This is the year that 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. For that product to be fantastic, too, is gravy. For the game to include a character called "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 home-brewed 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.
Publisher: The Behemoth
Platform: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: T (for Teen)
Score: 9 (out of 10)
Castle Crashers isn't just a title you'll be playing and laughing alongside 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 full of health potions, this one costs only a couple of shiny rupees (that's 15 bucks to you).
Crashers is an 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 game rooms and Pizza Huts across America. Admit it, you're still haunted by those "Continue?" screens, believing that 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 it's gameplay apart, however, with basic RPG elements from the original Legend of Zelda, allowing your character to level up, buy potions and power-ups, 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-inspiread creature that causes cute forest creatures to literally shit themselves as they run across the screen.
Like the arcade games of yore, 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 said friend.
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Few video games on the market make players 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 and 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, but those are forgivable nitpicks that do little to spoil the addictive brawling of the core experience.
More important is that Castle Crashers' downloadable format allows Fulp and Paladin alone to profit — unlike developers cheated by the "Trade In" pawnshop business model of chains like GameStop.
That's a triumph for indie game designers and crap-happy deer the world over.