Runbow is an unusual fusion. Not just because it’s a platformer with fighting, but because it’s a party game for the hardcore: a venue for friendly drinking and trash talk that’s guaranteed to drive away inexperienced players. Party games usually avoid too much challenge, because they want everyone in the house to join the fun, but Runbow embraces difficulty and laughs at your tears.
Racing across the game’s elegant 2D landscapes, you can jump and punch, either to bypass murderous obstacles or to knock other players into them. With punches in various directions, double-jumps, stomp attacks, and an interestingly floaty physic system, the game takes the limited inputs of a D-pad and two buttons and combines them into a surprisingly complex language.
And then it speaks that language at you really, really fast. Even without a single opponent, Runbow’s courses are full of opportunities for instant death, full of patterns that abruptly change, sections where a single wrong move means doom, and puzzles that need to be solved while a wall of spikes charges toward you. All the while, the background rapidly changes color to make platforms disappear, so even when you’re on a platform, you won’t be safe for long. The effect is dizzying, and all the game’s elements, from the impressively quick loading times to the subtly quantized sound effects, reinforces the feeling of velocity, making you feel harried even when you’re selecting character skins. Even the game’s gloating (but pretty funny) game-over messages add to the intimidation factor. Though one of Runbow’s primary features is its local multiplayer, this is not a game to play with the whole family unless your last name is Skywalker.
But if you’re comfortable with the game’s “die, die again, die better” premise, the experience is cruel, but never mean. As in the Rayman series, the brightly colored art design and bouncy music does a lot to mitigate the viciousness of the level designs. And the plentiful cameos by the stars of other indie games give it the charmingly inclusive feeling of the Hanna Barbera “Laff-A-Lympics”; the designers wanted their party game to feel like a game party, and it’s delightful to race against old friends you haven’t played with in a while.
Runbow is also generous with its modes, providing plenty of different ways to approach its basic gameplay. For single or co-op play, there are two different challenge modes: one an enormous selection of bite-sized challenges of selectable difficulty, the other a willfully brutal, no-saves-allowed sequence of cunning traps. For competitive multiplayer, there’s the basic Run mode, a King of the Hill game that relishes making the titular hill barely accessible and easily lost, and an Arena mode for pure player-on-player murder with plenty of environmental hostility to help the blood flow. There’s also the fascinating Colour Master mode, in which player race to the exit while the player with the GamePad drops obstacles in their path. It’s not quite the perfect Wii U dungeon-master versus player that gamers have long hoped for (certain power-ups make kills a bit too easy), but it’s the closest thing we’ve gotten so far.
The game is built around the joys of local multiplayer, with a clever system that allows the five-controller Wii U to support nine-player multiplayer. But online play is seamlessly integrated, letting you start with as many local players are you’ve got, then fill out the rest of the roster with folks on the Internet. When you die early in a round (and, believe me, you will), watching the rest of the round play out is surprisingly entertaining, especially since the game provides a taunt button for playing to the stands. Runbow doesn’t support any kind of friend codes, party system, or voice chat; like Splatoon, it keeps online multiplayer completely anonymous. And that works tremendously well. The combination of interaction and anonymity means you can invent all sort of colorful dramas for the characters, and the 10-round matches encourage you to impose the sort of rivalries that always energize sports matches.
Runbow is gleefully hard, but that glee means it’s a good time rather than a slog. As long as you’re okay with dying a lot and being mocked for it, both by the machine and by your friends, it’s a great time. After all, one of the greatest joys of video games is the fantasy of being happily indifferent to death, and Runbow indulges that fantasy with aplomb.