Comic-Con 07: Castle Crashers Preview and Interview with The Behemoth's Tom Fulp

When I last saw The Behemoth's four-player old-school cooperative brawler Castle Crashers, the game was being shown for the first time. The San Diego-based developer was, appropriately, showing its game at the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con. This year, Castle Crashers was back--and unlike as in its early, understandably bug-ridden state, it was not living up to its name and crashing left and right. I caught up with The Behemoth co-founder Tom Fulp for a chat about how far the game has come in that time and how things are progressing at his studio.

"Since we initially showed it two years ago, it kind of got rewritten from the ground up," Fulp explained. The game still plays very much like it did before, but feels smoother and certainly more stable. However, Fulp noted that much of the game has seen drastic improvements, including some to artist Dan Paladin's oft-noted sketch-like characters and environments. "The original one had larger characters that didn't have as cool a style, and Dan thought he had a better way to draw them, so the whole game's aesthetic changed around that," said Fulp.

Crucially, Castle Crashers now has an official platform: Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox 360. Knowing exactly what hardware to shoot for has allowed the team to properly fine-tune the game. "We didn't have any specific platform before; it was just general development, getting it ready," Fulp went on. "Now we have all that horsepower, and that changed the scope of the game. We know how many more enemies and special effects we can put on the screen. It turned into something a little different, but with the same heart as the original."

Xbox Live Arcade has proven to be a boon for the small company, which has spent longer than initially planned getting Castle Crashers out the door. "Alien Hominid HD really kept us going, kept us busy," said Fulp, referring to the updated downloadable version of The Behemoth's well-received sidescrolling shooter Alien Hominid (PS2, Xbox, GCN, GBA).

Why Live Arcade rather than a competing service? Said Fulp, "It was a matter of just looking at the landscape and deciding that one was the right one for us. Things have been great with Alien Hominid HD, so we've been really happy with it."

That's not to say The Behemoth wouldn't look into distribution over PlayStation 3 or Wii's online services. "Everything is a consideration. Right now we're really focused on Castle Crashers on XBLA, but we consider everything," he said.

As a small independent studio, the company can't spread itself too thin. I asked Fulp about what it takes to keep everything running in today's increasingly competitive market. "It's quite a challenge," he answered. "You really want to stay small, unless you're planning on making the next big blockbuster. Everyone has to do a lot, because you have limited resources, but you make up for it because everyone takes a lot more pride in what they do thanks to having more control over the final product."

Of course, though The Behemoth keeps itself running fairly lean, there are further projects planned. "We've got a lot of fun stuff going on, secret projects," promised Fulp. "More on that later."

Continue reading for my hands-on impressions of Castle Crashers.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Like its predecessor Alien Hominid, The Behemoth's Castle Crashers is a throwback to a video game genre that flourished in the late 80s and early 90s--in this case, the cooperative sidescrolling beat-em-up. As four diminutive knights, each with a different magical alignment, players cooperatively kick the crap out of hundreds of enemies, punctuated by huge bosses--and then, at the end of each level, they kick the crap out of each other.

Like many games of its ilk, Castle Crashers gives its protagonists a heavy melee attack and a light melee attack, which can also be combiend with a jump for a different effect. As well, players have have access to a projectile attack, which can be swapped between a bow and a boomerang.

What differentiates the characters in gameplay terms is their magical attacks, with four colors corresponding to fire, poison, ice, and lightning magic. Holding down a trigger button remaps the controller's face buttons to magic attacks, which add a great deal of variety to the characters. For example, the ice-aligned knight has access to quickly-firing ice darts, a more powerful but shorter ranged bombardment of large ice shards which can encase enemies in frozen blocks, and an extremely up close and personal ice fist that smashes up out of the ground.

The wide range of abilities, along with a still-in-development leveling system, keep Castle Crashers from feeling hampered by dated game design. Of course, the game still fully embraces its old school roots--in the introductory sequence, an arrow-pierced knight bursts into a room where the four heroes are rocking out, then sheds his mortal coil as his sprite blinks out of existence in true video game fashion.

Online multiplayer should also go a long way in making Castle Crashers feel up to date; the feature was sorely missed in Alien Hominid. "Back [when Castle Crashers was first shown] it was a different game," said Tom Fulp, "and we weren't considering things like online multiplayer as much--well, we were considering it, but now we really have to deal with it. Everything's running along smoothly now."

Artist Dan Paladin's gorgeous visuals complete the equation. It is unfortunate that there are not more fully 2D games being produced on home consoles today, but it is likely that The Behemoth's games would embarrass them anyway. The well-animated sprites and high-resolution backgrounds are enormously appealing, and contribute the lion's share of the game's charm.

Like they should in these sorts of games, enemy animations often serve as warnings. During the battle at the end of the demo, the hulking, shield-mounted-spear-wielding boss became visibly nauseous, prompting one of my co-crashers to exclaim, having never played the fight before, "Oh, God, get away from him!" Sure enough, the fiend soon let loose an explosive vomit attack.

There doesn't seem to be much room for Castle Crashers to go wrong at this point. The game has a good blend of old-school and updated mechanics, and its presentation is excellent. Unfortunately, Fulp declined to pin down any kind of release projection, even one as general as "this year," and Microsoft is notorious for dawdling on its Xbox Live release certifications, but hopefully we'll be crashing castles sooner rather than later.

Go back for my interview with The Behemoth's Tom Fulp.