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At Nintendo's recent eShop showcase there was a constant stream of yells and delighted shouts from one corner, as crowds of nine or ten at-a-time bunched around a single Wii U with a GamePad and four Classic Controllers. The game running in this machine was Runbow, a side-scrolling 2D title that whose name comes from its weird endless runner mechanic. As far as party games go, it's rare to find nine people yelling and whooping like they just played a round of Smash Bros. together in a game where your goal is to move your player from one side of a map to another.
In Runbow's most basic mode, the goal is to get your player to the trophy at the end of the generally short stages first, ahead of the eight other players. Whoever is in the lead determines how how much past its normal leisurely clip Runbow scrolls forward (players who are too far behind are knocked out of the game) being careful to avoid hazards like spikes and endless pits. Get hit by a hazard and you're out. Fall into a pit and you're out. If you fall behind, you're out.
What makes the game harder is that some platforms are different colors of the rainbow, and Runbow's background color is always shifting. If the background color shifts to match a platform, that platform ceases to exist. Now it's not impossible to predict, as the colors dance in and out of the screen before taking over from the top, bottom, left, or right, giving players just enough time to move to the next platform, if they haven't been knocked off.
Runbow also adds to the competition with combat controls like a basic rocket punch. Additionally, you can knock a competing player onto a disappeared platform, spike, or pit. For added humiliation, you can use the "taunt" command to make your avatar do a little dance. If that's not enough, the game's devious power-ups can completely ruin another player's chances of success.
Power-ups in Runbow don't in any way enhance the player character; instead they make the game harder for everyone. One of them reverses the controls, while another inverts the image onscreen, and yet another turns the screen completely gray, making it almost impossible to read which color is changing which platforms. Since Runbow is so fast, a player who grabs these power-ups can use the seconds of disorientation to grab the lead.
Add all this together, and you have one fun competitive gameplay experience where the stakes are low enough and stages short enough to keep everyone engaged. In Runbow you competing as much against the stage as you are each other, whose hazards are often hard enough to make it through without adding the extra difficultly of player combat.
Runbow takes advantage of the GamePad in an exclusive mode called ColourMaster. This mode pits eight players against a single opponent using the tablet controller, who has access to all the power-ups (and more) on a cool-down basis. For every player that makes it to the trophy, their team gets a point, but if the ColourMaster annihilates the team, they get four points.
As the ColourMaster, I soon discovered the best trick was to lay down a a lightning strike (which stuns the other players) right before they got to a pit, then put a bomb next to the pit while they recovered from being stunned. While this whittled down the ranks, it often left a few stragglers, and aside from inverting the controls, the ColourMaster can also call into play his own gray avatar to punch the players away from the target.
ColourMaster is the most evil fun I've had playing a game in a long time; an experience that pits the wits of the GamePad user against the reflexes of the other players. The developer told me that at their office, the ColourMaster would always lose, because the team knows all of the stages and tricks. At the event, though, the ColourMaster often swept the games with scores that were nearly twice as high as the team of players.
Runbow is slated for release later this year, exclusively for the Wii U. It's worth noting that while 13AM Games has nailed a fun multiplayer experience, the team is still working on a single-player option as well. Hopefully we'll hear more from the studio about the rest of Runbow's exciting offerings soon.