Sometimes, a game can come out of nowhere and totally surprise you. Recently, I’ve been playing a title that I would normally never have thought to even glance at that is now a strong contender for my Game Of The Year. It didn’t have mind-blowing graphics, or an uber-sophisticated physics engine; it was a free 2-D sidescroller, and a movie tie-in at that. I am referring to The Expendabros, a game released by the team behind Broforce to promote The Expendables 3. On paper, it shouldn’t work. It’s barely a couple of hours long, and the graphics would make the NES blush, but somehow, it just adds up to barrels of fun.
It’s based firmly in the old-school Contra model of game design. No regenerating health here, it’s all one-hit kills and multiple lives, meaning a single miss-step can and will result in a grisly death. The side-scrolling combat is essentially par for the course, using the traditional ‘magical bullet hose’ method of giving you infinite ammo, but with the interesting addition of switching traditional grenades for character-specific special moves, all of which are ridiculous in the best possible way.
While these squat, pixellated renderings of the Expendables cast may lack the range of those found in Broforce, stabbing mountains of cookie-cutter henchmen with a cartridge-era Wesley Snipes is immensely enjoyable, and the unique signature weapons add enough variety that the massacre never feels repetitive. This is helped by the automatic character selection: whenever you rescue a new bro from the cages dotted around the levels or your current bro dies, the game will simply swap you out for a new bro, forcing you to cycle through the roster and update your play style accordingly.
The story is virtually non-existent, and the game feels like it wants to call you a nerd and take your lunch money for even bothering with it, rather than just jumping straight into the action. It exists purely as a set up for 8-bit Stallone mowing down legions of anonymous goons, but for those who are interested, it’s got something to do with tracking down Mel Gibson’s character from the film somewhere in Eastern Europe. Or something. The game doesn’t really care and neither should you. It wears its ‘dudebro’ heart on its sleeve, with a notable scene prompting you to button-mash as Stallone ‘flexes’ his way out of his bindings, a level of self-parody that’s kept consistent throughout the game, to the extent that the end of every level is your ‘bro’ being helicoptered away on a rope ladder while the entire level spontaneously detonates behind you for absolutely no reason.
As a promotional freeware game, there’s very little length to it, with the handful of stages able to be breezed through in an hour or so. However, it holds a surprising amount of replay value, as the totally destructible environments and plentiful scenery-restructuring exploding barrels make it easy to take alternate routes through stages. They’re also unspeakably awesome. There’s something about taking out four floors of identical bad guys with a chain-reaction explosion that never really gets tiresome, possibly due to their charmingly over-the-top screaming and running around. It’s old school run-and-gun action at its finest, based on reflexes and instinct rather than precision planning, appealing to the giggling child in all of us. It also retains one very important hang-over from the bygone days of cartridge shooters: local multiplayer.
I was introduced to the game by a friend, and running through the single-player was entertaining enough, taking turns to run through levels while getting verbally harangued by your mates for every failure. But then they joined in. And boy, did it kick up a notch. With multiple players on one screen, an already unhinged experience becomes downright insane; the blocky sameness of the characters make it kind of difficult to keep track of who’s who, and the frantic pace means that the screen is lit up with near-constant detonations. However, counter-intuitively, this non-stop carnage just makes it all the more fun, and the fact that your fellow players are right beside you means you can indulge in real-time trash talk, particularly when your slower friends finish the level just too late to grab the aforementioned rope ladder and end up trapped in a maelstrom of fiery explosive death while you sail cackling into the sunset. The loss of local multiplayer is one of biggest tragedies of modern gaming, and its inclusion is unmistakably the most enjoyable part of Expendabros.
From the ground up, this game is pure dumb fun. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and is unashamedly goofy, excessive and in-your-face, with an honesty that gives it real heart. As a game, it is an absolute blast to play, and seriously tempted me to buy its big brother, Broforce. As a piece of advertising, however, it’s even better. This title is everything The Expendables should be, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to sum up the series than this game. With a basic upgrade system and procedurally-generated, Spelunky-style levels, I think this game could be a legitimate smash hit. It certainly deserves to be. It’s free now on steam: You have no excuse not to pick up The Expendabros and start exploding dudes in the name of freedom.