Version tested: Xbox 360
Some combinations were meant to be. Lennon and McCartney. Dalglish and Rush. Peanut butter and jam. But Mr. Driller and Mario Kart? Aussie studio Halfbrick has attempted to fashion something palatable out of it nonetheless, and the results are... interesting.
Just to muddy the waters a little more, Raskulls seems to revel in not having the faintest clue what it wants to be. One minute it's a wild-eyed, turbo-charged platform racing game, the next it wants to be a nerve-wracking block puzzler set inside a volcano. Most of the time, it's content to throw a bit of everything into the pot and ask you to get on with it. It's this breezy and almost reckless spirit of adventure that endears you to it from the first bewildering moments to its feverish finale.
When it tries its hand at being a racing platformer, Raskulls has the wanton urgency of a triple espresso shot. Lined up against a ragtag ensemble of unlikely competitors, you'll find yourself bounding off boost pads, swimming and barrelling through brightly coloured geometry as fast as your disproportionately undersized legs will allow.
By default you're able to dispense zappage from your wand one block blast at a time, which removes any blocks of the same colour in the direct vicinity. But as you hurtle your way towards the finishing line, you also hoover up numerous useful objects, such as blobs of 'frenzy' power and other useful trinkets.
Success comes from choosing when to ram home the advantage. Unleashing your frenzy boost power with a jab of the left trigger, for example, gives you a chance to hit the gas when you need it most, leaving opponents trailing in the dust right at the death, or allowing you to blitz underneath a falling obstacle by the skin of your (rather impressive) teeth.
Other times, you're best off making a beeline for the gift-wrapped presents and taking the opportunity to instantly plough through several blocks at once with the Flame Charge or Thunder Staff, or – if you're lucky – leave your opponents reeling while you sneakily make up lost ground with one of the many other cruel power-ups that await discovery.
Whatever the result, the multi-coloured action blizzards along at a pace that scarcely leaves time for blinking. You'll grip the pad with unintentional force and stab the buttons with the fury of a beat-'em-up, cursing your misfortune when things (inevitably) don't go to plan. But such is the beautifully concise length of each stage, you won't pause for breath when it comes to the restart. This is the kind of game where you almost have to force a break upon yourself, such is the perpetual allure to do better or progress further.
In the early stages, at least, the continual evolution of its block-busting formula offers thrilling novelty value. Having established a hugely entertaining foundation, Halfbrick then throws in variation. Sometimes the courses themselves set the challenge, with lap-based fury to aim for, while other times your opponents become the focus, with the task to relieve the thieves of required booty before you reach the finishing line. Another has you trying to avoid being 'cursed' by a luckless opponent.
The more you progress through the 50-odd levels of the Mega Quest, the more the puzzle-minded stages come to the fore, and test you in often entirely contrasting ways. Offering something of a respite after the nerve-jangling demands of the races, they ask you to, for example, defuse all the bombs placed snugly within a block-filled obstacle course. Allow one of the bombs to fall so much as one square, however, and you're back to the beginning, so it becomes a far more calculated affair.
Similarly exacting challenges require you to manoeuvre all the Shroomie houses onto their respective pedestals by carefully chipping away at the blocks beneath them. Allow too many blocks to fall, though, and they smash, resulting in another trip to the starting blocks.
Once the developer assumes that you've acquired the requisite skills, it ups the ante even further, with progressively more elaborate goals. One set of stages later in the game demands that you 'sculpt' specific shapes one after another, while others put the pressure on with monumentally demanding mission goals, such as reaching a falling exit line without being squashed by any of the blocks stacked up beneath it.
Elsewhere you'll be trying to defuse bombs within a strict time limit, or with a limited number of zaps, and then you'll be back to racing - except with the demented goal of getting to the finishing line without letting your frenzy bar deplete. If your thumbs (and your gaming pride) aren't bruised by the end of the first chapter, you'll be doing better than I.
So what better, then, than a crazed boss interlude, where you're chased by a giant laser around a hazard-strewn course? Although not as feisty as it looks, the panic is enough to rupture your permanently engorged adrenal gland. If you have any concerns about inducing an aneurism, then it's possibly wise to moderate your exposure.
We haven't even mentioned multiplayer yet. It's structured around the frenetic four-player racing template and you get the chance to duke it out over 16 courses, either online or in good old-fashioned four-player split-screen. For maximum flexibility, you can sample the chaos one race at a time, or indulge in any of the four-race Grand Prix events. It's utter lunacy, completely unfair, routinely annoying and yet absolutely glorious fun, just like the rest of the game.
Raskulls' crazed, crafted combination of platforming, racing and puzzling always promised to be something worth paying attention to, and so it has proved. It was determined to serve up undiluted fun at every turn, and it does, and in doing so has provided another stunning example of the why the download scene is the place to be right now.
9 / 10