Wait ... a Raskulls game? In 2010? What's next, Pele's Superstar Soccer?
Who still remembers the Raskulls, those third-rate Smurf knockoffs from the 1980s? Even the biggest fans of Peter Cullen and June Foray probably recycled their tapes of the Ruby-Spears cartoon, which aired on ABC's Saturday morning cartoon block for a few months in early 1984. The Kenner toy line, Star comics series, and Atari 2600 game (released in the wake of the crash of 1983) were all embarrassing failures. Even the Snorks looked good next to the Raskulls.
Okay, absolutely none of this true, but this fake history perfectly fits the tone of Raskulls, an XBLA exclusive from Halfbrick Studios that combines racing with puzzle-platforming. It might be a brand new property, but Raskulls is an obvious parody of The Smurfs and the assorted rip-offs that littered the Saturday morning airwaves back in the 1980s. The self-aware and absurd Raskulls basically Shrekifies The Smurfs.
Like the '80s icons, the Raskulls are a clan of unusual characters distinguished solely by their names and outfits. Instead of blue skin and white hats, the Raskulls sport cute skull faces like supremely unnerving Smurf skeletons.
The clothes make the Raskull, as each character's outfit defines their name and personality. King is an arrogant attention hog, Knight is a well-meaning bully, and the Raskull in the duck suit is an irritable joker with a speech impediment. (Because, like fast food spokescows, ducks are smart enough to speak English, but not smart enough to speak it correctly.)
The fractious Raskulls face a crisis when a space-faring rat pirate with a Napoleon complex steals their primary power source. This dispute is settled like every other in the world of the Raskulls: with a foot race that borrows from Mario Kart and Solomon's Key.
From the single-player Mega Quest to the online and local multiplayer modes, Raskulls is basically a dash to the checkered flag. You search for the quickest route by jumping and breaking blocks that clog up passageways and shortcuts. The blocks are often stacked on top of each other and will drop when a lower block disappears. If a block falls on your Raskull, you'll lose valuable time. When blocks of the same color touch they combine to form a larger block; it still only takes a single wave of your wand to eliminate a block of a single color, no matter how big it is. There are also metal blocks that can only be cleared with multiple time-consuming hits or by making four or more touch each other.
Along the way your Raskull fills up its Frenzy meter by collecting bottles or soaking up yellow energy dots. Frenzy generates brief spurts of extreme speed. There are also a variety of power-ups and weapons, including lightning bolts, pink zaps that destroy up to three blocks at a time, and flaming speed boosts that turn your character into a block-busting Raskull cannonball.
The multiplayer races -- bite-sized frenetic romps of madcap jackassery -- will likely give Raskulls a long life, especially the local four-player split-screen. But the Mega Quest solo campaign is no afterthought. Lengthy, light-hearted cutscenes set up the ridiculous story, which never become a drag -- despite the often weak humor and one-note characters. A few dozen races are accessible from a Super Mario-style overworld map. Many of the levels are races against AI opponents, but there's no egregious rubber-banding on display.
Mega Quest also breaks up these races with a few puzzle variations on Raskulls' core mechanics, like finishing without depleting your Frenzy meter or breaking as few blocks as possible. These subtle variations on the rules of Raskulls keep the Mega Quest fresh throughout its three worlds.There's little truly innovative about Raskulls, and its non-stop attempt to charm (never as funny as it thinks it is) nearly backfires. But with its solid mechanics, well-designed levels, and cute characters, only a grizzled old Gargamel wouldn't enjoy their time with the Raskulls.
This review is based on the final 360 of Raskulls, provided by Halfbrick. Garrett Martin is a Boston-based freelancer who covers the video game industry for the Boston Herald and other publications.