I’ve always been a fan of side scrolling fighting games. I don’t exactly know what it is, but there’s something inherently entertaining about being able to mostly ignore any storyline and concentrate more on beating the tar out of anything you come across. I’ve been a ninja, a karate master, a body builder, a knight in shining armor, and a dozen other cliché video game characters in the side scrollers I’ve played over the years and as long as the base mechanics are done right, it’s almost always a recipe for success.

When I heard there was a new side scroller coming to Xbox Live Arcade my interest was piqued. But when I heard it was called The Dishwasher, I immediately groaned and started thinking that it must be some strange mix of a kung fu movie and cleaning up after dinner. Digging deeper into things I discovered that there’s an interesting story behind the game, and the man who brought it into being almost entirely by himself, James Silva.

 

Like many gamers, Silva started thinking about making games soon after he started playing them as a kid. It started on the PC. "I learned how to program, to make little text adventures in BASIC. And that was the start of something." He went on to tell me about how things grew from there, "I was drawing maps and characters for video games I felt must be made. Of course if you’re twelve you don’t exactly have the muscle to get them published."

I’m twenty eight years old at this point and I still don’t have the muscle to get anything published. Silva didn’t either, until Microsoft’s Dream-Build-Play competition gave him a little boost in 2007. Intended to showcase games created with Microsoft’s XNA framework (a standardized set of programming tools that allow just about anyone with a computer to make games for the Xbox 360 and publish them via Xbox Live) the competition’s grand prize was $10,000 and a license to publish on Xbox Live. Silva’s prototype of The Dishwasher took it home.

I asked him about that, too. "When I submitted it and put it out there, and then graduated from school, I thought ‘Well I guess it’s career time. The whole game thing just isn’t going to work out’. That was the reality, I thought ‘It’s time to give up and grow up’." After getting my hands on the game I think he shows a lot of promise in his chosen career.

If you ever played Double Dragon back in the day, or more modern titles like Castle Crashers or Alien Hominid HD, you already know the basics. Viewed entirely from a 2D side scrolling perspective, the game soon had me navigating the dark and dank world of the game’s undead, dish washing protagonist. The game’s levels are loosely bound together by bits and pieces of a storyline that are presented to you in comic book form, but it’s not a narrative that ever really drew me in.

I’m ok with that though, because Dishwasher isn’t a game about story. Like all the old school side scrollers it’s a game about action. Running around and battling cyborgs that are vaguely reminiscent of the Men in Black was something I was really enjoying, right up until the game’s learning curve mercilessly beat me down. I had to go back and repeat the early levels a handful of times just to build up the experience points and powerups to move onward, and even then found myself struggling to some degree. When I asked him about this, Silva told me he was worried the game would just turn into a senseless button masher, thus the various combo moves you’ll need to learn to be effective.

Later on in the game I gained a selection of spells of varying effect along with new weapons and upgrades, after which the difficulty felt a bit more even keeled. The Shift Blade is one of the more interesting finds, and it almost felt like cheating to be able to teleport around the screen at will, avoiding enemies and making quick sneak attacks. Further into the game I got the "Arsenal", a pair of guns that shakes up the gameplay a bit by giving you a ranged attack. Last but not least is the chainsaw, and seriously, who can’t get behind the idea of an undead ninja with a chainsaw?

The levels managed to keep me interested for most of the game, the environments always throwing in little twists on the style of their seemingly hand-drawn graphics. There’s a decent selection of enemy types, but even so I ended up chopping my way through so many that not even halfway through the game I felt that many of them were very overused.

Dishwasher has an interesting take on multiplayer. As many as three players can get together at once, but instead of all of you being clones of the protagonist, the second player takes the form of his shadow, while the third player takes on the role of a guitar that follows the others around, a reference to the fun but unexpected Guitar Hero-esque music minigame I kept bumping into on various levels. It’s a non-standard multiplayer setup but the dynamic is well thought out. Two players can beat on the bad guys while the third plays various combinations of notes (either with a controller or the compatible Rock Band or Guitar Hero peripherals) to produce powerups to keep the others going. It’s the sort of soldier/medic combination that I’ve always enjoyed so much in games like Team Fortress.

Microsoft’s XNA initiative seems to be gaining steam. It continues to evolve, and Microsoft has promised support for downloadable content in the next version, XNA 3.1. A hit like The Dishwasher surely brings much needed encouragement to an entire community of developers working with XNA, gamers just like you and I pouring their hearts and souls into countless projects, all hoping to give us a chance to see the fruits of their labor one day.

"I think it’s an awesome initiative. It’s something that you’ve never seen before." Silva told me. He also spoke about how development for the everyman is now becoming a reality, and how it’s not something that’s possible on any other console platform currently. "If you’re just a dude programming in his spare time, developing your own game isn’t possible. XNA is really unique in terms of that."

And it’s true. I’ve never seen anything like it before on a console. Judging by the avalanche of amazing, independently developed content on the PC, I think we’re only scratching the surface of what the XNA community has to offer us. Grab a copy of The Dishwasher and get a first hand look at what one gamer can do given the time, the tools, and the talent.

 Title: The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai
Price: $10
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Score: 7.5 out of 10