Battle Block Theater Preview: Older-School

The creators of Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers have finally named their new game and let us play it again. Here at PAX East I have played Battle Block Theater.

We last played the game in the summer at the San Diego Comic-Con in July. What was then called Game 3 has not just a name now but a context. This throwback to the platform-jumping 2D arena combat of Lode Runner and Super Mario Bros. presents its levels as scenes from a a play — a play being staged for cats.

The levels I played were similar to what our Michael McWhertor tried in San Diego. The game, which supports up to four players, was set up here at PAX East to pit two human players on one team against two computer-controlled players in some of the match-types from last summer. In one, my character and that of one of the developers had to jump around a level full of brick platforms and spikes, trying not to die while collecting gold blocks dropped from a "gold whale." The gold need to be deposited in a flying safe. Getting killed by a bad fall or by a rival player cost us the gold we were carrying. But at least lives in this game are infinite. In another "act" of this play we were trying to steal the floating soul dropped by any rival character who we either killed or fell and killed itself. (They were doing the same to us.) The longer I held an enemy player's soul, the more points my team accrued. Of course, I needed to make sure no one else grabbed my soul. If they did, I had to kill them to get it back or wait for them to die via their own folly and retrieve my spirit before it floated away. A third mode was a race to see which team could paint more blocks by stepping on them and marking them.

Battle Block Theater Preview: Older-School

All the stages we played included the classic elements of 2D single-screen games: floating blocks, deadly falls, and traps. When players are close together, the view of the level is tight and scrolls. When players separate, the camera zooms out to show the level in full. The characters are squat and cute, a signature of development studio The Behemoth. You can choose your head shape and face along with a power — I selected a bowling boll throw/roll. There are tackle and melee moves as well.

As with The Behemoth's other games, this one feels like a modern recreation of something old-school. Alien Hominid was a love letter to side-scrolling shooters, Castle Crashers to side-scrolling brawlers. This game champions an even more old-fashioned genre and feels quick and deadly enough to have a chance to be an appealing update. It's a game for those who enjoyed being confined in a single arena, jumping and attacking each other with a frantic tempo, a time before Super Mario Bros. sold the world on the side-scrolling rush.

I don't know if we pleased our cat audience when we played the game today. I had good manic fun. There may be no sign yet that solo play will be satisfying in Battle Block Theater, but multiplayer looks like it will be a joy. The game is coming, at least, to Xbox Live Arcade. No release date.