BattleBlock Theater

A game by The Behemoth for PC, Linux, and Xbox 360, originally released in 2013.
BattleBlock Theater begins with you and your friends getting shipwrecked (yes, it is a “friend ship”) on an island run by cats. The cats run a theater/prison where they force their captives to perform onstage for the amusement of an unseen feline audience. These performances act as the game’s levels and offer a number of traditional platforming challenges in tile-based worlds. You will hear applause when you perform well, and each level is bookended by the movement of theater curtains and iron bars.

From the start, the game’s presentation stands at the forefront, with an overblown voice narrating the opening scenes, which are presented in a stick puppet fashion, complete with the movement and shaking you would expect if the figures were being manipulated by puppeteers offstage. While there is plenty of story and many cutscenes to be had – and the narrator’s voice pops in throughout your adventure – this is mostly in place for humorous purposes.

The prison area acts as a hub world, allowing you to enter doorways and take on individual levels. Collecting gems within the levels causes more doors to open, allowing you to complete some levels out of order if you wish. You must work your way toward the challenging final level in each area, which opens up the next world, as well as a few additional optional levels.

The final challenge areas are considerably more strict than the rest of the game, presenting the player with a countdown timer – with a few seconds restored for each checkpoint crossed – and a challenging arena packed with enemies and obstacles. Unlike other areas where there is little penalty for failure, allowing the clock to run down will see you sent back to the beginning of the level to try again from scratch.

New mechanics, interactibles, and enemy types are slowly introduced throughout the first half of the game, and iterated upon thereafter across more than 100 levels in 8 themed worlds. You begin with a jump and a double jump, as well as a number of combat moves that allow you to punch, shove, and throw your enemies (or your friend in co-op), often killing them by sending them into other hazards such as water, spikes, or electricity.

Players also have projectile weapons at their disposal, and the enemies make use of these as well. The first available weapon is a mine that can be tossed through the air like a Frisbee, stunning enemies if it hits them, and exploding after a few seconds to destroy any deadly cats standing nearby… and the player if he stands too close. There are several additional weapons to be unlocked, including boomerangs, bouncing balls, and electrical orbs. These are technically referred to as “weapon tools” as some offer secondary effects that assist in navigation or co-op play. For instance, one weapon allows you to fire bubbles upward at an angle, but you can also bounce off of these bubbles, allowing you to set up another player to bounce up and grab an out-of-the-way collectible.

The game’s primary collectibles are the green gems that are scattered throughout the levels, usually 6 or 7 in each. Only 3 gems are required to complete the level, but collecting more allows you to open up additional levels and they can be spent to bribe guards to free your captured friends. Each rescued friend becomes a new playable character, which you can select from the character customization interface.

Other collectibles come in the form of yarn (the island is run by cats after all). Finding the hidden yarn ball in each level gives you currency with which to purchase new weapon tools. Finding the yarn and all of the gems in each level contributes to your end-of-level ranking, as does beating the level’s goal time. Achieving higher rankings adds more gems to your coffers, offering a bit of replay for those who wish to return to previous levels and unlock everything. Each world also contains a secret level – with an amusing bonus level theme song (though not quite as amusing as the one from Skullmonkeys) – that can be discovered by thoroughly exploring every nook and cranny.

Most of the levels aren’t terribly difficult in and of themselves, but some gems and most yarn balls are placed in out-of-the-way areas or beyond challenging obstacles. There is little penalty for failure, however, as you have infinite lives and frequent checkpoints, and even if you do grab a gem and immediately fall to your death, the gem remains in your inventory. Enemies are generally in place to make passage through the area more difficult, though most attacks only stun you for a moment, unless you find yourself flung back into some environmental hazard. If you do manage to get stuck somewhere, the game offers a suicide button that will bounce you back to your most recent checkpoint, again with your collected items intact.

Understanding the properties of each block type is key to your success when navigating the environments. For instance, clouds operate as 1-way platforms (although you can’t drop down through them as in other platformers), hot blocks will burn you and send you flying up into the air our bouncing back and forth through narrow passages, and slime blocks are sticky and will let you slowly slide down a wall, but will also keep you from moving quickly if you run across the top of them. Certain blocks can be pushed, pulled, or picked up and moved around the environment as well.

Many objects are in place to act as dangers or obstacles, including fans that push you upwards to reach new platforms (or into spikes if you’re not careful), toasters that cook you, spring boards that fling you through the air, and generators that send out wide beams of electricity. Again, each of these dangers is introduced a bit at a time to allow you to get used to how they function, and all of these affect enemies in the same way, allowing you to use them to your advantage to dispatch foes.

Of course, you also have traditional moving platforms – traditional in that they move, not traditional in that they are giant furry cat cubes – that slide back and forth, teleporters that do teleporty things, and ladders that let you climb up to new areas and even across ceilings. Water acts as both a hazard and a method of transportation. Falling into water will kill you, but using a boat will allow you to sail from one side to the other. Part of the challenge, however, is getting the boat to the water by pushing it along the ground or manipulating other objects in the environment, such as triggering exploding blocks to cause the boat to fall down. You can also put your hand in the water and call a boat to float over to your position.

There are several timed powerups that can be used for environmental navigation and puzzle solving, including a jetpack that lets you blast upward quickly, a propeller that lets you float upward slowly and across gaps, and wings that let you flap around Joust-style. Various critters impact gameplay as well, such as the antlered raccoons that chase you down, 4-legged critters that can be ridden over spikes, and a green bird that will swallow you… only to crap you out a moment later and send you flying through the air.

