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Chaotic and Clever Multiplayer Games from PAX West 2023

I've shied away from multiplayer gaming in my old (read: over 15) age, but games like Overcooked have shown me that chaos and absurdity can be a delight. We checked out a few multiplayer games on PAX West 2023, and some creative ideas really captured my attention.

Crab Fight 2

Crab Fight 2 is extremely stupid. Like, it is so stinking dumb. It is absolutely peak stupidity, and it’s terrific.

I remember seeing buzz about Crab Fight when the original came out, but I never really looked into it. When we saw the sequel on display at PAX West 2023, Kenny stepped up to the controls and, well, fought. As a crab.

The demo for Crab Fight 2 started with you choosing a crustacean, and then arming them with absurd weapons. As far as I can tell, you aren’t actually playing as the crab in this game, but rather as a knight riding on the back of a giant crab. The gameplay is silly, physics-based fun of trying to maneuver a massive, wonky creature through weird arenas to wail on an opponent.

Crab Fight 2 seems to be built on a rather flimsy premise, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of goofy fun. Plus, the fact that the first game did well enough to justify a sequel bodes well for this release.

Smack Studio

Smack Studio might have been the most impressive game I saw at PAX West 2023, and I didn’t even play it. There were a handful of indie games inspired by Super Smash Bros. all pushed back into the same corner of the show floor. They all looked pretty competent but had big enough crowds that I didn’t make the time to wait to play them.

What made Smack Studio stand out from the pack is its character creator. I know I’ve seen this game pop up around Twitter a few times, and interpreted it as basically a Smash Bros. game where you could draw a fighter, Drawn to Life-style. While watching folks fight on their big demo screen, a couple of nearby computers running the character creator caught my eye, and I got totally hooked.

It’s hard to explain this in text, but basically, Smack Studio’s bespoke character creation software allows players to attach 2D sprites to a 3D puppet. To make a leg, you’d draw a calf, thigh, and foot, all of which get attached to a rig in a 3D space. The game then uses a custom algorithm (not machine learning), to understand how your 2D foot should look in a 3D space. So, you draw a foot once, program a walk cycle for the 3D puppet, and then the program will spit out a 2D sprite sheet of that walk cycle, with new animation frames of the foot based on your original drawing.

It’s wild and weird and complicated. It sort of feels like the reverse process of how the sprites for Donkey Kong Country were created. Instead of photographing a 3D model, you draw the character once and the program creates animation frames. It is so dang cool, and according to the team that walked me through it, it’s also fully intended for people to use to create characters in Smack Studio or to take them outside of the game to other projects.

I'm sure the game is fun, too, but the character creator in Smack Studio is something to keep an eye on.

Wild Woods

Wild Woods is a dangerous game. Kenny and I sat down to check out this chaotic multiplayer game on our last morning and got absolutely absorbed by it. I don’t know how long we played this demo for, but it felt like way, way too long. Way too long.

Wild Woods is sort of like Overcooked, except instead of your team of four running a kitchen, you are escorting a wagon through monster-infested woods. When enemies show up, simple hack-and-slash controls let you attack them.

The complication comes from managing the cart itself. The back of the cart has a spot where you can chuck logs in, so without really knowing why we started chopping down trees whenever we didn’t have monsters to fight. You can pick up logs and carry them to the back, or toss them to another player if you are coordinated enough to work together.

We found out what the logs were for when night fell, and suddenly the logs we’d gathered started getting burned up to light up the world around the cart. Without logs to burn, enemies attacked our vulnerable cart unseen.

The next in-game day we started seeing flowers and learned that we could deposit them on the side of the cart to create healing potions. Collecting gold dropped from enemies lets us buy upgrades at shops along the way.

Eventually, we came upon a boss fight where our cart parked and we took down a massive enemy. The combat in this fight started to feel a little thin, but shouting out warnings to each other about when to heal or dodge kept the game fun.

I’m not sure how long the full release of Wild Woods will be, or if it will have enough twists on the core mechanics to stay interesting, but playing the demo was an absolute blast.

My Singing Monsters: Furcorn Karaoke

My Singing Monsters is the sort of mobile game I tend to avoid. From what I can tell, it’s a management-slash-town-building-slash-monster-taming game where everything you do feeds back into populating your screen with grotesque little guys who constantly belt out tunes. The art style is adorably ugly, but the gameplay loop isn’t for me.

However, at PAX West 2023 the My Singing Monsters team caught tons of passersby with a bespoke multiplayer game called Furcorn Karaoke that ruled. A giant TV was set up in front of four levers that moved up and down. On the screen, four monsters sang along to tunes, adjusting their pitch based on the levers. Players were challenged to move their lever to follow tracks on the screen to keep their monster on key.

You’ve seen Trombone Champ, right? It was that, but with ugly monsters.

This may not have been the most original idea, but between the silly songs, the fantastically illustrated monsters, and the interesting control mechanic it actually made for a really great demo at the show. I have no idea if this game will actually receive a release since it was built purely as a way to pull people into the booth to sell them on the mobile game, but it was a lot of fun.

… and more!

It's taken me ages to sift through all the games we played at PAX West 2023. I have already shared some thoughts on Retro Revivals and games that pay tribute to specific classics, and still to come are some games I already had high hopes for, games that looked great even though I didn't touch them, and some non-gaming highlights!

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