I like Heroes of the Storm because it's a MOBA you don't have to spend weeks of your life learning, but even it can sometimes be demanding. Coming back after a while away there's definitely a sense of having to regain momentum, putting in effort to catch up with the new maps and characters and the tweaks to the old ones.
Returning to Awesomenauts (opens in new tab) now that it's gone free-to-play has been a smoother experience. Originally released in 2012 by Dutch studio Ronimo, it takes some of the concepts familiar from DOTA and games like it—teams of heroes with powers on cooldown, enemy cores protected by waves of weak NPCs and hardy defences, currency to spend on improving abilities mid-match—and then slaps them onto a side-scrolling platformer with all the color and energy of a 1980s cartoon.
That changes everything. Instead of clicking to move you have direct control of your hero, and can comfortably play with a controller (I prefer keyboard and mouse, but the option's there). Attacks need to be aimed, making every shot a skill shot, and instead of staring at your ability bar to see when Ball Lightning is coming online you engage with the action. The readability problem other games in the genre struggle with is reduced, the size of the characters and cartoon aesthetic making it easier to tell what's going on and what you're supposed to take away from it.
Those characters are great too. They feel like castoffs from Saturday morning cartoons, like a crossover between BraveStarr, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, five shows about aliens that look suspiciously like Earth animals, and two about giant robots. Each has their own theme song that plays on the character select screen, with Froggy G's bouncy rap a highlight.
There's a French chameleon assassin who leaves decoys and turns invisible, a hairdresser in a VR helmet that makes her think she's using her scissors to cut hair and not throats, a Russian monkey cosmonaut who turned his rocket into a jetpack, and a squid sea captain named Admiral Swiggins. That's not even half of them.
And, blessed relief, there's no meta to speak of. Almost every one of the characters is a valuable part of a three-Awesomenaut team, and nobody throws a tantrum in the chat window because someone bought the wrong power-up. Only Clunk, a robot with a bite attack and self-destruct button, is seen as a bit of a liability in competitive play—everyone else is worthwhile.
That's not to say it's perfect. While Awesomenauts is the easiest MOBA to recommend to new players, those new players immediately face a two-part tutorial narrated by a robot with an incredibly annoying voice. It's skippable, but doing so means losing out on a hefty amount of Awesomecoins, the currency used to unlock characters who aren't part of each week's free rotation. And though Awesomenauts initially did without experience points, instead relying on Solar—basically gold—for in-game levelling up, they were later added by an expansion and have proved controversial. It's another reward for the team that's already winning, and another thing for new players to learn about.
But the matches are quick, usually around 15-17 minutes long, and the chat's relatively free of rage. Perhaps the quick matches and bright colors help keep it friendly—Overwatch is the only online game where I'm less likely to come out of a loss feeling frustrated by it. When you die you get launched back into the fight via drop pod, and spend most of your wait steering it to the ground collecting Solar on the way. It's a minigame that gives you something to do while waiting to rejoin play instead of stewing on your failure.
Another plus is that there are mods if you want some more maps or to sample the chaos of no-cooldown mode. Custom mode lets you try out these, as well as offline split-screen play, which is something I wish more MOBAs had, though perhaps it's uniquely suited to Awesomenauts' side-on view.
Going free-to-play has given Awesomenauts a boost in player numbers, and I usually only have to wait a couple of minutes for a game at the moment. (During the wait there's a secret minigame you can find by pressing the tiny play button in the corner of your Awesomecoins balance, top right. You're welcome.) It's impossible to say how long this burst of interest will last, but Awesomenauts certainly deserves a second chance. In a crowded genre it's a rare standout, one with personality and the confidence to mess with the formula.
I'll leave you with Leon Chameleon's theme tune, a straight-up Serge Gainsbourg chanson. Leon is for lovers.