With their New Xbox Experience initiative last fall, Microsoft threw an interesting curveball in along with the obvious nips and tucks to their interface: the XNA Game Studio. Basically a simplified programming language for enthusiasts, it gave Joe Average (well, Joe Average with programming knowledge) the ability to create their own games and distribute them over Xbox Live. The figurehead for this movement was a peculiar sidescroller called The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, programmed by James Silva, founder and sole member of Ska Studios.
Ska Studios, formerly Ska Software, had been on the scene for years, releasing a handful of bizarre quasi-horror titles on the PC, including a River City Ransom-esque beat ‘em up called Zombie Smashers X, an RPG called Blood Zero, and several other titles. James quickly became the spokesman for XNA and its ease of use, and MS responded in kind by upgrading The Dishwasher to a full Xbox Live Arcade title. The upgrade was completely deserved, as despite the grassroots nature of the XNA language and many of its titles, Dishwasher is surprisingly polished and smartly executed.
Despite the rough-hewn appearance of the graphics, which eschew color and smooth lines in exchange for sketchy renderings and monochromatic palettes, the tightness of the game’s control is staggering. Dishwasher is a combo-based platformer, a 2D Devil May Cry of sorts, in which you guide the hero (a dead dishwashing samurai, naturally) through a series of levels punctuated frequently by vicious combat. The controls are perfectly tuned and drum-tight, which is crucial in a game that relies on its combo system. Often times, the player will have to switch strategies mid-battle to deal with a multitude of different foes, but even with the action being as absurdly fast as it is the tight controls never let up once, leaving you feeling like a complete badass as you lay waste to the cybernetic hordes. However, the button-mashing frenzy belies a game that will occasionally ask you to slow down and think, as stunned enemies can be subjected to a finishing move, but pressing the button that matches the one floating over their heads results in a shower of health and bonuses. Other times, a lone guitar will invite you to play a solo on it (using a greatly simplified Guitar Hero style interface), earning you even more bonuses as you shred your way through a thrashy riff. This guitar mechanic comes into further play in the 2-player mode, where a second player can help out the first player’s dishwasher by playing along on a Guitar Hero controller.
In addition to the story mode there is also the arcade mode which presents a series of challenges with different rules and conditions than the main game, be it only being able to damage an enemy by juggling them in the air or having to keep a steady stream of combos going to keep your health filled. An additional challenge mode loads you out with two weapons of your choosing, and then sends you through a hellish gauntlet of enemies. Top that off with a healthy load of multiplayer options both local and via Live, and there’s a positively obscene amount of game for only 10 bucks.
Dishwasher: Dead Samurai is certainly not a game for everyone. It hearkens back to the heyday of platforming, but enhances it with punishing difficulty and surprising depth. If more of the Xbox Community Games were like this and less like, say, Fart Rocket (I wish that I was kidding about that title), the XNA program would be a bona fide success.