Whenever I see that ESRB label on a game warning rheumy teenagers about "Cartoon Violence" there's only one game I think of: Worms.
Worms has been around since 1994, when developer Team17 released it for the soon-to-be-dead Commodore Amiga platform. But I didn't discover the series until Worms 2 almost exactly 10 years ago. Worms 2 dropped into my world along side X-wing vs. Tie Fighter and Quake 2. 1997 was a very good year. DirectX was just gaining traction, OpenGL was fully established, and there were more ways to blow things up then ever before. A slow-paced, turn-based cartoon platformer death match title was a much needed dose of lighthearted fun in the midst of that all-too-serious competitive mayhem. I played so much Quake 2 in 1997 that I would frequently emerge from the basement with my forhead hot and hands aching, and my nerves twitched out. Worms was my soothing balm.
When Worms Armageddon arrived in 1999, the game had gelled into its finest form. Online play become the point of playing. It also hit at a time in my life when I worked elbow-to-elbow with 4 of my best friends on a dotcom-era frenzied trading floor. By 4:30 on any given weekday, we we're fried. Our brains were pureed, mixed with adrenaline and imbibed with a shot of espresso. One afternoon, I broke out a present -- 5 copies of Worms Armageddon. For nearly a year, every trading day ended with a beer and a series of heated slow motion battles.
Worms World Party followed in 2001, but for me, the polish had worn off the gem that was Worms Armageddon. WWP was followed by an abysmal attempt to expand the franchise into the world of 3d graphics. Worms3d, Worms Forts: Under Siege and Worms 4: Mayhem were sad attempts to bring back the glory that was Worms at it's dotcom peak.
With these fond memories, I was both excited and worried at the prospect of Worms' return in Xbox Live Arcade clothes.
For the uninitiated, the basic structure has always remained the same. Players (from 2 to 4) take turns. On your turn, one of your small animated nematodes activates. You then maneuver, inchworm style, select a weapon from your arsenal, and eviscerate the enemy.
While a ridiculous concept in both theory and execution, the Worms magic has always been based on three charms, all of which are present in this new 800-point gem.
-- Style. Worms is a cartoon -- a deformed broad-stroke, simple palette Looney Toon. The Worms holler out in squeaky wormy voices. They leave little bouncing tombstones when they die -- always by Acme Company self-explosion, complete with plunger detonator. The first worms was 2D in every sense of the word -- pixels weren't even wasted on shading. In the new Worms, the feel remains the same, but the graphics are polished, the background is out of focus and gently animated, water effects are 360-pretty and the rare special effect is lovingly rendered. The soundtrack, while new, is nostalgic for any fan of the series. Worms have high-pitched comic answers for every situation (in multiple languages, in case you want your worms to taunt in Japanese).
-- Weapons. Over the years, there have been more than 60 weapons in the Worms arsenal, ranging from the obvious (revolvers and grenades) to the insane (Holy Hand Grenades, exploding octogenarians and sheep). In bringing Worms to the 360, Team17 faced a challenge; they needed to make the game accessible to the (cough) casual Xbox Live Arcade user, but still capture the twisted mayhem of the series for the experienced worm-herder. In the end, they opted for a kind of greatest hits collection. They focussed on weapons with minimum of random chance, and retained those that reward skill and planning. The key movement "weapons" are all present -- jetpack, ninja ropes, and the teleport button. The silly weapons (Banana Bomb, exploding sheep) are all useful and require real finesse.
-- Environment. Worms relies on destructible environments. Not the kind that high-gloss first person shooters polish up and strut out at E3, but actual landscapes that blow up. Using the environment is the key to actually winning at worms: dropping your enemies into the drink, blow torching murder holes from which to bounce grenades, ricocheting grenades off the roof. The handful of basic layouts provided in the 360 version capture the strategic value of terrain perfectly.
To this beloved trio of game play boosters, the Xbox Live Arcade version brings new joy. As with all Live titles, the simplicity of simply starting a game, inviting your enemies, and then chatting with them is unique and wonderful. I find myself taking it for granted when I move over to play a PC game, and find myself having to actually work at getting the chat right, the invites right, and the servers set up. This simplicity anchors Xbox Live Arcade's ability to be a casual hangout -- a place you go to just chat with friends while you occupy your hands. Something to do when the conversation lulls. This shoot-the-breeze play space is perfectly suited for Worms. While the game can be competitive, it's the happy accidents that make the game so much fun. Blowing yourself up with a poorly timed Dynamite drop is often far funnier than a straight-up Tarantino shotgun execution.
There's no question that Worms is worth the ten bucks. I've wasted more money on a bad movie countless times. But I can't help wanting more. I want more of everything. I want more weapons. I want more terrain variety. Every new player will want more just in general. Every old player will want something specific. For my part, I want my worms to be tossing Holy Hand Grenades while swearing in a bad Scottish accent.
If you think that sounds odd, just wait till you play the game.