Thursday, March 17, 2011

Newgrounds, BattleBlock Theater, Meeting The Behemoth

When I was in my early teens, my group of friends and I were too young to have the real arcade experience. For older folks going out to the arcade meant having a new gaming experience every time you went out. A huge room full of games could take months to work your way through even if they only cost a few quarters per play and the landscape was so varied. In one corner players were throwing shoryukens at each other while across the room Rick is on a mission to save his girlfriend Jennifer from the Splatterhouse.

My gaming sensibilities came of age in an era where major game releases started to get stale and homogenized. As the Gamecube lost its foothold in the industry gamers wanted more brown and green shooters and less Pikmin. We had less and less interesting titles to play each month and the indie market had yet to bloom with the advent of digital distribution, but there was one sanctuary left for the open-minded gamer. One place allowed independent game developers to share their work with the masses and get constructive criticism from the community. What was once a portal for killing celebrities or working WAY too hard for a poorly drawn picture of a naked anime girl had become a site for ideas to gestate that would become phenomenons. I'm of course talking about

We'd spend our afternoons combing through the flash portal watching music videos, playing games and discovering a world of people who loved games as much as we did, but had the talent to do something with it. People like EgoRaptor and Adam Phillips were creating substantial, professional-quality animations and bringing respectability to the site that was once known for putting Britney Spears in a microwave. My geek friends and I were ecstatic when the site's creator Tom Fulp and artist Dan Paladin created indie game developer The Behemoth. Their first game was an updated retail version of the flash hit Alien Hominid.

Alien Hominid was a callback to 8-and-16-bit run and guns like Contra and Gunstar Heroes that are remembered for their diverse weapon upgrades and extreme difficulty. It even had a Contra-esque co-op mode where a second player played the exact same character. The game was wonderful and a fantastic first title for a new dev, but what really got our attention was the minigame that was packed with the title, PDA Games.

PDA Games was New Super Mario Bros. Wii before New Super Mario Bros. Wii was New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but after Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers was New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

Ok, wait I'm gonna start that over.

PDA Games was a 4-player co-op platformer where the number one mission is to get from point A to point B. Players had the option of joining together for some good old fashioned team work to get past the enemies and obstacles or they could totally dick each other over. Bottomless pits, deadly water and spikes stood between you and the next level and players had to band together by lifting each other or moving items to create a path. I forget how many levels the game had, but it seemed endless and grew even more with the ability to create your own. Again, this was a great way to dick over your friends by placing traps and items where only you knew to find them.

The Behemoth's third game, after Alien Hominid and the runaway XBLA hit Castle Crashers, BattleBlock Theater plays like an updated version of the obscure PDA Games. It loses the customizable levels, but the co-op features are greatly added upon. Players can now toss each other across the board, help each other up ledges, or use their teammates' corpses as stepping stones across dangerous paths. Yes, dicking each other over also made the transfer. In addition to harkening back to the little known PDA Games, BattleBlock Theater is packed with nods to The Behemoth's history. I saw an enemy wearing the same sunglasses and earpiece as the agents from Alien Hominid and was assured that there is plenty more where that came from.

I got some play time with the upcoming title at PAX East last week, but that's not even the really cool part. Much like the 4-player Castle Crashers cabinet that The Behemoth crew totes around from show to show, the BBT kiosks were housed in sweet 2-player arcade cabs and I got to play the game with designer Dan Paladin, who does all the art for The Behemoth's games. I've admired Dan for years now and was dumbfounded at the chance to play his own game with him. I managed to keep the nerd levels at a minimum and remain all business during the demo, but what happened next was just as rad. I had an interview scheduled at their booth and Dan was a little busy after our game so he called over someone else to talk to me. The guy approached me with an outstretched hand and said, "Hi, I'm Tom." "FULP?!" I stuttered and I think he understood what a fan I was. After a few seconds of gushing we chatted about the title and everything I heard just made me more excited to play it.

Right now the title is only set for an XBLA release with no set date or price. So be on the lookout for BattleBlock Theater. Being the follow up to Castle Crashers gives it some big, bloody boots to fill but I'm sure it will be a hit.

 Everything, by everyone

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