Charlie Murder

A game by Ska Studios for Xbox 360, originally released in 2013.
Charlie Murder is a beat ‘em up that is steeped in the thick stew of punk rock and seasoned with elements of the RPG genre. You play the part of several punk rock band mates who must battle against the evil forces of a death metal band called Gore Quaffer, who has summoned forth the minions of Hell to end you. You begin the game in Hell, surrounded by fire, piles of human skulls, and red winged demons.

OK, so it’s not actually called Hell, nor is it called the Netherworld, but rather it is known as the Netherlands, although it has far fewer windmills and Dutch folk than you might expect. Instead, you must punch some demons in the face for a few seconds until you mysteriously begin to float upward. Suddenly, you find yourself back in the real world, with a paramedic working on your prone body (or multiple paramedics with multiple bodies in multiplayer), attempting to shock you back to life with a defibrillator.

But things aren’t so lovely in the really real world, which has been overrun by demons and zombies, and it is up to you to defeat this hellish army. Players can go it alone or team up in 4P online or offline co-op. Five playable characters are available at the outset, each representing a different member of the band. Each character has his or her own stats and is leveled up independently.

Charlie, the leader of the band, is a berserker; Lester is a mage; Tommy is a shaman; Rex, the overly large drummer is the tank who can pick up and throw cars; and Kelly, the resident punk chick, is a Mesmer. There are even alternate versions of these characters that you can unlock, including Charlie the frostwraith and Kelly the enchantress, and each of these characters can be independently leveled as well.

You have a fairly standard array of beat ‘em up moves at your disposal, including a light and heavy punch, a grab, and the ability to jump. Mixing the light and heavy attacks lets you string together combos, although the game is old school in this regard, providing neither a combo list nor a set of unlockable moves (although you do gain some new abilities as you level up). Jumping and attacking in the air lets your perform air attacks and combos, and there are even some air-based enemies – in the form of gun-toting witches on broomsticks – that can only be reached by using air attacks.

You can double tap forward to initiate a dash, although holding in one direction for a few seconds will eventually send you dashing as well. You can also block attacks and pick up and toss objects lying around the environment, such as tires or loose enemy parts. Dropped objects such as lead pipes, swords, and zombie arms can be picked up and used to bash your enemies, although they will break after a while.

A wide array of guns is present as well, including handguns, shotguns, machine guns, flamethrowers, and rocket launchers. These weapons all have limited ammo, but they are great for crowd control or picking off enemies from afar. Once you’re finished spreading the bullet butter, you can chuck the weapon at your enemy for a bit of extra damage. The game features grenades as well, although these are generally used for clearing obstructions rather than direct combat.

Lastly, you can unleash special attacks via the “anar-chi” system. By getting inked up at one of the various tattoo parlors, you unlock special moves. When initiated, your fighter will rock out according to his or her position in the band, such as Charlie letting loose with a rock yell and hovering in the air for a moment. Some of these attacks involve the sound itself, turning sound waves into a destructive audio blast that causes continuous damage to anyone in its wake. Other attacks include a tornado that slings objects around the environment to smash enemies, the ability to charm an enemy and make it fight on your side for a limited time, and a number of buffs like health recovery and defense boosts for your party.

Per beat ‘em up conventions, enemies have bars showing how much health they have remaining, and tougher enemies and bosses have multiple colored bars layered over one another. Per RPG conventions, numbers appear over enemies with each attack you unleash, giving you an idea of how much damage you are doing with your current stats and equipment.

Leveling up is done through gaining followers for your band, which is the equivalent of experience points in a traditional RPG. You have a phone that you can use to check the number of followers you have on a social network known as Each time you level up, you earn a point toward an upgrade – which includes things like dual wielding weapons, head stomping downed enemies, and team up attacks – and several points that can be spent toward increasing your strength, speed, defense, and anar-chi. All of this is accessed via your phone interface, as are gameplay tips, email jabs from your nemesis, and the phone’s camera, which can be used to snap shots of QR codes and other objects to unlock items.

