I’m going to be doing this whole favorite games of the year thing in reverse, starting with my number one and counting down. Each post will be an exploration of the games I have played this year and why they are remarkable in my eyes. Most of them will not be talked about on any end of year lists by the mainstream, but heavily influence my creation process. Also be prepared to dive into some history leading up to my enjoyment of each game as well as I do not believe at looking at games in a void.
It’s 2013 and the beat ’em up genre is on life support. There are a number of reasons why that it is, far too many for me to list here. A key problem with the genre is that at best it is usually misunderstood for what makes it great, both in people’s gap filled recollections of the games of old and overly simplistic comparisons between those games and others that bare basic resemblance. In many ways people don’t really know why they like the genre, they just know they liked it at one time and when some of them go out to create a new one, they fail on fundamental levels.
The independent games uprising of the last decade has seen a resurgence in interest in creating the brawler to some extent. At least a few games have come out and were lauded almost simply for being new brawlers that people could play with their friends on new consoles or PC. The two biggest titles, recognition wise, were Scott Pilgrim, a game that was positioned as being a lot like the legendary title River City Ransom, and Castle Crashers.
When we look at side scrolling brawlers for what makes them great at a deeper level, the classic River City Ransom holds up quite well while most newer releases, of which Castle Crashers & Scott Pilgrim are included, don’t, mostly because they seem to leave out things that made the genre great in the first place without infusing enough new ideas that actually add, and not detract, from the overall experience. That isn’t surprising to me though, as RCR was created by Technos, the team that pretty much set the standards for the beat ’em up genre (but also made Combatribes so…).
Castle Crashers is often confused with being like Guardian Heroes, a game made by another legendary Japanese developer, Treasure, for the Sega Saturn in the 1990s. Castle Crashers is almost nothing like Guardian Heroes, and aside from being a game where you walk to the side mashing on buttons to do combos, is missing a lot of what makes an excellent brawler. A key aspect that Castle Crashers is missing is player character differentiation, an aspect that might not seem so important, but is actually fairly vital.
The first releases of brawlers often included 2 plus playable characters that all played pretty much the same and were often a bunch of dudes. This changed drastically in 1991 when Streets of Rage was released, featuring the classic white dude in jeans along with an iconic female character and a black dude. This same year saw the release of Karate Blazers, a game with four men with different powers, much like the Ninja Turtles games of old. The tide had already been changing in the multiplayer brawler space with Final Fight being a series that had three distinct characters suited to different play styles. This meant that players could own their experience while playing the game, and even a single player could play the game knowing she picked the character that she wanted to, as opposed to being given mostly cosmetic choices.
It seems like the developer of Castle Crashers, The Behemoth, was harkening back to that very problematic ideal and made the characters all look and effectively function the same; 4 pudgy iconic male knights all standing at the same stumpy height and aiming to rescue a princess with very little variance beyond armor color & the magic attacks used(fire, ice, etc.). In creating 4 palette swapped heroes, this reverted to the old character select where meaning was stripped away.