Crashing Castles

Sometimes the best games are the cheapest

The living room of my tiny house is a testament to a kind of poor short-term financial planning common to the early adult years. Hand-me-down easy chairs and a secondhand couch surround an altar to digital consumerism, a Christmas tree of metal, glass, and plastic ornamented with consoles, strung with component cables, and topped by a television, the monthly payments of which rival my Metro Pulse income.

After a long day of doing all those awesome things I do, I go home to this money-sink of wasted youth and, in a small fit of cosmic irony, play the hell out of two games that cost less than $15 each, could have been made 15 years ago, and take up less memory than the word processor on which I write this column. Stepping back from it, I can't help but feel that someone is laughing at me.

On one hand we have Castle Crashers, a side-scrolling beat-'em-up from veterans The Behemoth. "Side-scrolling beat-'em-up!" you're probably saying. "I liked this idea better the first time, when it was a 20-year-old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game."

I thought the same thing for about five seconds. By then, the opening scene had already shown my blue knight throwing goats, headbanging to the tunes of a medieval bard, and setting out for revenge after a silent evil wizard has kidnapped the knight's four princesses.

"Oh," I realized. "It's one of those."

Castle Crashers relentlessly serves up heaping orders of squat, cartoonish action, and its bevy of customizable character options gives players an equally relentless menu for their own buffet of kicking ass and taking names. It's remarkably over-the-top for such a lightweight piece of code. A typical encounter features between one and four player-controlled knights (or barbarians, or thieves, or medieval clockwork warriors) riding sharks into battle against a giant amphibious cat, or trekking through a lava-strewn volcanic zone to fight a dragon and his angry sock-puppet friend, or catapulting themselves to, as the title suggests they might, crash into a castle.

Efficiently so, too. Some of the game involves simple tricks of programming that might have originally been bugs. Leaping knights can juggle their foes, defying physics by repeatedly pole-vaulting off battered enemy faces until boredom kicks in and a quick airborne magical spell brings blessed death to a few dozen foes.

It's longer, more detailed, and more fluid in its gameplay than its decades-old predecessors. Though not the deepest in terms of storyline (and intentionally so), Castle Crashers provides a flawlessly streamlined action experience with a remarkable capacity for replay.

On the other side of practically every old-school spectrum is Telltale Games' Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People. Based on Mike and Matt Chapman's Homestar Runner web-cartoon series, the five episodes of the game follow series mischief-maker Strong Bad as he does things.

You see, saying that the game has a plot is like saying that your 3-year-old brother has a plot when he's in the kitchen banging pans together and singing off-key songs about how great he is. There's a "plot" there, sure—the first episode, entitled "Homestar Ruiner," details Strong Bad's attempt to challenge Homestar Runner in the Free Country USA Tri-Annual Race to the End of the Race.

On paper it sounds threadbare, and its gameplay appears equally so. At its heart it's a point-and-click adventure of the oldest sort, requiring players to follow a trail of breadcrumbs and rewarding them with a funny piece of storyline for their efforts, but looking at it like that is missing the point.

Strong Bad shines primarily in its treatment of its surreal source material. Its humor leans toward the in-joke, but non-regulars quickly catch up once they realize that it rarely means to make sense. Free Country USA is the kind of environment Rod Serling would have dreamed up if his life's calling was kid shows, and Telltale plays the lighthearted bizarreness of the setting to the hilt.

Strong Bad is a cross between Billy Mumy's Twilight Zone god-child, a mustache-twirling silent-film villain, and the glammiest glam metal rocker of the 1980s. His schemes are perennially reduced to comic relief when confronted with the guileless, effortlessly victorious Homestar Runner, and as a continuation of that theme, Strong Bad's first interactive attempt to foil Homestar plays as a hilarious send-up of a hundred hapless John Hughes antagonists.