Awesomenauts‘ zany 1980s look is immediately appealing. Inspiration for the graphics was drawn from Galaxy Rangers and the Earthworm Jim and Bucky O’Hare franchises. The bright shades and disparate characters that clash in the outer-space battlefields send a message that the game is something fun and ridiculous. Aside from everything playing out on a 2D plane, though, nothing felt especially exciting when I first took the controller in my hands at PAX East. My options were pretty much limited to jumping or shooting in the early-going and death came swiftly. That all changed after building up some coin and getting the hang of what was going on. It was then that I began experiencing the joy and gratification the game’s silly character design and pretty colors had initially implied I would.

Playing as a cowboy character named Sheriff Lonestar I ran into the thick of things at the outset and began firing his laser blaster at the mindless drones marching ceaselessly towards my team’s first turret. Someone on the opposition was playing as the heavy robot class and he was relying on his thick armor and powerful weaponry to shred up poor little Lonestar. There are multiple levels to platform between in each map, but the side-scrolling nature of Awesomenauts still made it feel like there wasn’t much room for evasion. That coupled with the fact that there didn’t appear to be any way to recover from damage was making the situation look grim for our team of XBLA Fans writers.

Jasper Koning, co-founder of developer Ronimo Games, picked up on my struggles and pointed out that it was possible to warp back behind the safety of the turrets to purchase upgrades and healing items. After unlocking charged missile shots and a bull that can be deployed after a cool-down to plow a trail forward by knocking foes backwards and pinning them against walls, it was time to get into the fight for real. The bull is an invaluable ability for Lonestar: it allows those playing as him to get out of dangerous close-range encounters with more powerful opponents. Smart players can also lean on it to stuff members of the other team back against their own turrets, creating a situation in which you and your teammates can more easily chip away at enemies and their turrets.

Some of the other upgrades that I eventually purchased hastened the cool-down timer for the bull and allowed Lonestar to perform a triple jump. That led to even more jockeying for positioning as I continually leapt over the heads of those on the other team with the space cowboy’s rocket boots only to whirl around and send out the bull. “There’s a lot of positioning strategy,” Koning would tell me after our playthrough was complete, “and a lot of that gets lost when there’s more than four players — yeah, it just gets too chaotic.”

Eschewing the larger teams of most titles in the genre, all matches in Ronimo’s 2D take on the MOBA formula features three players per side. If either faction is lacking in human participants, its ranks are filled out by AI-controlled bots. Those gamers who’d rather be squaring off against other humans at all times shouldn’t get too discouraged, however; Awesomenauts has drop-in/drop-out play, so bots will be cycled out as more people jump in on the action. The system is designed to cut out those excruciating lobby waits that anyone who has played game online has had the misfortune of sitting through and allow gamers to immediately get in and out of the action and the situation calls for it.

“So in our game we don’t have a lobby system,” Koning explained. “If you pick battle you’ll be online straightaway. And if there’s nobody else, you’ll be hosting a game filled with bots. And if other players come online they’ll replace the bots as they come, and new players get the average amount of currency that other players have, so they’ll be up to speed straightaway.” Although we didn’t get to experience this mechanic during the PAX demo, Koning was firm in his belief that his team has “solved the old problem where you can’t play a game anymore when there’s nobody left. We think that whole system invites people to keep playing, because they always can play, and because they will keep their games open more, the chances improve massively that they find other people.”

When gamers do hook up others in Awesomenauts they’re going to have a heck of a time fighting for ground and escorting the mindless drones to the other team’s turrets and bases. A fast tempo was maintained throughout the match and finding someone or something to shoot at was never an issue despite the compact team size. I always got back into the thick of things shortly after re-spawning and jumping into the chaotic fray was increasingly entertaining each time around.

There appeared to be a healthy number of options for leveling up, making it possible for multiple players to take control of the same character simultaneously and still approach combat differently thanks to varying build options. “Every class can be built in a variety of ways,” Koning confirmed, “and can be played in a variety of ways. So even though we have six characters, there’s lots of ways to upgrade and build them. There’s lots of ways to be successful in the game.”

On the downside, the game will only have three maps when it releases and there currently are no plans to deliver more. One map has a giant invulnerable sandworm at its center, another has a low-gravity area that will make for some “floaty” battles and the last one was described by Koning as being a “traditional League of Legends-style map with a jungle in the middle.”

Instead of upping the map count through DLC, Ronimo is going to bring out more characters, some of which have already been created now that development on Awesomenauts has wrapped. Koning said that quite a few more have already been designed and are currently being tested and balanced internally. He wasn’t yet sure if the team will be doling out the additional characters individually or in packs, but he did mention that the current plan is to keep on supporting the title with content as long as is possible and financially feasible.

It’s difficult to say if the limited number of maps will be able to keep players coming back for more in the long run, but it’s easy to say that I had a great time playing the Awesomenauts demo. Part of the reason for that was that the XBLA Fans crew ended up displaying utter dominance over the opposition — we eventually destroyed all their turrets and bases without losing so much as a single turret of our own.

But most of the fun emanated from desperately fleeing certain doom and maneuvering into a more advantageous spot before reentering combat and turning the tables. That, and the absurd cast of characters that included a frog aptly named “Froggy.” The prospect of tinkering around with the multitude of character upgrades and discovering what builds work best together should prove to be a lot of fun when Ronimo’s game launches on May 2.

Kinect Fans Managing Editor Nick DePetris contributed to this article.