This is the year woodland creatures with explosive diarrhea saved video games.
On rare occasion do gamers end up playing a product untouched by outside interests, delivered exactly as the artists intended it to be. For the game to be fantastic as well is just gravy. For the game to include a character named Bipolar Bear is something better than gravy, if one can imagine such a thing.
From the two-man team of Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin, this homebrewed Xbox Live download has everything: eye-popping color and visuals, substantial replay value, deceptively cute decapitations and more sight gags than a Verne Troyer sex tape.
Castle Crashers isn’t just a title you’ll be playing and laughing alongside with years from now; this instant classic further destroys the notion that, to be a blockbuster game, you’ve gotta come shrink-wrapped in a hard-shell case and cost 50 bucks. Like a satchel of health potions, this one only costs a couple of shiny Rupees (that’s 15 bucks to you).
Crashers is a direct homage to the quarter-sucking hack ’n’ slash arcade games of the ’80s and ’90s. You remember: games like Golden Axe, Double Dragon and even The Simpsons Arcade Game that multiplied in Holiday Inn and Pizza Hut game rooms across America. Admit it, you’re still haunted by those “Continue?” screens and believe your parents got off on withholding quarters.
You know the drill: mash buttons, watch your health bar, beat the boss, and don’t believe anyone’s dead until they fall down, blink and disappear. Castle Crashers sets its gameplay apart, however, with basic RPG elements from the original Legend of Zelda, allowing your character to level up, buy potions and powerups, and upgrade weapons. Those weapons include one of the most powerful cudgels in the game, a frozen Rump Roast.
But all the meat beating isn’t what makes Castle Crashers unique. Fans of Fulp and Paladin’s last outing (the contra-meets-Lilo and Stitch shooter Alien Hominid) already know what to expect from the team’s unparalleled style. Hand-drawn characters and backgrounds ooze with originality and twisted cuteness—from an Evil Corn on the Cob boss, to a seemingly Radiohead-inspired creature who causes cute forest denizens to literally shit themselves across the screen.
Like the arcade games of yor, four-player action is what Castle Crashers is all about. Unfortunately, massive launch-day glitches crippled the online-multiplayer mode, which should shape up to be a marathon good time if local-multiplayer mode is any indication. Yes, it’s always satisfying to eat an energy-boosting turkey off the ground before your friend can get to it, utterly screwing them.
Few video games on the market cause players to laugh out loud, and Castle Crashers joins the ranks of the WarioWare series and, more recently, Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. There are plenty of dark, brooding shooters out there, with muted industrial backgrounds and battle-scarred bozos. Some of us would like more Terminator 2 references, or Super Dodge Ball-based boss battles, in our gaming diet.
Castle Crashers’ bonus mini-games feel like lackluster distractions from the main event, and the one-player quest feels a tad short (“time flies,” you know), but those are forgivable nitpicks that do little to spoil the addictive brawling of the core experience.
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More important is that Castle Crashers’ downloadable format allows Fulp and Paladin alone to profit—unlike developers cheated by the “Trade In” pawn-shop business model of chains such as GameStop.
That’s a triumph for indie game designers and crap-happy deer the world over.
Castle Crashers from the Behemoth for the Xbox 360, $15. ESRB Rating: T (for Teen). Score: 9 (out of 10).