"Conan, what is best in life?"
[b][i] "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!"
An unfortunate side-effect of the Great Arcade Implosion of Ought-Ought was the loss of a communal, physical, player experience. Gone are the days where the aficionado could stride into a dimly lit gaming paradise and make a brief but meaningful connection between Man (and Man, and Man and Man) and Machine. Today, we are content to sit on our sofas. Desperate for contact, we unfurl electronic feelers, listening to each other speak in glorious monophone. But there's hardly ever anyone at our side to cheer us on.
Once upon a time, the gamerkind clustered around arcade cabinets to watch as a quartets of mutants, superheroes, adolescent reptiles, or sword-and-spell archetypes laid waste to the forces of darkness. One was either in the thick of it - working with a group of strangers-turned-allies as quarters, and chances for success, rapidly diminished - or watched intently from the sidelines. In our innocence, we never had to worry about code instabilities or corrupted game data. Victory and crushing disappointment cemented the seams of our imagined community, a common goal united us in hope.
Castle Crashers evokes memories of brawlers long forsaken. If the Xbox could somehow emit a puff of nicotine-flavored smoke every half hour, I'd swear I was back in my favorite arcade circa 1992.
It's apparent that the guys at The Behemoth spent many a youthful hour beating the pulp out of generic baddies. One of their intro credit sequences pays homage to River City Ransom's character naming screen. There's also a level similar to Golden Axe's campsite stages, complete with annoying little thieves out to steal your loot, reptile creature rides and music. These little touches are uniquely comforting, like a secret pop-culture handshake accompanied by a knowing wink.
Plotwise, you're getting a thin justification to inflict violence upon others. An Evil Sorcerer steals the castle's four princesses and magic gem. Players retrieve them, acquire stat-boosting pets and weapons in the process, vanquish evil. Partying ensues. However, Castle Crashers shines when it comes to presenting a lively world and environments to slash through. Some may be dismissive of the pseudo Flash aesthetic, but Dan Paladin's art creates a charmingly diverse group of enemies to face, with nary a palette swap crutch to be seen. There's also a fair bit of humor to distract you from the button mashing, a true rarity in the genre.
As is the case with most beat 'em up brawlers, the “proper” way to play Castle Crashers is in a multiplayer environment, preferably with a squad of buddies on your couch, a pizza in the oven, and a smörgåsbord of chips and drinks at the ready. That's not to say that a single-player run is inordinately difficult or boring, (I've run through the game with 6 characters, myself) but a solo run can't accurately recreate the frantic chaos of having four separate color-coded knights trudging though the battlefield. That's the reason I bought the game. That's the reason I finally sprang for another wireless controller. Make no mistake about it, I wanted to hit people, and I wanted my roommates/anonymous Xbox Live partners to help me do it.
By the roommate metric, it's a rousing success. The online environment, that's a different story.
That The Behemoth, a development house composed of about half a dozen people, has delivered such a satisfying experience is worthy of much praise. Castle Crashers is only their second commercial release, yet it earned a prime spot amongst Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotional event. It should be one of the success stories that Microsoft rolls out when touting the flexibility of the XBLA platform. How they managed to do it without causing the game's sole artist to develop crippling arthritis will forever remain a mystery. But the title isn't without its major failings.
The LIVE component is essentially broken. I've spent endless minutes trying to find other players to party with, only to be kicked back to a title screen because the lobby I was about to enter mysteriously vanished. Even if I find a group to adventure with, there's a particularly nasty bug prone to striking online players – one that deletes a person's weapons & animal orbs, and can reset their experience level back to square one. At times, it feels as if I'm playing Russian roulette with the progress I've made in the game. That's not really a feeling that's warm and fuzzy.
Thankfully these issues have been acknowledged by The Behemoth, and the team is currently working with Microsoft to get a patch up and out. I have no doubts that Castle Crashers will be a strong game eventually, especially if the title update includes a way to join a game from one's friends list (a-la Halo 3). When that update hits, I'll have no qualms about recommending it to others. But as it stands, the game feels woefully incomplete without a functioning, stable online component.
It's like I've made it to the last level and, as the continue countdown timer whittles away, I realize that I'm out of quarters.