If you didn't make it to the IndieCade festival in Culver City last weekend, you missed something special.
I'm not talking about the awards show, or the panels, or even the tents packed with independent developers showcasing their games to attendees seeking shelter from the broiling California sun. I'm talking about the crowd games, competitive spectacles seemingly designed for places where you can attract a crowd--in bars, at parties, during gaming festivals.
To really get into these games, you need plenty of space and people to play with--IndieCade is one of the few events in the country where you can reliably wrangle enough players to fill out a proper game of Johann Sebastian Joust, for example, which typically requires 5-10 PlayStation Move controllers and enough space for the people holding those controllers to circle one another, gladiator-style. Impractical, sure, but also fun as hell.
It's no surprise to learn that, while a wide variety of indie games won awards during IndieCade this year, the three attendee choice awards--Developers Choice, Audience Choice, and Media Choice--went to crowd games: Killer Queen Arcade, Slash Dash, and TowerFall, respectively.
These games are sublime in the right setting, somewhere you can look your opponent in the eyes with the roar of a cheering crowd at your back. They were some of the best things at IndieCade this year, and since most--though not all--of these games will be coming to PC and home consoles in the near future I thought it'd be wise to get them on your radar now, lest they get drowned out in the deluge of big-budget games coming later this year.
Two pairs of players competing to capture each other's flag doesn't sound terribly innovative or exciting, so it's all the more impressive that SLASH DASH is so much fun to play and watch. The premise is simple: two red ninjas battle two blue ninjas across a 2D playfield seen from above. Each ninja can teleport short distances, swing a katana or stun enemies with a handful of throwing stars, except when they're carrying the enemy flag. In classic Bushido Blade fashion, one hit kills--except these are ninja we're playing with, so instead of dying you just teleport home and respawn a few moments later, leaving a wooden decoy in your place.
There's a bit more to the game than that--you can teleport through obstacles or slash your teammate to make them run faster, for example, which tends to create frenetic flag runs where you're torn between slashing your teammate to make them run faster and warding off the enemy ninja in pursuit. Every time I walked past SLASH DASH in the IndieCade eSports Pavilion I saw a crowd of people shouting and laughing, which bodes well for it's inevitable arrival on PC and home consoles.
Unfortunately, SLASH DASH currently isn't playable anywhere outside of gaming events like IndieCade and EVO, probably because the five developers who made it are still in school at the NYU Game Center. They do take it on tour, though; bookmark the Nevernaut Games website to keep tabs on where you can play it next.
I know what you're thinking: What is this Nidhogg? Didn't TowerFall win the Media Choice Award at IndieCade this year?
You're right. TowerFalldid win the Media Choice Award this year, and rightfully so; it's a four-player competitive deathmatch game that's challenging, fun, and a total blast to play against total strangers at a party. It's also available right now: you can play TowerFall on the Ouya console right this second, and it should be coming to PC shortly.
But I didn't vote for TowerFall. When the moment came to submit my pick for the Media award, I chose Nidhogg. It's a two-player fencing game with a simple 2D style reminiscent of something Broderbund might have published on the Commodore 64. I played it on a huge projector in Culver City firehouse packed with people, and every time I slipped up or pulled off a beautiful recovery their slick, upturned faces erupted in cheers. I felt like a gladiator, working the crowd. It felt good.
Nidhogg creates great opportunities for stunning comebacks or ridiculous defeats. Each player controls a mansprite with a sword, and the goal is to race past your opponent across several screens to reach your goal, at which point you'll be gloriously consumed by a giant flying worm. You can jump, crouch and attack; you can combine those commands to do things like throw your sword, leap into the air and knock your opponent to the ground with a flying kick, then crouch and snap his neck before running to the next screen.
When a player dies they respawn in their opponent's path a few seconds later with a fresh blade, and if the two players are equally matched a good game of Nidhogg can last for fifteen minutes or more as the two combatants battle back and forth across the stage. You can only play Nidhogg at events like IndieCade or GDC (and, if you happen to be in the Winnipeg, CA area, on a Winnitron machine), and it may be that way for the foreseeable future: developer Messhof won't commit to anything beyond a promise that Nidhogg will be most likely be released on Steam later this year.
KILLER QUEEN ARCADE
Killer Queen is a 5-on-5 competitive arcade game that wouldn't exist without community game festivals. The machine I played at IndieCade resembles nothing so much as an oversized homemade Joust cabinet, except that instead of two pairs of joysticks and buttons you have five, and there's an identical cabinet bedecked in enemy colors bolted back-to-back with yours. The opposing teams each have four workers and one queen; each round ends when one team guides their 2D antvatars to victory by collecting a certain amount of resources, killing the enemy queen a certain number of times, or riding the snail that hangs out on the bottom of the screen into their goal.
Of course, you probably won't understand that when you first step up to Killer Queen; you'll probably take over a vacant joystick, as I did, and spend a few rounds puzzling out why you're a vibrant blue raccoon man chasing purple balls of goo and dodging a ruddy gold flying woman with a sword in what looks like a Joust level littered with iron maidens. Figuring out the rules of Killer Queen is half the fun; the other half comes when you realize that while it's possible to learn the game in a few rounds, mastering the game with a team of like-minded enthusiasts might take a lifetime.
Progenitors Nikita Mikros and Josh DeBonis are working to develop a less expensive machine and get the game into arcades in San Francisco and New York, but for now there's only one Killer Queen cabinet in existence, and the only way to play is catch it on tour at a gaming festival like IndieCade or make pilgrimage to its home in the NYU Game Center. DeBonis and Mikros aren't talking about bringing the game to PC or consoles, but even if they did it wouldn't be quite as good; Killer Queen loses something if you don't have nine other people screaming and laughing around you. It's the perfect party game, and reason enough to make the trip to IndieCade.