I’m going to recount a little nugget of video game trivia here that if you haven’t already heard elsewhere is going to blow your freakin’ mind. Super Mario Bros. 3, one of the best games ever? Never happened. It’s a play. Think about it: a curtain raises at the start; the levels have backdrop items that have shadows; floating platforms are either bolted on or suspended by wires from the rafters; Mario exits stage right into darkness after every level. It all adds up. Battleblock Theater is cut from the same cloth as its racoon-tailed predecessor but is not so coy about its nature - it’s right there in the title. However, such admission of intent does not preclude it from weaving a fanciful, downright ridiculous tale to entertain us - or is it just a tale? Hang onto your hats, things are about to get a bit Inception-y...
As you are informed by the omnipresent unhinged narrator (Newgrounds mainstay Will Stamper), well-regarded gentleman extraordinaire Hatty Hattington and pals get into a spot of bother while on an ocean cruise and get stranded on an island with a mysterious theatre run by cats dressed as security guards, why not. Under the influence of a strange and evil top hat, Hatty then forces his former compatriots into performing deadly assault courses in the theatre complex for the amusement of himself and the aforementioned felines. The opening cinematic which relays this information will either have you in stitches or staring dumbfounded at the screen. If your sanity is low enough to persist then act one, scene one awaits!
Each scene contains within it a certain number of precious gems to collect to buy back your buddies’ freedom; three will purchase you passage to the next scene, but there are seven to find every time, as well as a bonus ball of yarn which your kitty captors will take off your hands in exchange for some illicit black-market goods. A golden hat will appear every now and then which counts for ten gems if taken to the exit. These precious stones can be taken to the gift shop to purchase your buddies’ release from confinement.
The gameplay is mostly pure platforming with a few brain teasing puzzle elements thrown in. A few sections are Rube Goldberg machine-esque which look nice, but require little input from the player. It’s proper old-school hard platforming here, requiring expert timing and mastery of the double jump, especially if you want to get all the gems and that A+ grade, all the while dodging whirring fans and deadly blades to rival even those of Super Meat Boy. New obstacles are introduced at at a steady curve, but save points are liberally sprinkled about at sensible intervals so re-attempts can be made again almost instantly. Every now and then a time trial pops up to be performed, with sirens and lights and stopwatches with hands spinning wildly, in front of a live studio audience, natch. The pace is not as hectic as the aforementioned cubed fleshy one, but the collision detection is good enough that you never feel cheated, just occasionally inadequately skilled.
The levels retain the same hand-drawn art style that defined The Behemoth’s earlier games Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers but with the goofiness turned up to eleven - enemies include FBI spook cats with aviators and earpieces to toasters spawning walking bread that try and make you into a sandwich filling. From the art to the insane narration to the rollicking soundtrack, this game exudes whimsy in every possible direction. Battleblock Theater asks you to accept its ludicrous precepts and run with them. Decoupled from the necessity of conventionality, it is free to pursue entertaining ideas and notions without the constraint of them making any sense whatsoever. And it's a lot of fun! The fourth wall is broken over and over, both for comic effect and to reinforce and make light of all our old tropes about games: death is impermanent as ever, you are a character playing the role of the hero but are as customisable as a Ken doll, you are collecting gems for no apparent reason which the game makes constant reference to, and levels are made of obvious props. Bizarre and at times scatalogical humour is further provided in the form of explanatory flashbacks to the founding of the now-wrecked and perhaps haunted theatre your band of friends currently find themselves in.
Although the single player mode is very substantial, the game truly shines when you have a friend or two to join in the madness. Two players (off or online) can go through the story campaign with the levels slightly rejigged to make best use of an extra pair of hands. If that’s not enough, there’s a party-sized bucket of mini-games in the arena mode for up to four friends. The best of them by far is the simply monikered Ball Game, a cross between football, basketball, and punching people in the face, but you might get some enjoyment from the others too. Still not satisfied? There’s a level editor if you feel evil enough to design a deathtrap even harder than what the game throws at you. Levels can even be saved in playlists so you can go the whole hog and create a whole new campaign if you like, then upload it to the community to frustrate some poor sod hundreds of miles away. Much like the excellent community features of Trials Evolution, the game allows you to rate each offering and organises them into best of week, month and all-time listings, in addition to a list of the developers’ favourites.
Games have been around long enough to poke fun at themselves and their cinematic predecessors, and while other titles like Viewtiful Joe and Saints Row: The Third have both got their fair share of jollies from doing this, it's arguable that no game until now as done so with such vigour as Battleblock Theater. It defies classification, but should be held in the same high regard as any of the old-skool Marios or more recent platforming luminaries such as Rayman Origins. In the early stages of game design, presentation was abstract because it had to be, the technology had not developed enough to allow for anything else, so we got little blocky heroes and our imagination filed in the gaps. Now with arguably photorealistic graphics in big triple-A titles, a decision to return to styles of old has to be interpreted as a conscious choice to explore and deconstruct the methods of games gone by. Battleblock Theater is such a creature, and makes no allusions otherwise.
The show must go on.