The beat 'em up genre has seen better days. Side-scrolling action, once a staple of arcade and console gaming, survives mainly through emulation, compilations, and our own fond memories. Gone are the days of Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Now everything must be a sprawling 3D epic. So instead of Golden Axe, we have Golden Axe: Beast Rider. While the muscle of big production strains under the budget of its next blockbuster, the true spirit of hack 'n' slash has found itself in more capable hands.
Castle Crashers, developed by programmer Tom Fulp and artist Dan Paladin, has taken classic 2D gameplay and imbued it with a completely unique personality, while adding in RPG elements in tasteful moderation. Enemies are depicted with bold strokes and vibrant solid colors, staying interesting throughout the adventure and feeling at home in their environments. I couldn't help feeling a slight twinge of remorse after slicing up an enemy knight simply trying to enjoy the newspaper. Bosses are consistently fun and greatly exaggerated, with eyes bulging, bloodshot, or conspicuously absent. These encounters require some light strategy, but jumping and swinging wildly will get the job done for a group of less practiced gamers.
The Behemoth reached out to users of Tom Fulp's popular flash website Newgrounds for the game's background music; so the entire soundtrack consists of user-submitted tunes, and the result couldn't have been better. Whether it's driving, distorted synth-rock or a breezy Spanish waltz, the tracks juxtapose brilliantly with the game's visual personality.
The number of playable characters starts at four and unlocks to over 20, drawn from allies and minions encountered over the course of the game. Each holds a separate instance of a player's progress, and can be raised to a maximum level of 99, granting stat points along the way. These features gracefully expand upon the game's core action, rather than leading it down the path of another tired genre mash-up.
Because storming and conquering are always more fun with a few buddies, Castle Crashers allows any combination of local and live co-op for up to four players. There's a healthy dose of satisfaction in teaming up with friends to overcome a particularly challenging level. It makes it even sweeter to cut down your friends, and ascend their corpses to claim the affections of a rescued princess. Auxiliary game modes like the free-for-all Arena and the button mash-off All You Can Quaff are polite additions overshadowed by the scope and quality of the main campaign. All told, the replayability offered by this package bests many retail Xbox 360 titles.
The industry's mantra has become "bigger and more expensive." A hefty budget and large staff can leverage a title to success, but they can just as easily distract from the core elements that make a game fun and memorable. The straightforward action and simplistic charm of classic hack 'n' slash games have made triumphant returns. Castle Crashers is much more than a sum of its parts, harmonizing to create an experience that's both familiar and fresh. Its appeal is remarkably wide and I've found that it is always quick to coax a smile.