PAX East: Making frienemies in Battleblock Theater
This summer will mark four years since The Behemoth-developed beat ’em up Castle Crashers made its debut on Xbox Live Arcade and quickly became the go-to cooperative game for seemingly every XBLA gamer with three people on their friends list. The tiny studio behind the game hasn’t rested on its laurels since achieving well-deserved success by capturing gamers’ hearts with Crashers — its followup to Alien Hominid — though. The team, which now boasts a whopping two full-time artists, has been slaving away at Battleblock Theater for more than three years now.
This past weekend the team dragged its stellar co-op platformer out to PAX East for the second year in a row, but you won’t hear anyone complaining, especially not yours truly, about once again playing the game at the annual Boston convention. Unless of course, they’re begroaning the fact that the title is still only playable in custom-made arcade cabinets at cons and not in the homes of Xbox owners everwhere. The impatience is understandable to some degree; Battleblock looks and plays wonderfully, so gamers want it for themselves. Now. Despite appearing to be quite far along in development, however, the game is still sporting a non-specific TBA 2012 release date.
Although the wait might be getting unbearable for some fans, it looks like all of us will be rewarded for holding on when this one finally comes out. Jumping and punching through the stages of the world’s first reality theater performance was even more fun the second time around. And
accidentally intentionally tossing your co-op partner to his death? Yeah, that hasn’t gotten any less enjoyable.
A few months back the studio announced that it was going to retool the game a bit like it had with Crashers before it. Although it was difficult to spot any tangible changes during my time with the platformer, it was clear that something was different, something was better.
It’s possible that it had something to do with having played the game once already, but the level design just felt smarter and more intuitive this time around. Last year it was unclear to me and the individual I played with what exactly we were supposed to be doing — well, besides beating each other up for the heck of it, that is. Playing alongside a fellow XBLA Fans staffers and Battleblock newcomers Nick DePetris and Perry Jackson this time felt just right, however.
After a few moments were spent getting acclimated to the controls and chucking each other’s characters into a pit just because we could, we got right down to it. Things rolled along smoothly as we made our way through several stages, only being hindered by baddies and tricky platforming, never by “Where do we go now?” syndrome.
There weren’t any real hangups as we made our way towards the clear destination, even though the Depetris elected to take every possible opportunity to punch my character or throw him into a perilous situation. He claimed it was mostly accidental contact, but let’s be real: he just wanted all the glory for himself, like the game’s main villain who lands the protagonist, his former friend, in hot water by greedily pursuing gold and gems. Sure, I kept shooting him with what appeared to be a plunger bazooka, but that actually was by accident. Possibly. Maybe. Probably not.
Yes, Behemoth’s platformer is designed with the intention of having partners screw with each other whenever their cooperation isn’t necessary to proceed. Players do have to work together at times, though; so we occasionally threw each other safely to the other side of a pit, rather than to our deaths at the bottom of it. The frienemies dynamic is a blast and it should make for a great experience when played in groups both on and offline.
Dying in the 2D platformer only returns one to a nearby checkpoint, which further encourages tomfoolery and experimentation. At one point I came across a row of lava blocks making up the floor and ceiling ahead. In most games the first instinct would be to find another way around. Not so in Battleblock. Much like the dastardly cats in the game, I let curiosity get the best of me and just jumped in as far as possible, knowing damn well that it wouldn’t be far enough to clear the hazard. Surprisingly, it was the correct move. My character took some damage but landed safely on the other side after getting comically bounced through the stretch of volcanic blocks.
From what we saw, it would seem that if you think it’s a
crazy good idea in Battleblock, then it probably is. Feeling a bit flummoxed by a seemingly insurmountable wall, I did what any gamer would: mashed the buttons in desperation. Seeing the plungers stick to the wall I thought it might be cool if I could jump on top of them to scale up the wall. It turned out to be precisely what had to be done. Little moments like those put a smile on my face.
So did tossing Nick DePetris to his doom. Yeah, that’s fun, too.