Clothing plays a large part in your character’s stats and abilities, impacting your damage, attack speed, defense, and secondary environmental effects. Passive buffs include faster anar-chi replenishment, a better chance of critical hits or stuns, better loot drops, resistance to certain elements (fire, electricity, acid, poison), elemental enhancements for your attacks, and more.

You will frequently need to swap out your clothing to ensure that you’re wearing the best stuff. Green numbers show stats that will go up with the clothing equipped, while red shows stats that will go down, although some items can’t be equipped unless your base stats are high enough. Since you have a limited number of inventory slots, a handy red or green arrow appears next to the name of any equippable item lying in the environment, letting you know if it is generally better or worse than what you already have. Clothing is themed to the punk world, offering a number of knit hats and stylish shirts for you and your band mates, and you can even alter their color to your liking by applying dyes.

To aid you in your quest are a number of health restoratives, including medkits, various food items, and pain pills, which can be added to your inventory and used at any time. Hearts are also occasionally dropped by enemies, offering a bit of immediate replenishment to your health or anar-chi meters. Another helpful foodstuff is beer. Drinking various types of beer (or coffee) can not only restore some health, but also grant you permanent stat increases. Drinking beer slows you down for a short time, however, so you need to be careful when consuming it during combat. You can purchase beer or make your own by collecting malt and hops dropped from enemies and then whipping up a batch in a brewery, boosting different stats based on the ingredients you apply.

Beat ‘em ups tend toward repetition, but Charlie Murder manages to change things up frequently, offering a number of non-fighting sequences, such as driving a car, flying on a broom, or even taking part in a cursor-based shooter. Many of these sequences end in boss fights, forcing you to consider your new moveset when engaging them, unlike the game’s other bosses which are just your typical damage sponges with big attacks and long life bars.

Even the cutscenes offer some variety, and most of them are interactive. A couple of sequences have you performing with your band, played out as short rhythm action games with timed button presses. Each band member plays a different instrument, so the singer and lead guitar have more button presses than the bassist or tambourinier (ed note: that’s probably not a real word). Fitting with the theme of the rock band, there’s even a cutscene where you trash a hotel room. These cutscenes are actually flashbacks (and they are displayed in a sepia tone), telling the story of Paul, a musician who used to be friends with Charlie and his band mates before they went on to be famous. But Paul got left behind, and he always felt that he should have been the star… leading him to make a deal with some nefarious forces.

The game features a world map, allowing you to retread your steps at any point. This can be used to grind for experience, to purchase new clothes, or to stock up on restoratives for a tough boss fight. There are also multiple side paths, some with entirely different themes from the rest of the game, such as a drug-infused psychedelic rampage through a forest. A small number of side paths are inaccessible during your first run, such as the movie theater that can only be accessed once you have purchased a golden ticket. Many of these side paths end with their own boss fights and some reward the player with new items, unlockable characters, and the five body parts of a creature known as Smokula, ala Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.

The game’s presentation is all about the rock lifestyle and music. From the visuals to the locales to the fact that you get tattoos to unlock spells and listen to the radio DJ taking calls from Charlie Murder fans. Many of the scenarios are like an album cover come to life with demons and the forces of the underworld placed against washed out landscapes, all done in a hand-drawn art style. Music is the primary driver behind the experience and it is used to tell a compelling story while also acting as an excuse to provide a continuously rocking soundtrack. The lives of the lead characters are heavily influenced by music, but the thing they enjoy the most is what ultimately tears them apart, disintegrating relationships, good judgment, and personal well-being, and eventually leading to a death metal apocalypse.

Charlie Murder was created by Ska Studios, a 2-person studio based in upstate New York made up of husband and wife team James Silva and Michelle Juett Silva. James was the programmer, artist, and musician for the game, and Michelle created art for the game and marketing materials.

