releases like these anymore, what with everyone trying to impress us with their visuals, lowering the difficulty in order to give everyone else a chance to enjoy the mayhem we’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
It’s for this reason that I’m so fond of services like the Wii’s Virtual Console, or the Xbox Live Arcade, where it isn’t a crime to release a game in 2D, or one that takes no prisoners with its unconventional approach. While many classic games have made their way onto the service, it’s the opportunities for independent developers to strut their stuff that gives it real promise. The Behemoth is one such indie developer, and their first game, Alien Hominid, a shooter with obvious roots in the side scrolling shooter genre, was an unexpected surprise hit that reminded everyone just how challenging a game could be while remaining fun and charming due to it’s offbeat sense of humor.
It’s no surprise then, that their next title, one three years in the making, takes on another beloved genre: The beat-em-up. In the same way that Alien Hominid was homage to shooters like Contra, Metal Slug, and Gunstar Heroes, their new title Castle Crashers is a 4-player brawler in the vein of classics like Golden Axe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and notably, Guardian Heroes.
The premise is simple. In the midst of what I can only assume to be some sort of medieval keg party, a wizard breaks into the King’s castle, kidnaps his four daughters, and makes haste. It is then your (or you and three friends) task to rescue them. If that sounds a bit silly or familiar, it’s because it is. In true classic game form, the mission doesn’t matter as much as the journey you’re taking to complete it, and the journey is something else, thanks to artist Dan Paladin’s wonderful art style and trademark sense of humor (along with a fantastic soundtrack). Somehow, the lack of a basic narrative structure matters less and less as you find yourself in situations ranging from fending off a giant catfish while careening down a ravine (complete with hairballs), to bracing yourself in order to fight a mysterious enemy so frightening that every animal in the forest literally craps itself at the mere sound of it’s footsteps. Each of the game’s 20+ levels are all uniquely entertaining, and filled with plenty of subtle (and not-so-subtle) movie gags and throwback references.
Of course, a stylish game is only as good as the gameplay surrounding it, and it’s in this aspect that Castle Crashers doesn’t disappoint as well. Each character has a light and strong attack, with separate buttons for magic and items to use as they see fit. The fighting itself is easy to get into, with each character sharing the same basic move set, but it’s surprisingly deep if you feel like tapping into it. Fighting game fans will know exactly what I mean the first time they air juggle an enemy across the screen and a goofy grin crosses their face.
An RPG-esque leveling system guides your fighting progress as well, doling out new combos and ability points that can be used to boost any of four attributes (attack, defense, magic, agility) that affect your character in different ways. It’s in this aspect that the game truly shines, if you find yourself to be more offensive, you can make your character a brute by skyrocketing attack and defense. Want to hang back and throw projectiles? Increase magic and agility. By giving you the freedom to be anything from a tank to a balanced combination of anything, not to mention that each playable character has their own unique special moves, the possibilities are endless.
Much of this review has been written from a single player standpoint, however I would be remiss to mention that this game practically DEMANDS to be played with multiple people. The competition/cooperative element that arises in this game, whether you’re trying to out eat each other in the absurdly titled “All You Can Quaff” mode, to battling it out over who gets to kiss the princess at the end of a stage, its multiplayer is second to none out of every XBLA title I’ve played. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, most will have trouble experiencing it, as the game has some glaring network issues. It’s near impossible to find a game with random people, and when you do, there’s always the possibility that you’ll be disconnected in the middle of a session. The problem isn’t quite as large if you have people on your friend’s list to invite and meet up, but it’s a glaring flaw, considering the game’s general focus on 4-player mayhem and its three years of development. The Behemoth has already stated that they’re working on a patch to fix things up, but the fact that the game made it out of the gate in this state is a bit disappointing.
Overall, Castle Crashers is not only in my opinion, a game that stands up well with the classic greats it’s paying tribute to, but an excellent game that, at 15 bucks, deserves a space in every 360 gamer’s library, despite it’s (small) flaws (that will be fixed soon!).