The hidden competitive scene of Ultimate Chicken Horse
There is surprising depth to the casual, party platformer
What do you get when you mix Super Mario Maker multiplayer lobbies with cute animals? What about horse-slicing, raccoon-punting, monkey-punching, chicken-shooting and snake-sawing objects? Ultimate Chicken Horse, obviously.
Ultimate Chicken Horse is a 2D, hand-drawn, animal-filled, multiplayer platformer with a twist. In every round, every player gets to place an object — which can be dangerous or in some way annoying — somewhere along the small map to make it more difficult for others to platform their way to the finish. The goal is to get to the other side of the map, but since it gradually fills up with circular saws, black holes, crossbows, hockey pucks, bee hives and many other objects that will one-shot players, the hope is your opponents do not. It is a fantastic party game for getting away with hilarious, miraculous runs and annoying some friends.
And where there’s competition, there are god-tier level players. Ultimate Chicken Horse has drawn some of the most tactical, precise and speediest platform gamers. The game may not have Super Mario Maker’s player numbers or Celeste’s speedrun infrastructure, but its endearing animations, cute sounds, precise gameplay and involved developer, Clever Endeavour, have turned the competitive scene into a small family.
But make no mistake: Ultimate Chicken Horse is no joke. Yes, Bojack, one of the game’s best players, may think it is “a relatively easy game to get good at.” But, for the less talented players, even beating friends who compete once in a blue moon can be a struggle.
The top Ultimate Chicken Horse players
According to Bojack, the community of top UCH players constantly changes, as is evident in the documentary-style video he made about in-game rivalries. He explained that many have taken breaks over the years or disappeared completely, while some others have stuck around.
One such player is named Coldheart. With many community tournaments and world record speedruns on some of the most difficult custom maps under his belt, he is widely considered to be the GOAT of the game. Kyatta is another name in the conversation of best players, as he won every single tournament for a year straight when Coldheart took a break and Bojack was still only on the rise. But once Coldheart was back and Bojack made a name for himself, the three started trading blows.
“I am pretty confident that in any tournament that any one of the three of us have entered since 2018, nobody else has won,” Bojack said.
However, Bojack does note that while he has been at Coldheart and Kyatta’s level across the game’s entire history, he should not be placed among them. While he has beaten them in the past, his consistency and dominance over the years do not come close to the number of matches the two titans have won. Also, according to Bojack, Coldheart has only ever lost to Kyatta in tournaments.
That is not to say they are the only other good players. In the grand final of the UCH Scholarship Tournament, back in December of 2020, players Vid and SyndromeDeadSoul showcased a high level of skill during a tight battle.
The final highlighted the intricacies of Ultimate Chicken Horse, which go deeper than just having good mechanical platforming skills. Players have to go on a truly clever endeavour to make a map as hard as possible for their opponents but still doable for themselves.
For example, Bojack recently played against a player called Aspie, who is notorious for specific setups.
“In my set with him, he wasn’t able to build any of those things because I’m good for spotting areas where they might be possible to create and changing them preemptively,” he said. “Another player played against Aspie, and Aspie was able to win by setting these things up all over the place. At face value, me and the other player didn’t build so differently, but if you look at it in depth you’ll be able to see the difference. But it’s very nuanced, and never takes place in a single item placement.”
Either way, the emergent gameplay makes for an unpredictable map, where players have to be smart about how they want to set up a difficult obstacle. Building the map over time is an important aspect of the game. Having the foresight to mess up an opponent’s plans is what gives the best players an edge.
In the meantime, while the best players are lifting Ultimate Chicken Horse to a new level, Clever Endeavour never intended for things to get competitive. According to Marketing and Community Lead Steph Herdman, Clever Endeavor does not financially support competitive UCH tournaments but does encourage the community to keep holding them.
