Arena-like games are seeing a resurgence in this era, with titles like Towerfall and Gun Monkeys -- games that take us back to the days where local play reigned supreme, and couch parties were commonplace. They offer up a unique blend of fighting game-esque strategy and platformer grace -- a combination that's pretty rare, even dating back to the retro era.
Samurai Gunn seeks to capture the essence of arena fighting in a rather unique way, as it takes a minimalist approach that favors skill over flash. Despite the lack of online play, I'd say it succeeds in spades.
Samurai Gunn (Mac, PC [reviewed], PS4, Vita)
Released: December 10, 2013 (PC) / TBA 2014 (Mac, PS4, Vita)
MSRP: $14.99 ($11.99 until December 17th)
Samurai Gunn is a 2D retro-styled platformer fighting game with support for up to four players. Fights take place in an arena-like setting, with no "items" or any other outside interference to speak of. It's just you, your sword, a gun with three bullets, and your wits -- that's it. The 8-bit visuals suit the game perfectly, which places a solid action engine above fancy graphics.
Despite the lack of bravado, Samurai Gunn has an incredible amount of depth to it. First off, your projectile attack is limited to three bullets per life -- once you've used them all up, your gun is useless. The projectile itself also isn't instantaneous, giving sharp foes a chance to dodge it. The flipside is that by striking an incoming bullet with perfect timing, you can send it back to your opponent. You can also aim up or down, and shoot while jumping, catching the enemy off guard. It sounds simple enough, but the strategic possibilities are almost endless, and most players will adapt their own personal playing style.
You can try to psyche your opponents out by never shooting, instead conserving your ammo for a precise moment -- or simply choose to concentrate on flinging bullets back. Melee combat is just as rewarding, as even the slightest amount of elevation can mean the difference between a killing stroke and a whiff. When you hit at an exact moment as your opponent your swords will clash, which will send you flying backwards as a result of the momentum. Jumping feels precise, and when you mix in the wall-jump mechanic it opens up a gigantic finesse ceiling to aim for as you attempt to perfect your skills.
It helps that there's tons of different stages to fight in, complete with multiple themes and concepts to keep things interesting, like bamboo-filled jungles and eerie graveyards. My personal favorite arenas involve anything with spikes, and a specific stage whose only platform shrinks after each death. There's lots of variety outside of those concepts as well, with hazards like sticky surfaces, and Pac-Man-type "warp" points that throw you into another part of the level. Arenas are perfectly sized too as to encourage constant combat, but also give you some room to move.
Sadly, there's no online multiplayer to be found -- not even peer to peer, so you're stuck hooking up controllers to your PC and inviting some buddies over. So unless you really love the concept of an arena action platformer and/or have local friends on hand, maybe Samurai Gunn isn't for you. Without any sort of online multiplayer component, things would be kind of grim if there wasn't a mode capable of solo play -- thankfully, that's where Survival comes in handy.
Although Survival also supports four players, you can still go at it by yourself against AI opponents, essentially in the same way you would in Versus. You'll take on each stage in this fashion with increasing "difficulty levels" that throw smarter, more aggressive enemies at you en masse. It's not something that will keep you entertained nearly as often as good old-fashioned deathmatches, but mastering each stage was far more addictive than I thought it would be.
Samurai Gunn will no doubt have a more limited audience due to a lack of modes, but for those of you who appreciate a deep fighting game, you'll get hours of competitive entertainment out of it. Every time I play it I feel like I've mastered a new piece of the physics engine, or a new nuance to wall-jumping. It's one of those games that keeps on giving years later due to a solid foundation, so long as you have the company to enjoy it with.