Sidescrolling run-and-gun games are, arguably, a classic that never seem to go out of style. Games like Contra and Gunstar Heroes, with their multiple weapon types, hundreds of attacking enemies, and billions of bullets whizzing past your head are a frantic and fun diversion. Naturally if you're going to make a run-and-gun game, these are the key elements you'll want to have present.
Gunslugs borrows heavily from these tropes, but still manages to come up as a unique and fun shooter with a large emphasis on the silly.
Gunslugs (PS Vita [reviewed], iOS, Android)
Developer: Abstraction Games
Publisher: Orange Pixel
Released: February 18, 2014 (Vita) / January 17, 2013 (iOS) / September 2, 2013 (Android)
MSRP: $2.49 (Vita), $1.99 (iOS), $1.49 (Android)
The first thing most will notice about the game is the look: a decidedly retro aesthetic is evident with its pixelated graphics, super-deformed characters, and minimalist backgrounds. I must admit the first time I saw this title, I wasn't impressed with the graphics. It looked like Contra and Metal Slug had an ugly baby. However, the sloppy schlock of it all grew on me, and it's mostly thanks to the soundtrack and control.
Gavin Harrison's chirpy chiptune soundtrack is a delicious throwback to games gone by, and his pulsing tunes really set the mood for the frenetic shooting. And boy is there a lot of it. Your basic M.O. is to run to the right side of the screen and shoot everything. Enemies, crates, giants walkers, helicopters. EVERYTHING.
As you shoot, enemies and crates drop ammo pick-ups, and different weapons, such as flamethrowers, egg guns (?), and dual-wielding pistols (which have you shooting in front of and behind you. Wow, what a change!). Sadly, once these weapons run out, you switch back to your standard pistol. It would have been nice for the option to switch weapons on the fly, but honestly, it's a minor quibble at best.
All of this would be nothing if the game wasn't fun and easy to control, and thankfully, the minimalist approach does wonders for the gameplay. Jumps are precise, you need only to hold down the fire button to shoot, and movement is quick and fluid.
As soon as you drop into the action -- literally, via parachute into every stage -- you're being shot at. As you mow down baddies you must also take down beacons, as they summon more troops. Eliminate all the beacons and get to the end of the stage where a helicopter takes you to the next level. Every three stages ends with a giant boss fight, and then you're off to a new locale.
There's a surprising amount of variety in Gunslugs, and this is mostly due to the game's random level generator. The layout of each stage is randomly configured, so If you die in level 2-1, the next time you play it, nothing is where it was before. This may go against the grain of memorizing patterns like in the shooters of yore, but that actually brings a freshness to the genre, as well as allowing for a unique experience each time you play.
That said, the randomness to the level design can sometimes be too random, as boxes and landmines may sometime pop-up in impossible to avoid areas, or power-ups (bought with coins dropped by foes) may not be able to be bought when the item shop generates at the beginning of the stage.
There are several optional objectives to clear beyond taking out the beacons and the bosses, offered up three at a time, such as blowing up three enemies at once, playing as a certain unlockable character, or driving a tank (another Metal Slug comparison) over five enemies in a row. These objectives carry over through multiple playthroughs, so if you've completed a few and die, you can pick up where you left off, objective-wise.
And die you will. While it's not a one-hit kill situation like Contra, your life bar can get depleted fairly quickly with all the chaos and explosions happening around you. Once it's gone, you're dead. One life to live. Continues can be bought but are hard to come by due to the random nature of levels. Ammo too is a precious commodity, and once that bar is empty you'll have no way to battle -- though thankfully ammo drops aren't as rare as continues.
While there is a story, the real draw to the game is getting the high score and unlocking the goofy characters. Even though they don't really offer anything beyond a cosmetic change, the character names really got a chuckle out of me, with such action-movie cliches as Willis Kiyay and Bad Ass Barracuda rocking the super-deformed look. There's even a few minigames peppered throughout that pay homage to older titles that aren't even shooters, such as Super Mario Land and Donkey Kong, used to help refill your health and ammo bars, as well as offering a brief reprieve from all the bullet-hell.
Gunslugs is a great tribute to the old school, while still maintaining a fresh outlook on the genre. While its random level generation isn't perfect, the control and chaos at play here is a fun distraction for an afternoon. You'll shoot a lot, you'll die a lot, and you'll always be moving right, but you'll always be having fun too.