A few weeks ago at PAX South 2016 we stumbled upon a unique Party game by the name of Ultimate Chicken Horse. Standing out from the crowd, Ultimate Chicken Horse places you in a 2-4 player platforming brawl where your objective is to run, jump, and parkour your way to the finish while at the same time preventing your fellow farm animals from accomplishing the same objective. How does that work? Read on and we'll break it down.
A Competitive Platformer?
Just about every other game genre has a pretty deep bench of competitive titles, but to me Platformers have always seemed to shy away from competition. The reason is pretty intuitive: it is hard to make "platforming competition" fair. There are a few titles that allow tandem speed runs of a given level, and in fact the tinyBuild darling SpeedRunners is pretty much just that with some other mechanics mixed in. What is far more rare is a competitive Platformer that mixes in strategy elements, and in fact ZeptoLab's King of Thieves is the only title I think I've ever seen which even attempts this. With pre-built levels, there is an inherent "fairness" to the competition. All players have to perform against the same criteria, and they usually don't have inside knowledge into how the game was constructed that would give them an unfair advantage. Ultimate Chicken Horse takes a very different approach and lets players build the platforming challenges themselves in real time.
Off the menu
Allowing players to create platforming levels that are objectively fair is tough. A level can move from easy, to tough, to soul crushing with some very minor tweaks. Ultimate Chicken Horse solves this problem first by making the platforming challenge one that everyone must face. You may be pleased with yourself when you slot your crossbow into the last safe lane toward the flag, but your smirk will fade when your cute robot rabbit takes a bolt to the chest just as you finish running the sawblade wipeout death gauntlet that proceeded it. Therein lies some of the subtle genius of Ultimate Chicken Horse, as it quickly adapts your thinking to "what can I get away with" instead of "how hard can I make this". The result feels pretty fair. Mobility options such as running and wall jumps added to intrinsic differences in player platforming skill make predicting the outcome of a round difficult - even the lowly platforming noob can sometimes circumvent an obstacle in a way no one else noticed. Taking down the "star player" with a hockey puck to the groin also feels pretty good.
Brawling > Tango
With a full team of four, Ultimate Chicken Horse is that special kind of Party-Mayhem game that is a great seed for "that time" reminiscences. This is especially true when the four players are friends that you usually game with or otherwise know well enough to enjoy chopping with spinning saw blades. This is clearly the goal of the developer Clever Endeavour, and in chatting with CEO Richard Atlas at PAX South he emphasized that he recognized early that planning for online multiplayer was essential to the game's success. It is probably not surprising then that the game feels a little less balanced with just two players, resulting in more rounds of "impossible" and "easy" outcomes - more like a warm up for the next game with four. If you do have only two, I highly recommend you track down some others online and scale things up to full insanity.