“We’re not going to be sponsoring tournaments anytime soon, just because a lot of our users are underage and it gets really messy legally, but we’re there to assist them,” Herdman said. “If people are like, ‘I want to host a tournament,’ I’m like, ‘Okay, great. You can talk to these people about how they host their tournaments.’”
Ultimate Chicken Horse tournaments are generally held in the game’s official Discord server as 1v1 brackets, but there are doubles tournaments as well. The goal, just like when played casually, is to reach the end of the map. But in a competitive match, doing so earns players a point. After 10 rounds, the player with the most points wins the map.
Simple, but not easy. At the start of each round, players get to choose an item from the Party Box. These items include the aforementioned hazards, but also regular building objects, to block off certain pathways or make certain jumps possible.
As items pop up in the Party Box, the players take turns as the first to choose an item per round. In the regular game, when a player dies in a round, they’ll have to wait until all opponents either die or reach the end. But, in the competitive community, players have four lives per round.
Competitive matches are usually played on custom-made maps specifically designed by community members. That means that while players compete, other members of the community are featured through having their maps used in tournaments. But this also makes it hard, if not impossible, to prepare for a map and forces players to think on the fly.
Unpredictable maps aren’t the only challenge in Ultimate Chicken Horse competitions — the game itself can be hard to tame. Players must already have deep knowledge of UCH’s physics, but the developers recently had to adjust for problems they never expected anyone to find.
“There was an issue where they play the game so much, and they play at a level where they’re really paying attention to details,” Herdman said. “And Ultimate Chicken Horse was never meant to be a very precise platformer.”
One example is the wall bug phenomenon, which sometimes stopped players from grabbing the wall and holding on to it, instead falling to their doom. The casual player may not notice, but the competitive community encountered it frequently in their games.
According to CCO and Clever Endeavour co-founder, Kyler Kelly, that kind of issue would have been easier to prevent had the goal always been to make a competitive game. However, if he could do it all over again, that’s probably the direction they would have gone.
“If we were restarting from scratch, I would want to aim for that now,” Kelly said. “It is a good approach. And Ultimate Chicken Horse started as a small unity project. That was kind of our first thing that we worked on together. If I’m redoing it, I would probably be like, ‘let’s do it that way so that we can get more reproducibility in everything.’”
While Clever Endeavour does not intend to turn UCH into a competitive game, they acknowledged that some things had to be fixed before they moved on to the next project. As for Bojack and the competitive community, they hope the fix will keep players from bouncing off the game.
“I couldn’t count the number of players that I’ve personally seen quit the game because they get fed up with the inconsistencies in its physics,” Bojack said. “The competitive community has been asking Clever Endeavour to look at these bugs for a long time for that reason.”
Bojack said he realizes that it may not be a financial priority for Clever Endeavor to make such significant changes for such a small community. However, he said he is grateful for the changes it has reworked thus far due to community outcry.
“This feels to me like Clever Endeavour going out of their way for their core community, which I appreciate to no end,” he said.
A strong foundation for the future of Ultimate Chicken Horse
As Clever Endeavour moves on from Ultimate Chicken Horse, the competitive community now has a solid foundation to keep building on. The studio will continue to address tickets and will keep the servers online. But, for large-scale updates, the journey is over.
“Originally, the co-founders wanted to update Ultimate Chicken Horse every year,” Herdman said. “But with this update, because it took so much longer than we thought and we’re only six people… we made the big decision to make this last one until the next game is finished, at the very least.”
The competitive community, meanwhile, can continue competing as they were, albeit with some updated physics to get used to. But, while the top players are having fun holding their own tournaments via the official Ultimate Chicken Horse Discord server, they will probably not fill up stadiums with spectators for a World Championship.
And that’s completely fine. The competitive community keeps the scene alive with mind-boggling mechanics and well-thought-out item placements, which makes Ultimate Chicken Horse tournaments incredibly fun to watch. They play UCH for the love of the game and the joy of pushing it to the limit. They don’t need much else.