21 Apr

With the demise of video arcades, the world also saw the death of side-scrolling cooperative beat ‘em ups. The genre did see its share of success in the console realm with games like Battletoads, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time and River City Ransom, but when the gaming world transitioned into the third dimension, beat ‘em ups were being left behind. Occasionally former 2 dimensional games would be given a 3 dimensional makeover, but it rarely worked well. Publishers used the classic games as marketing opportunities to cash in on “generation nostalgia.” The formerly glorious Golden Axe is a perfect excellent example of how the mighty have fallen. It seemed as though the beat ‘em up genre had been forgotten.

Then Castle Crashers heroically stepped into the light.

Castle Crashers is everything that was once great in arcades minus the quarter slots and decorative cabinets. Initially you have the choice of playing as one of four generic knights: the Red Knight, the Blue Knight, the Green Knight and the Yellow Knight. You can play with up to four players simultaneously either locally or through Xbox Live.

As the story begins you are rocking away in the pub when suddenly an injured white knight violently crashes through the door and dies in the typical arcade manner—he flashes and disappears. As you leave the pub to discover the source of the commotion, you witness an evil dark wizard stealing the king’s giant jewel and his henchmen kidnap your appropriately hair-colored girlfriends.

The game controls exactly as it should. In order to win back your girlfriends and defeat the evil wizard and his twisted henchmen, you first need to hack and slash your way through hundreds of foot soldiers. At your disposal is a fast attack, a strong attack, a ranged attack and a magic attack. The more enemies you dispatch, the more experience you earn.  You achieve levels much like a role-playing game. You can then use skill points to increase your attack power, defense, magic, or quickness / ranged attack. The entire experience brings gaming back to its roots and anyone who is picking up the controller for the first time will instinctively know what to do.

Aside from leveling up your knights, you can also find and use newer and stronger weapons. You have your choice of staves, swords (including a lightsaber-like sword), clubs and more. Along the way, you’ll also encounter pets that will accompany you throughout your journey. Pets constantly float directly behind your character like the familiars from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. They offer stat boosts to your knights, so you can be selective as to which pet you’d like to bring to each battle.

You can unlock several playable characters, all of which can be leveled up just like the four knights. There are also battle arenas to test your beat ‘em up mettle against a seemingly endless horde of foot soldiers. With the recent downloadable content on Xbox Live adding more characters, pets and weapons, Castle Crashers offers hours of replay value. There is another content pack in development that will bring more weapons and characters to the game. Completionists will have their hands full with Castle Crashers.

Visually, the game is drawn in a cartoon style. The style is similar to shows like Invader Zim or Samurai Jack where the characters models are intentionally over-simplified, filled with flat colors and the contour edges are an exaggerated black. It works well.

For a cartoon-themed game, it has a surprising amount of cartoon gore. It’s not disturbing to adult gamers, but if you have little ones in the room, you can easily turn off the “gore” in the options.

The game never ever takes itself seriously. There are plenty of poop jokes spread around but it doesn’t distract from the action. It’s as if Ren & Stimpy were cross-bred with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When you combine the humor, style and nonstop action of the game you find that Castle Crashers is the perfect game for almost everyone. It’s fun for the hardcore gamer. It’s humorous for the casual gamer.  And it’s approachable for the non-gamer. With the four-player co-op ability, Castle Crashers makes for a fantastic small party game.

Castle Crashers is not just a great game, but it is the reason to own an Xbox 360 if you’re an Elder-Geek.

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