Saturday, January 17, 2009

joie de multiplayer

i swear vince vaughn is in everything now

I will tell you this right now – if you’re playing Castle Crashers by yourself, you’re doing it wrong. Stop it right now. Get a group of friends, pay for a Live account, whatever you want, just please play this with some other people.

It’s not that this is an awful single-player game – it isn’t at all, even if it is maybe a little dull. Like Streets of Rage and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles titles before it, Castle Crashers is a straightforward brawler – a little repetitive if you’re just playing it by yourself, but with extra people around to yell at, tons of fun.

Crashers is the second game from game developer The Behemoth, which has its roots in weird-ass Flash cartoon Web site Newgrounds. Most Newgrounds content is best suited for boys aged 12-17, and some of that sensibility shows here – for the life of me I can’t figure out why every other thing in the game needs to either defecate profusely or make a fart sound – but the game mostly holds together visually and aurally. The exaggerated and cartoony art style is in the same vein as The Behemoth’s previous effort, Alien Hominid, but has been significantly cleaned up. I thought Hominid’s graphics were a bit too sloppy, often to the point that they would further confuse or obscure the already frantic on-screen action, but everything in Crashers is pretty crisp and clear. The game no longer looks like it was built on the same engine as the BadgerBadgerBadger cartoon – keep this look, The Behemoth. It works for you.

Regardless of how it sounds or how it looks or even how it plays, Crashers is a fighting game, and like all different styles of fighting game – your Street Fighters, Mortal Kombats, Killer Instincts and Soul Caliburs, even your Super Smash Brosthe thing borders on boring without other people. That’s not the game’s fault, and it’s doesn’t mean the thing is bad, but since their genesis in the arcade, this style of game has been tailored specifically for play with or against another person, and without the trash talk and the competition and the swearing, it just loses some of its luster.

In fact, lots of games are significantly enhanced by multiple players. Mario Kart is at its best with every seat filled, Contra is infinitely more satisfying if you’ve got a wingman, and even a thoroughly single-player game like Mario Galaxy is more fun with someone manning the second remote picking up stuff and stunning enemies. Online RPGs and first-person shooters all require lots of players to function as they should.

All of this challenges the image of the gamer as a basement-dwelling loner, unwilling or unable to emerge from underneath his (or her?) rock and interact with other creatures. One of the last and most enduring legacies of the arcade, many games are (or work much better as) social experiences, even if many of these interactions do take place over the Internet. Think of all the less-frowned-upon social interaction that goes on in your browser window – Facebook and Myspace are in practically everybody’s tubes these days, and some studies suggest that online interactions are becoming just as important to normal social development as other forms of contact. We’ve all been using AIM since 1997. I regularly keep in touch with college friends in my GChat window, which strikes me as vastly preferable to the days when a handwritten letter every couple of months was the best option available. Yes, some of the people who log 50 hours in World of Warcraft every week may reinforce every single stereotype associated with the game’s millions of players, but they’re still talking and interacting with real people somewhere down the line, which is more than they’re often given credit for. It’s not something I would ever do myself, but I can respect that this might be the way in which they are most comfortable dealing with others. To each his (or her?) own.

Most games are meant for sharing, so even if you don’t have friends close at hand, put on your headset and sign into Live and crash some castles with some people living across the country from you. It’s fun, and stigma aside, there are worse ways to keep in touch.