Following Charlie Murder, the studio developed Salt and Sanctuary, a "soulslike" (a.k.a. Dark Souls-inspired) action-RPG. The game offers a high level of difficulty, a complex interconnected world that the player is free to explore, and a limited number of health-restoring safe areas called sanctuaries. The player may select between numerous character classes, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and gameplay styles, which may be further enhanced via a robust skill tree. The game offers hundreds of unique items, a variety of upgradeable weapons and armor, and a handful of healing items that the player must maximize in order to survive. Players harvest salt from defeated enemies, but risk losing it all if they are killed, and salt is needed in order to upgrade equipment and level up. This is a dark and unfriendly world that is meant for hardened gaming veterans.

James originally began work on Charlie Murder after the release of The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, his first major release, but shelved it to pursue other titles. Interestingly, James first met his wife during the development of The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, as she was performing bug testing on the title prior to its release. The year after the game’s launch, Michelle introduced herself to James at PAX and they began dating soon after.

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai won Microsoft’s first Dream Build Play competition in 2007, which earned James a cash prize and an Xbox Live Arcade publishing contract. The game was released on XBLA in 2009 and followed up with a more polished sequel, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile in 2011. Like Charlie Murder, both games are dark, highly-stylized beat ‘em ups featuring a resurrected hero who must bash his enemies into bloody oblivion. Rather than using his fists, the Dishwasher deals out death with meat cleavers, chainsaws, and other melee weapons, and even blasts enemies away with a shotgun and machine gun.

While there are upgradeable weapons, and even a rhythm action guitar minigame, the action in the Dishwasher games focuses more heavily on high-speed weapons-based combat and big finishing moves instead of the RPG trappings offered in Charlie Murder. The combat is faster paced with more importance placed on dodging and quick reflexes than leveling and equipment. Also, while there are numerous undead enemies, the Dishwasher’s primary foes are robots.

Dead Samurai is a single player game, although a second player can take on a rather unconventional supporting role (can you say “ghost guitar”?) in the main campaign for offline co-op, and there are online arcade modes for two players. Vampire Smile offers two playable characters, each with their own single player campaign, as well as online or offline 2P co-op for its campaign and arcade modes.

On Xbox Live Indie Games, the developer also created ZP2K9 and ZP2KX, released in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The “ZP” abbreviation stands for Zombies and Pterodactyls. Both are arena combat games featuring online and offline multiplayer for up to 10 players, and they can be played in single player against bots.

A number of traditional competitive multiplayer modes are available, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and king of the hill. Weapons include various guns and melee weapons, as well as nontraditional armaments such as the freeze gun, shrink ray, and an AK-47 that fires cats. As players compete and level up, they unlock new items, customizations, and combat enhancements.

Both games are extensions and refinements of the developer’s first commercial release, Zombie Smashers X4 Guitarpocalypse, which was released on Xbox Live Indie Games in 2008. This is also an arena combat game, this time for up to 4 offline players. However, the arenas are more constricted and have out-of-bounds areas similar to those found in the Super Smash Bros. series.

In 2009, the developer released I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1 – also known as the first $1.00 zombie-themed Xbox Live Indie Game – which was developed over the span of just a couple of weeks. Despite its simple gameplay and short development time, the game was a critical and financial success. The game is a top-down twin stick shooter pitting the player against a constant stream of zombie invaders and a number of other enemy types.

The game was made specifically to be a cheap over-the-top experience that revels in its simplicity, as enforced by the screamed theme song that plays in the background. The game can be played offline with up to 4 zombie-slaying friends. Players use shotguns, machine guns, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and other weapons to cut down the endless hordes.

In 2012, the game was ported to the Windows Phone as Z0MB1ES (on teh ph0ne). In addition to the gameplay offered in the original game, this version also includes a new mode called ENDL3SS Z0MB1ES!!1, which features a more structured experience with rooms to explore and branching paths. Another new mode is TIME VIKING, which features twin stick shooting in a sidescrolling environment as zombies go flying overhead and the ground rises up beneath your feet.