One of my favorite multiplayer experiences of all time revolved around one wild night with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. It was my Junior year of college and a room full of friends all got together to try its four-player mode, passing Wiimotes around between deaths. It was the most chaotic thing I have ever experienced, with everyone screaming at one another and slowly descending into madness. That experience has always left me hungry for more cooperative 2D platformers, filling the role that shooters normally hold as my go-to friend games.
KarmaZoo answers that prayer and it does so in a way that’s somehow more functional and more chaotic. A seven-year passion project from Pastagames (and published by Devolver Digital), the multiplayer game is a unique platforming roguelike that’s all about teamwork and spreading love. Players work together to complete platforming levels before a timer runs out, helping one another progress by solving team-based puzzles and utilizing their avatars’ specific animal powers. Sounds simple? Imagine how much more hectic that gets when 10 players are on screen at once.
I played an hour of KarmaZoo with its developers and other members of the press, seeing what a full run looks like with a stacked team. I walked away intrigued by what’s shaping up to be a good-natured multiplayer experience that encourages friendly cooperation over ironic griefing. You better hope you have nine capable friends to play with, though, unless you want to test your patience.
The gist of KarmaZoo is that a team of players lobby up and enter into a 2D platformer with roguelike elements that spans five quick levels. At the start of each stage, players vote on a perk, such as adding more time to the clock. From there, it’s a co-op race to complete a platforming gauntlet before a timer runs out. Levels are loaded with collectible fruits as well and there’s a good incentive to get them, as teams can unlock up to three extra perk options for the next stage depending on how many fruits they’ve collected (some bonus perks we got included one that turned everyone into wolves and another that added a saxophone solo to the background music). Complete all five stages to beat a run, get a wealth of currency, and spend it on new animal avatars.
It’s a simple concept, with lots of intuitive puzzles that require everyone to work together. A basic one will have a player sitting on a button to keep a gate open, allowing everyone else to cross to the other side and press a button there that allows the first person to cross. Others are a little more complex, with players “singing” to illuminate invisible platforms for others or make bells resonate in sync to open doors. Every level I played was easy to understand, only made tricky by trying to coordinate 10 bodies.
There’s one big twist though: Players have to stay close to one another to survive. Each player is surrounded by a bubble that connects with others when close. When attached to a bubble chain, all players within it are safe. Anyone who strays from it and finds themselves going solo, however, will only survive for 10 seconds before dying. It’s an ingenious little system, as it keeps impatient players from running too far ahead of everyone else and encourages everyone to go back and save anyone who falls behind. It’s all part of the game’s core mission: to spread love.
That plays out in a very literal way. The game’s core currency is called Karma Hearts, which can be used to unlock new costumes. Hearts are earned in a variety of ways, from completing levels to helping a friend who’s fallen behind. Players can even thank their friends by donating some of their hearts. In my session, a few people showered me with hearts after I helped them climb a high platform. It’s an endearing reward system that feels like anti-griefing.
The most intriguing aspect of it is its avatar system. Players can buy all sorts of animals with hearts, but they aren’t just cosmetic. Each creature comes with a special ability and levels will generate based on which powers a team has equipped. When we had a spider on our team, we hit levels filled with climbable webs. I personally chose a clam for my character, who could stick onto walls and create a platform for other characters to jump onto. I’m curious to see how deep that system goes because the idea of levels molding to fit 10 different characters sounds impressive on paper.
I had a blast toying around with it during my session, but there were certainly moments when impatience set in. There were times when most of the team would be waiting around for another player to move as valuable seconds ticked by. With 10 players on a team, I imagine those moments could happen a fair amount — especially if playing online with random players. Luckily, there’s an option to only play with a team of friends, as well as a local co-op mode (which seems like the best way to play).
If you’re the kind of person who finds slowpokes frustrating, KarmaZoo also features a competitive mode that’s promising in its own right. It features a variety of minigames, from straight-up races through spike-filled obstacle courses to a battle to see who can light the most torches using a pepper ability before time runs out. The minigames are all Nintendo-like in their execution, reminding me of some of the games featured in Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe.
That comparison isn’t unfounded. The developers at Pastagames say that their goal is to make something that feels like a multiplayer Mario game — but with functional online play. Nintendo is a core inspiration here and I can already feel that in KarmaZoo’s earnest attitude and positive message. It’s a co-op game that flashes me back to that one chaotic evening with New Super Mario Bros. Wii that has stuck with me for over a decade. If it can land that same party game appeal, Pastagames might have a must-play multiplayer oddity on its hands.