In the realm of the online, network-enabled "Live Arcade" games (many now hitting Sony's PSN, aka Playstation Network, as well), there is a fair amount of drudgery. Some games just aren't very good. Some do their best to replicate old games while failing. Some are old games that, while fondly remembered, don't quite stand up to the test of time.
Then there are games that turn it all around, making for an enjoyable experience that can be played over and over and over again. Castle Crashers is one of those games; it seamlessly, or very nearly so, offers players an absolute slew of character possibilities, weapon choices, and reasons to go through the same game world over and over again.
The first thing any player is going to notice about Castle Crashers is the artwork. Dan Paladin's artwork is a wonder to behold, especially when it comes to making jokes without needing to be nearly photorealistic. Fans of the studio's earlier work Alien Hominid will recognize it quite well. Freed of pretty much all constraints, however, the artwork comes out absolutely surreal, especially in the form of gigantic or bizarre bosses - an absolutely huge "Catfish" (should that be "Fishcat?"), a gigantic black... thing that eats everything else? The everyday mooks that players get to beat on over and over again are just as varied and humorous - yetis, fishmen, knights, peasants, skeletons, if they coudl think of a way to work it into the game, they did.
Gameplay-wise, it's your standard sidescrolling beat-em-up. Playing in single-player offers the chance to run around, beat troops in various arenas to unlock new characters, pass through the levels and kill enemies, and hunt for all the varied ways to dig up, capture, or otherwise fill out your stable of weapons and animal companions. What holds players coming back to this mode is the fact that there are simply so many options and references - want the Skeksis sword from The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson)? It's in there. Want to beat up enemies with a lobster or piece of steak? Hunting for a "key blade"? Almost every weapon has some sort of joke or reference attached to it if you dig deep enough. As characters level up, they gain stat points and new attack combinations, allowing for more brutal tactics and crazy-weird juggling combos.
Where Castle Crashers truly shines is in multiplayer. Up to 4 players can jump into the same game, either in shared-screen mode or over network (Xbox Live or PSN, but not cross-client). Once in the game world, players assault the stages together, with increased enemies and boss health to account for the challenge - but don't worry, if your buddies have no more healing potions and are knocked out, you can always perform CPR to revive them in the middle of combat (more difficult than it sounds). Arenas convert to areas for the players to test their skills against each other, merely for bragging rights and practice. Upon rescuing a princess, someone has to kiss her - and of course, with up to four knights, what's there to be done but for them to fight to the death for the honor? It's a wacky change, and the first time a new player realizes that it's happened, the look on their face is priceless. The final boss's mechanics change as well, forcing the players to plan their attacks and use teamwork to defeat him.
If you're on Xbox Live, Castle Crashers is almost certainly a "must-have" title.