The entirety of the campaign can be completed by a single player or in 2P online or offline co-op. Levels played in cooperative mode are balanced in such a way as to use the player’s support capabilities. For instance, tall ledges may require one player to stand on the other’s head, jump, and then pull the second player up. You can also toss the other player across gaps, or have one player activate a button while the other player runs in to collect a gem or ball of yarn. In co-op, players can also exchange items and weapons in a special Trading Booth in the hub world. Of course, you are also free to push your co-op compadre off of ledges, uppercut him into spikes, and otherwise shove him into harm’s way. The low penalty for death also means a low penalty for griefing your partner, allowing for some rollicking multiplayer gameplay.

An arena mode allows for up to 4 players to take part in a variety of modes, such as Ball Game where players attempt to score as many baskets as possible while using their various melee moves to thwart other players' attempts to do the same. Muckle awards players higher point values for killing their competitors in creative ways (drowning, burning, electrocuting, etc.). There are also several more traditional multiplayer modes, such as king of the hill, races, and capture the flag events.

A level editor has been included as well. Given the tile-based nature of the levels’ designs, you are free to create levels that rival the complexity of those found in the main campaign. What’s more, you can string levels together, create challenge areas, and even drop in a secret level, allowing you to create an entire game world. Once you have built your world, you may test it online and then upload it for other players to enjoy/curse.

With user generated content, players who thoroughly enjoy the BattleBlock Theater experience are offered plenty of original content to explore, on top of the huge array of unlockable characters, weapons, and character customization options. In addition, a harder difficulty is also available for those who wish to return to the game and attempt another go without the use of checkpoints.

BattleBlock Theater was developed by The Behemoth, a company that was on the crest of the 2D gaming resurgence with their 2004 hit Alien Hominid, which made a splash in a sea of 3D releases. Soon after, digital distribution platforms came into their own, giving rise to a number of quality 2D games, as well as 2007 HD re-release of their premiere title in Alien Hominid HD. The Behemoth followed this up in 2008 with another original 2D game, Castle Crashers, which – along with Braid, which was released in the same year – demonstrated that the world was ready for a return to 2D.

Alien Hominid
Alien Hominid was originally released as a Flash game in 2002 and later made its way to consoles as a GameCube exclusive. The core gameplay remained intact, but the artwork was redrawn, the boss AI was improved, and new levels were added. The game’s popularity warranted ports to PS2, Xbox, and PC, as well as an HD re-release on XBLA.

The game features hand-drawn backgrounds and cutesy characters with exaggerated animations, and no small amount of squirting cartoonish blood, as well as dismemberment and decapitations. The simple yet quirky style – created by lead artist Dan Paladin – set the tone for The Behemoth’s later releases. Your primary enemies are FBI and KGB agents, but you also face off against a variety of inventive bosses and minibosses across the game’s 16-level shootfest.

The gameplay here is much less forgiving than the developer’s later games, and is inspired by the likes of Contra and Metal Slug. You have a limited number of lives and continues, and death comes swiftly… perhaps a bit too swiftly. Often, the screen is filled with enemies and projectiles and bullet-obscuring explosions, making it difficult to avoid them all – sucking your lives away quickly with a 1-hit kill system – and there are plenty of places where a misstep will lead to instant death. This is definitely a title that is not meant to be cleared on your first attempt, but rather won through attrition with the classic try-die-try formula of classic sidescrolling shooters firmly intact.

You start the game with an infinite ammo weapon, but there are a number of drops that grant you more powerful energy-based weapons with limited ammo that function as lasers, 3-way spreads, and shotguns. You also have access to grenades, a charge shot, and a rather humorous array of melee attacks. The game features the occasional drivable vehicle, including cars, snow mobiles, a bulldozer, and a tank, and there are some flying spaceship sequences as well.

The game features 2P co-op throughout, and offers several mini-games for up to 4 players. There’s even a mini game that offers a look at the basics of the gameplay in BattleBlock Theater, featuring block-based environments where you can shove blocks around, and even drop boats into the water as you do in BBT.

Castle Crashers
The Behemoth followed this up with Castle Crashers on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, followed by ports to Playstation 3 via PSN in 2010 and a release on Steam. Castle Crashers is primarily a beat-em-up, inspired by the likes of Guardian Heroes, River City Ransom, and classic Technos beat-em-ups, but it also features RPG elements that allow players to level up and enhance their speed, attack power, defense, and magic.

Players may discover and unlock new weapons, magic spells, playable characters, and combos throughout the adventure, as well as supporting characters in the form of excruciatingly cute floating animal orbs that act as passive buffs. Up to 4 players can fight together in local or online co-op, and experience points are doled out on a per-hit basis, rewarding all active participants rather than the one player who managed to get in the killing blow. However, may still find yourselves fighting for limited health restorative drops.

The game begins with the ability to choose between one of 4 brightly colored knights on a quest to save the kingdom and rescue the king’s daughters. The player can eventually unlock more than 20 playable characters – including the alien from Alien Hominid – as well as dozens of weapons, each with their own stats.

Rather than a slow slog from left to right that is found in most beat-em-ups, Castle Crashers offers a great deal of environmental variety. There are the expected medieval themes, but also levels that feature players running from huge demented felines while riding deer or swimming down a river while fighting river monsters. There are loads of huge bosses as well, with long life bars that must be slowly whittled down by the heroic knight(s).