Have You Played… Castle Crashers?
Castle Crashers was, like predecessor Alien Hominid, a beautifully animated, arcady, 2D scrolling beat ‘em up by The Behemoth. It eventually made it to PCs in 2012, although it was out on console in 2008. Curiously, however, I know for sure that I played it in 2007 - I guess it must have been a demo, or something. But good grief, what a vivid memory I have of playing it. Yep, that’s right - prepare for another wild swerve off the road of talking about the actual game, and into the rugged backcountry of soul-rummaging reflection.
It was December 2007. I was 23 and, following what I will just describe as a bit of a mental health catastrophe, I had decided to leave the country for a bit, in the hope of getting my head back together. I had ended up in Melbourne, where a couple of mates were on a temp contract working for an electricity firm. The plan was for me to kill time there for a week or so, and then we’d hire a van and drive about a bit, having fun. We did that in the end, and it was good. But the ten days I spent alone in Melbourne were fucking bleak.
I was still pretty damned fragile, and so maybe it wasn’t the best idea to live in the cheapest youth hostel I could find, sharing a room with a man I only remember by the internal nickname I gave him: Lieutenant Lies. The Lieutenant was so named for his constant, clearly fictional anecdotes about the fistfights, drinking bouts, and near-slayings of police officers foolish enough to attempt to contain him that had occurred during his time in the military. He was a deeply unpleasant man, who sweated a vast amount. On three separate nights, he woke me up by having industrial-strength, passionless sex marathons with strangers on the bunk above me, while watching Top Gun on a laptop at deafening volume.
Given that this was what I had to look forward to each evening - plus, y’know, the breakdown - my days were a bit melancholy. One of those days, however, was a small piece of heaven. I’d been dutifully trying to see all the sights in Melbourne - I’d blown pretty much all my savings to get this far from home, and I didn’t want to end up not “getting my money’s worth”. So I trudged around, dutifully making sure to look at things. And then one morning, I passed… I think, maybe, it was the museum of modern art? I’m not sure. But I saw they had a video games exhibition, and thought I’d have a quick look before I got on with things.
The exhibition, as it turned out, was a room full of PCs and a couple of consoles, loaded up with weird or nice-looking “indie” games (cos that was still a thing at the time), and it was completely deserted. Castle Crashers was the first thing I sat down and played, and I remember feeling so relieved I nearly wept. Because it was just… fun. It was knowable, and simple, and pretty, after months of uncertainty, near-muggings, binge drinking, coke can bongs, and sweating liars who fucked to Top Gun.
It must have only been a demo, because I think it only went up to the first boss - the big geezer who tries to batter you with a gate. But I played it with all four characters, a good couple of times each. And then I realised that two chairs over, there was a PC with a copy of Dwarf Fortress on it. In the end, I stayed in that quiet, dark little exhibition space all day. And I came back the next day, and spent all day in there too. I think two other visitors came in, the whole time. At the time, I was intensely guilty, thinking it was near criminal of me to sit inside playing games when I could be out doing things. But in hindsight, it was the only moment of true peace in a long, dark patch. Thanks, Castle Crashers. Thastle Thrashers.