Ultimate Chicken Horse is not a dancing game, but it did make me dance. I am not alone in this. At the end of each preposterous challenge your character - be it a chicken, horse, raccoon, lamb or gecko - will get jiggy with it, should they reach their goal. This doesn't happen very often, so it's worth celebrating. The papercraft aesthetic may resemble a cutesy South Park at a glance, but it's so expressive that each animal avatar has their own unique version of waving their hooves/paws/talons in the air like they just don't care. I've yet to play a match of Ultimate Chicken Horse where somebody doesn't emulate their avatar's gloating behaviour.
What makes Ultimate Chicken Horse such a joy is its incredibly novel premise that merges the DIY nature of Super Mario Maker with competitive platforming. Up to four players are tasked with traipsing through a tiny obstacle course (about two screens in scope) and making it to the finish line. The kicker is that the players construct the obstacle course themselves.
Before each round everyone picks a piece of single scenery to place into the environment. These start out innocent enough, with simple planks and staircases making for a smooth run that most will survive. But after the first round things get deadly. You're now given the option to plant auto-firing crossbows, barbed wire, trapdoors, spinning saw blades, black holes, propellor-based platforms, cannons and more into the stage. After a few brief rounds your once modest setting goes from a tutorial level to an impenetrable gauntlet of death.
It can't be too impenetrable though, as you want the stage to be manageable enough that you can make it to the goal, while challenging enough that nobody else can. You only get points when you hit the goal post and the first to acquire enough points (or whoever is in the lead after a dozen or so rounds) wins the match. The scoring system is multi-tiered, however, offering bonuses if you get to the finish line first, are the sole survivor, grabbed a coin along the way, and if your traps killed other players. But if you don't make it to end you get nothing. As such, it's not uncommon for a player to be trailing behind only to gain a lead with a significant bounty in one successful attempt (there's even bonus points awarded for a stellar comeback).
If it sounds too messy and cluttered - and no doubt it will be by the end - there are ways to eliminate poorly placed traps and blockades by blowing them up with bombs between rounds. Maybe you'll decide that jumping from an icy conveyer belt to a honey-coated wall to a buzzsaw plagued factory belt to a rotating platform partially covered in barbed wire is difficult enough without a hockey puck flinging towards your face every couple of seconds.
What makes Ultimate Chicken Horse such a joy is its simplicity and focus on communal improvisation. Anyone can learn to play it in mere minutes (most of my experience with the game has been with unsuspecting newcomers at my local arcade's Indie Game Night) and it never gets old as there's no telling what anyone is going to do with their randomised grab bag of obstacles. With each round lasting only a minute or so, the pacing remains breezy while retaining a quietly epic narrative as the stakes are raised at an alarming rate.
Ultimate Chicken Horse is also a very funny game, standing toe-to-toe with Gang Beasts as one of the most pleasing displays of physical comedy on the horizon. The dancing is funny, of course, but it's the improvisational acts that really bring the guffaws. Sometimes a chicken will plummet to their death on top of an upward aiming crossbow, doomed to be shot in the gut for eternity as their pitiful corpse doubles as a shield for their rivals. Forget Dante's Inferno, this is truly video game's best representation of post-mortal torment. Conversely, should you die atop the goal post you'll be resurrected upon hitting the ground and still boogie your way to glory with only a mild "post-mortem" penalty for your foibles. The laughs come with ferocious frequency every time I've seen Ultimate Chicken Horse being played.
I've not yet tested the game's final code, as it's not to launch until 4th March, so I can't offer a proper review at this juncture, but my time with this pre-release build has been nothing short of ecstatic. My only concern is that I'm struggling to fathom how the planned single-player campaign could even come close to capturing the dizzying heights of its Party Mode, but it doesn't matter as the multiplayer portion is a classic on its own merits. Based on my handful of sessions with Ultimate Chicken Horse it's already my frontrunner for Game of 2016. It hasn't just made me dance: my friends and I are already planning to cosplay its cast for Halloween (I'll be the raccoon!). Marty McFly had it all wrong: there's no shame in being a chicken.
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