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Xbox Live Arcade: Castle Crashers

Written by: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K

ImageOver the last month, Xbox Live Arcade has been experiencing a renaissance in quality gaming. With retro tributes (Bionic Commando Rearmed), suped-up sequels (Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2) and entirely original content (Braid), there's certainly a case to be made that at the moment the online service is offering more quality than its store-based, physical counterpart. Castle Crashers, developed by flash-game graduates and masterminds The Behemoth, can sit proudly alongside these downloadable essentials.

Castle Crashers is immediately reminiscent of the side-scrolling beat 'em ups of the early 1990s. Games such as Streets of Rage, Final Fight, and Battletoads on the consoles, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, and Captain Commando in the arcades, were hugely popular at the time of their release, offering intense blasts of mayhem coupled with capacity for co-operative play. However, with the advent of 3D gaming, this genre, like many others, fell by the wayside. Modern equivalents ingameplay, such as the Devil May Cry or the rebooted Ninja Gaiden series, follow a strictly solo path. Lots of the fun of early '90s gaming has been pushed online, and into combative, as opposed to co-operative, multiplayer modes – with deathmatch shooting games being the biggest draws.

Castle Crashers is billed as a 'four player adventure', stressing the co-operative element. Furthermore, the game allows both online and local connectivity, so you can hook up with a crosstown buddy, or have some guys over for a 'pizza 'n play' session, whichever suits your style.

Speaking of style, artist Dan Paladin's distinctive graphics make the game stand out. Like The Behemoth's previous game Alien Hominid (a brilliant shooter in the vein of Metal Slug or Contra), Paladin's crude, rude design work gives Castle Crashers bags of personality, character and humor, especially when twinned with programmer Tom Fulp's leftfield approach to tried-and-tested gaming mechanics. This approach, like the rich fantasy artwork of Braid, shows an alternative to the high-definition 3D textures of recent blockbuster games – revealing an altogether different tradition for design.

The story, like most pick-up-and-play games, is minimal. Four knights are having a rad night of partying, when a gaggle of barbarians, led by an evil wizard, steals their chicks, the princesses. This kicks off an epic adventure, traversing marshes, deserts, snowy tundra and even spaceships. Castle Crashers won't win any awards for its storytelling, but from the beginning it is obvious that what little story there is only exists as a springboard for more creative and imaginative work from the designers (including some very memorable boss battles).

Superlative design work and functional narrative aside, Castle Crashers features an important, brilliant tweaking of the side-scrolling beat 'em up formula. The core controls, and gameplay, is still the same. You will constantly move to the right of the screen, beating bad guys with a combination of light or heavy attacks (button-mashing does work, although there are combos on offer). There is also a magic option, with each playable character (4 at the start, whereas over 20 can be unlocked) being given a unique power (fire, ice, lightning, etc). The Behemoth have superimposed an RPG-style framework on top of this simple premise: through battling more enemies, characters gain experience and level up, and players can spend points to improve their character's stats. This isn't as detailed as in true RPGs, such as Mass Effect, but it allows players to customise and personalise their avatars, so they can specialise in magic, agility, defense or strength. Equally, there are pickups such as weapons and animal orbs (a little sidekick who helps out), to bring yet more individuality.

These additions give extra longetivity to the game – the extra items must be discovered, the extra characters must be unlocked, and there's the possibility of maxing out all abilities and reaching level 99. The main story mode, spread over a Super Mario World-style overworld map, is a breeze to play through, and can be finished in an easy 5 hours (genre veterans will barely break a sweat). However, Castle Crashers is a real 'hang-out' game, and those who are taken by its charms will want to make a habit of playing it with friends either online or local. With this game, The Behemoth have succeeded in crafting a fun, fresh spin on a criminally overlooked genre. It is highly recommended.