Years ago, before the Xbox 360 launch, when the Live Arcade was just a pipe dream and Microsoft brains were envisioning what the pinnacle of XBLA could be, it was probably something like the idea of Castle Crashers. I say the "idea" of Castle Crashers, because anyone could imagine a multi-player 2D brawler with great co-op gameplay, but no one could imagine it like Dan Paladin and Tom Fulp, the minds behind the Behemoth.
Castle Crashers is an absolute blast. It features a perfect fusion of time-tested gameplay, an unbelievable amount of creative artistry, and enough additions to a classic formula to create a uniquely fun game that still triggers nostalgia.
The game plays much like the 2D side-scrolling brawlers you may have played in arcades: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games, the X-Men arcade game, or even Streets of Rage. You and up to three friends walk to the right, smash bad guys, and maybe take on a mini-boss on the way to the stage-ending big bad guy.
Simple? Yes, but the amazing hand-illustrated graphics and incredibly creative character designs (a giant cat, a mutant corn ear, and a hulking barbarian wildebeest…thing) make the game a joy to look at.
The combat system is good, too. As players level up, they gain access to new moves and combos automatically, and can assign skill points to attacks, defense, speed, and the very interesting magic powers. Each of the four knights available at the outset (many more characters are unlockable in multiple playthroughs) have different spells that really make a difference in character selection.
While the game can be played alone, co-op with as many people as you can muster is the way to go. While full four-player playthroughs will get chaotic with dozens of sprites on-screen at a time, the sense of teamwork (when protecting one player while he revives a fallen comrade) and competition (when the surviving players fight for a princess’s favor at the end of a boss fight) weave together for an incredibly entertaining multi-player experience.
Despite the initial connection problems over Xbox Live, playing online co-op is great fun (maybe not as great as you and three friends on a couch). Also entertaining are the competitive modes, although most of your time should be spent playing Arena. Sideshow modes like Treasure Hunt don’t work as well as the every-man-for-himself brawling found in Arena mode.
There isn’t much to dislike about Castle Crashers, but it does have its flaws: it’s almost impossible to discern the stats of a new weapon when you pick it up, and even going back to the game’s armory in between levels, the rules for selecting and using a weapon, and whether it’s an improvement over your current armament.
Also, since the game does have such a distinct art style, sometimes it can be difficult to tell when you’re hitting one of the very 2D enemies. Players can get hidden behind giant enemies and have no way to see where they are or what they’re doing. Finally, in some instances (the boat) it’s almost impossible to know where to go to get the quest items you need to progress (and sometimes when you pick up an item, it will reset and not be in your inventory any longer).
Minor problems aside, Castle Crashers is old-school fun with a decidedly new-school flavor. For only $15, it’s easily one of the best buys right now in gaming on a pure dollar-per-pound of fun you’ll get out of it. Unless you absolutely loathe brawlers, Castle Crashers needs to be played.