Castle Crashers was all about teaming up with your mates to bash goons and rescue princesses, but there was one little twist. After defeating a boss, your team had to turn on each other and fight to the death, the last man standing rewarded with a kiss from the girl. Friends turn to enemies and, when the next level starts, back to friends again. If anything encapsulates Battleblock Theatre, the new game from Castle Crashers developer The Behemoth, it's that moment - turning to your mate with an innocent smile and planting a sword right between the eyes.
Known as Game #3 for most of its development, Battleblock Theatre has been around in various forms for a while; some will remember trailers touting a 2010 release. Though it's usually shown with two players, the lovely arcade cabinets The Behemoth are touring it in are now set up for four, and the developers have dropped hints there may be even more supported in the final version.
The setup: you're on an island ruled by mental cats, who have thousands of prisoners they send into deathtraps for amusement - the Battleblock Theatre. Levels begin with grainy intro cards, and the aesthetic carries over into the level furniture, where often bits and bobs like bushes are cardboard cutouts. More than anything else, as a Behemoth game, this looks the part: the developer has a distinctive style that just can't be copied, a mix of bong-eyed cats and cheery cartoon sadism that's instantly familiar.
There's a hub world where you pick the 'play' to be performed, and before each level you get the option to customise the look of your little prisoner as well as choose a weapon. There are hundreds of variants on the basic characters, classified as different prisoners to be unlocked in-game, and selectable hats are always to be applauded: the final game will also include an online trading system for players to exchange prisoners and weapons, suggesting the unlocks will be semi-random.
Each level has an exit unlocked when you've collected three green gems, but they're also filled with other pickups (including a single ball of yarn, for completists). The levels are full of co-operative elements: buttons that trigger bridges or open holes in walls, but have to be kept pressed while one member of the team takes advantage; dinky boats to float across water; gaps to throw each other across.
But enough fannying about: this isn't about playing nice, as our witless Yankee companion was about to find out. In Battleblock Theatre, more often than not, you meet the hand of friendship with a fist of rejection. The first thing we did was push him into water, impassively paddling with our hand as he sunk. I apologised, then when the next chance arose, threw him onto some spikes. Bombs kept on accidentally getting tossed in his direction, and there was no resisting the temptation to feed him to the gaping maws of a ravenous cat-dog thing. Most elements are pretty deadly, judging by the guinea pig's short lives, and kills take one hit.
Death isn't really a big deal, though. As long as one player is still alive, you instantly respwan nearby - in this demo on normal difficulty, at least. In hard mode, Battleblock Theatre limits each player to a single life: not an outrageous challenge judging on the levels we've seen, but going on past form it will doubtless turn out ridiculous.
One button makes your prisoner push something if he's standing still, or slide if moving, another either throws your buddy or, if you're near an edge, holds down a hand to help them up. As well as these there are weapons, physical attacks, jumping, ducking, and all manner of other context-sensitive moves.
There's a lot of subtlety behind the chaos: the throw move, for example, is stronger if you're facing away from the throwee, and you can also set it up by holding the button, making your little man strike a delightful pose in readiness and toss on contact. Nice enough for setting up a precise arc - even better when someone's trying to attack you and gets flung.
Each stage has enemies, some of which have to just be avoided and some of which can be fought head-on and whacked around, though obviously they'll try to do the same. In one instance, a racoon-looking thing uppercutted our character to a height that jumping could never have reached, so clearly there's a tactical layer there as well.
And then there are the toys, which are wonderful. You pick one before entering a level, and more are unlocked with cash (in-game, this is presented as bribing the cat prison guards). There was a dart weapon that stunned enemies and could be jammed into walls, creating a temporary platform. A fan blew enemies away - and sent our good friend tumbling to his doom more than once. There's a boomerang, bouncing bombs, and the default weapon is a frisbee that, after being thrown, ticks down to an explosion. Throw this at your mate and it downs him; he gets up, and boots it straight back at your face. No competitive interaction seems overlooked.
The 'Battleblock' part of the name comes from the various types of blocks that make up the large levels: lava blocks that bounce your characters upwards, downwards or sideways depending on contact (think 3D Mario hitting fire), smoke blocks that can be passed through, laser-shooting blocks, collapsing blocks, exploding blocks, ice blocks, grabbable blocks. Some setups send you whizzing around like a pinball; others are simple block puzzles. There are lots of blocks, and each level's also dotted with temporary powerups like angel wings and rocketpacks that work exactly as expected, with a simple zoom effect keeping both players on-screen.
Nevertheless, there's something missing. Getting down to brass tacks, because we've all played it, how good was Castle Crashers? If you ask Dan Whitehead, who wrote Eurogamer's Castle Crashers review, it's an 8/10 peach. If you ask me, it's a decent enough beat-'em-up that got a little overrated because it looks incredible.
There's something of that about Battleblock Theatre: killing your mate doesn't seem to get old, it looks great, and all of its elements seem like they should be great fun. But as a whole, it feels good without ever being fantastic. Perhaps it's the slight stickiness of the controls, which felt a little too slow to respond. Or maybe that delicate balance between helping each other out and killing each other isn't quite right: there's a time and a place for comedy knockabouts, but a few times I was genuinely trying to work with my buddy (honest) and ended up skewering him on a wall instead. It may even be the fact that, for all the pizzazz on show here, blocks, pressure plates and jumping puzzles are pretty familiar ingredients.
That's not to say Battleblock Theatre is going to be a bad game: it's clearly going to be a very good one indeed, the source of plenty of laughs in multiplayer, with a bite that something like New Super Mario Bros. Wii never approached. And there are still plenty of modes apart from the main adventure to be shown. I feel dirty even saying this, but: imagine, if you will, everything that's going into Battleblock Theatre and how good it will be. Know that the reality is close, but it's probably not going to be quite as amazing as you think.