Ultimate Chicken Horse’s levels look like sketches of booby-trapped underground lairs I drew when I was six years old. They’re patchwork obstacle courses of spike traps and wrecking balls where arrows bend round black holes right into the path of the helpless squirrel you’re controlling. And all of it is built, piece by piece and turn by turn, by you and your friends.
That’s the game’s hook: you start off with a blank slate and gradually create a platform monstrosity out of wooden planks, trap doors, and robots that fire rideable paper aeroplanes. Each player chooses an object at the start of a round and plonks it wherever they choose. Then everybody has a go completing the level simultaneously before adding another block and repeating the process. The creation tools are simple but after a few rounds you’ll have something that you can only complete by pulling off the most ridiculous of shimmies.
So why write about it now, more than 18 months after it first came out? Well, it’s just got a major new update called Elephantastic, and I reckon it’s the perfect excuse to jump in. The free update is timed to coincide with the PS4 launch, and adds cross-play. But it also adds a Challenge Mode that will help rookies perfect their jumping, new toys to play around with, and two new levels, one of which is brilliant. Plus, now you can be an elephant. Mustn’t forget about that.
One of the new levels, Volcano, isn’t all that special. Its gimmick is a series of shifting platforms balancing on jets of molten lava. It looks impressive, but there’s no getting away from the fact they’re just platforms moving slowly up and down.
However, the other new stage, Jungle Temple, is one of the best in the game. You jump through its ruins and collect a giant coin to trigger a rolling boulder that crushes everything in its path, Indiana Jones-style. Triggering that boulder, either accidentally or deliberately (you get more points if you finish the level with the coin), leads to a manic scramble to get out of its path. If you can find a nook you can take cover, but otherwise you’ll have to run for it, leaping between platforms and dodging traps to reach the red flag before you’re squished.
It adds a sense of panic to a game that already tests your nerves. The sheer number of traps keeps me constantly on edge, which is why I’ve missed more simple jumps in Ultimate Chicken Horse than I have in any other game. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve died because my hands were so excited about the impossible gap I’d just slipped through that they sent me clumsily off the edge of a cliff. It’s a game as much about holding your nerve as mechanical skill.
It’s also a game about finding the right mix of difficulty and enjoyment. Lay out a simple path and it’ll be dull (you’ll know by the "Too Easy" emotes spammed in chat), but too difficult and you won’t be able to finish it. You’re also competing against your friends for a high score, so you’re trying to build the level around their weaknesses. Maybe they’re great at dodging traps but can’t get to grips with blocks covered in ice, for example. I’m playing with someone who’s much better than me, so I try to get a cheap win early on and then spend the rest of the time making the whole thing impossible. It’s a valid tactic, I reckon.
Thankfully, even if you’re bad at the jumping bits you can have fun in other ways. You get points for completing levels, but you also get points for killing your friends with well-placed traps. The new items in the Elephantastic update fit the bill perfectly. Chief among them is a giant wrecking ball that obliterates any player it slams into, and a spike trap that activates a second after you first touch it. Hop on and off quickly and your friend coming up behind you will get the point.
This is definitely a game that’s better with friends. You want someone to share those great escapes with, those crazy runs where you’re not quite sure just how you avoided both the punching sunflower and the flying hockey puck at the same time. My friend got out of a sticky situation by warping in and out of a black hole’s range so that it spat him out at exactly the right angle. "IT POOPED ME OUT!" he screamed with delight. It’s not a moment I’ll forget in a hurry.
But if you are playing alone, then the new Challenge Mode is a good place to start. You play levels made by other players where your goals are chiefly to just get through the damn thing in one piece, and secondly to compete against friends for the best completion times. If you’re new to Ultimate Chicken Horse, sort them by difficulty level and get a feel for how far you can jump. And then, when you’re feeling confident, click over to the online multiplayer. You can always find a match, servers fill up quickly, and people are generally friendly. Plus, the emotes are great for sarcasm. Mess up an easy jump and you’ll get a chorus of "Well Played."
It’s by no means a perfect platformer. Some of those easy jumps you miss will be down to the floaty controls (that’s my excuse anyway), and you sometimes slide off the edge of blocks when it looks like you shouldn’t. But those tiny gripes won’t be enough to stop you having a good time. Grab a group of friends and stomp all over it.