Playing level creation games can be an uphill battle for many—sometimes the toolset is simply too difficult for the layperson to wrap their head around, and even if creating a level itself isn’t the most significant challenge, playing the absurdly hard levels that seemingly-sadistic players make online certainly is. Enter Ultimate Chicken Horse, a game that for the most part, avoids these pitfalls by converting this game creation subgenre into a party game.
Up to four players can participate in this 2D platforming game, placing blocks and obstacles on a level template before attempting to complete the levels themselves. In most game modes, these matches are turn-based, with players continuing to add new elements during every turn. What results is a certain level of insanity, yet has such a strong foundation built with decent platforming gameplay and an endless number of possibilities.
The interactivity of Ultimate Chicken Horse begins almost immediately, with players choosing one of many animal characters and controlling them in an environment to choose menu options. Ultimate Chicken Horse allows for players to customize the ruleset in several ways, containing four basic game modes. Party mode is the default, with players choosing from a limited number of randomized pieces (a “party box,” as the game calls it) from the level creation toolset to place on a blank level, after which the players all try to simultaneously reach the goal with these user-placed obstacles in the way. Points are represented at the end of each round through bar graphs, with matches ending after a certain number of rounds or after a player has won enough of them.
Creative mode is fairly similar, with the difference being that rather from choosing from a limited party box, players can choose any of the level elements from the game’s entire toolkit. Unlike in Party mode, blocks and obstacles that have already been placed can be moved around. Free Play is non-competitive, with no turns and one to four players freely using unlimited pieces from the toolkit. If you’re one of those people who enjoy conjuring up crazy levels for people online, this is the best place to do so. Lastly, Challenge mode allows players to compete in custom levels over completion time and how many coins they collect on the way.
The controls and mechanics themselves are simple and should be familiar to anyone who has played a 2D platformer. Players can run, jump, duck, sprint, wall jump, and do a little dance to taunt or celebrate. While the platforming aspect of Ultimate Chicken Horse doesn’t appear to be as big a selling point as the level creation, the gameplay is still tight and solid enough, feeling not unlike other indie platformers like Super Meat Boy with its dependence on precision and wall jumping. But this game is less predictable and perhaps more unwieldly—unlike a Super Meat Boy or Celeste, these levels are not as carefully curated as the ones in those games.
What really defines the gameplay is a sort of call-and-response aspect to it. Matches will often begin with players trying to figure out how to use blocks and platforms to get them from start to finish. But as you progress from round to round, there’s a bit more thinking involved after a couple of successes and failures. Perhaps two platforms are too far away from each other, so in the next round, you may want to put another one in between. Or maybe an opponent is getting to the end goal too easily, so you’d add a crossbow that automatically shoots out arrows in a certain direction to curtail their progress. It isn’t too hard to do so—player characters go down after just one little hit.
It’s a good thing the toolkit is so varied and versatile to allow this back-and-forth. There are basic blocks and platforms, moving elements like treadmills, falling platforms, portals, and platforms that move up and down or left and right, but then you have a host of dangerous obstacles. Saw blades, wrecking balls, spiked platforms, and even an automated machine that shoots hockey pucks are amongst the one-hit-kill hazards. If your goal is to cause much grief within your friend circle, there are certainly enough options to choose from.
Shockingly, this chaos created from up to four players can eventually turn into something surprisingly cohesive. When nearing the end of the match, the basic parts of the level will be set, and the final rounds will likely be devoted to refinement and minor adjustments. It’s a fascinating metagame, as you attempt to add blocks that make the level just easy enough for you to finish, but also difficult enough to potentially stop your opponents. And it helps that one tool from the kit is the ability to basically blow something up, cleansing the level of undesirable and possibly impossible fixtures.
There is a minimalistic quality to the 2D cartoon art style of Ultimate Chicken Horse, almost to the point where I’d call it “simplistic.” I hesitate to use that potentially derogative and reductive term, but the truth of the matter is that the visuals are not the strongest point of this game. There is a level of childishness or crudeness to the character designs and proportions that do give it a certain charm, but the environments they occupy, while colorful, are a bit bland—squint slightly and it looks South Park-like.
The stages and maps themselves have fun gimmicks that add variety and recontextualize the different level creation tools being used. Most maps will have their own environmental hazards like chasms, barbed wire, or falling elements like ice shards, but some maps are built entirely on some sort of gimmick: a dance floor with obtrusive lights, a pier level with a giant ocean wave, or a volcano map with streams of lava. The latest update of the game that came with the newly-released Switch version comes with a few new stages, including a bridge made entirely out of crumbling blocks, and a circuit board world that leaves cyber trails when players move around in it.
It is the music and sound design that ultimately won me over artistically—it’s where Ultimate Chicken Horse‘s attempts at charm are most successful. The animal characters already have their fun dancing animations, but each animal has their own distinct cries and sound effects. They all sound vaguely like the real-life animals they represent, but there is a comical tint to these noises as they jump around, and either make their ways to victory or plunge to their unfortunate demises. The soundtrack by Vibe Avenue is one of my favorite collections of music from an indie game as of late—it is infused with a number of genres, funk being the most prominent ones. While most of the tracks are variations of the game’s main theme, they all have their own identity, with the relaxing “Waterfall” track being one that I’ve been particularly addicted to. And there’s a Nintendo-like quality to the way the music is implemented with the gameplay, with layers of instrumentation added in each subsequent round.
Unfortunately, there is very little to do with Ultimate Chicken Horse if you don’t have friends in the general vicinity. Besides messing around in free play to create levels for your own pleasure, most of the game modes are useless without multiple people. I can’t guess that anyone will want to boot up the game with the intention of playing many of the levels from the online system by themselves; if that’s the case, there are plenty of other platforming games to choose from. Ultimate Chicken Horse is strictly a game for multiplayer gaming parties.
And yes, there are plenty of four-player party games to choose from—but none are quite like this. There’s a delicate balance of simplicity and complexity in creating levels as a group; the actual mechanics are simple enough to play around with, but the meta aspect of finding the sweet spot of making a level easy for yourself and difficult for others adds a fascinating complexity to it. It certainly stands out amongst other multiplayer titles, and due to its surprising accessibility, is not to be ignored.
The fun of Ultimate Chicken Horse may be limited without others to play with, and its simple art design left a lot to be desired, but at $14.99, these are not good enough excuses to miss out on it. Single-player level creation games are intimidating and not for everyone, but with this particular multiplayer spin on it, you may find yourself to be more creative and thoughtful than you thought you were.