Some people argue that games today are too easy. Countless check-points and infinite lives have made failure almost meaningless. Dying no longer means Game Over. Gunslugs is not one of those games. It is a game that is as hard, challenging, and unforgiving as any of the games from the 1980’s in which it pays homage. This can make it so frustrating at times that you’ll want to throw your Vita across the room while shouting obscenities at it (tip: try not to do that), and yet there’s something so compelling about it, you’ll quickly pick it up for another play.
Gunslugs is a chaotic action-shooter where each level is randomly generated, so you’ll never have the same experience twice. You have one life to fight through five distinct worlds and dying will send you instantly back to the start screen. And you will die… a lot. Originally developed as a game for iOS and Android by Dutch developer Orange Pixel, the game has been brought over to the PS Vita by Abstraction Games, the same team that ported Hotline Miami. The game’s creators take pride in the difficulty of their game, but insist that it isn’t brutal or unfair. I would argue their point about it not being brutal, but the game is fair. When you die, it’s because you made a mistake, and you’ll vow never to make that mistake again.
The game begins with you choosing to play as either Johnny Rumble or Gun Chick to go out and fight the minions of the Black Duck Army. The story is about as ludicrous and silly as the action films which inspired it. The mission is simple: fight your way through waves of bad guys while avoiding landmines, tanks, and sandworms as you destroy the beacon stations the Black Duck Army has set up in various locations. You’ll change weapons frequently as you find grenades, flamethrowers, and jetpacks to help kill more enemies. Each world has two levels of this chaotic action before you are faced with an old-school boss battle. Do this successfully and you move on to the next world. Make a mistake and you go back to the beginning to try again.
Every level is filled with a plethora of things to blow up. This carnage rewards you with coins which can then be spent on various items located throughout the game, including the “very rare” continue, which is the only way to get a second chance if you die. The coins and kills quickly add up, as will your score, which is then posted to the game’s leaderboards. You can then compare your high score with that of your friends or other players from around the world.
In addition to running up your score, you are also given over 50 mission objectives to complete. The objectives, doled out to you three at a time (much like Jetpack Joyride or a number of other mobile games), are directly linked to the game’s trophy set. Trophies can only be earned if the objective is first assigned to you, and then completed. This means you can fight your way through the final level, but unless the objective to do so is currently assigned, you will not be seeing that gold trophy just yet. While at first I thought this was a horrible idea, after giving it a lot of thought I came to the conclusion that it is only fitting. Everything else in the game is slightly more difficult, so shouldn’t earning trophies be as well?
Along the way you will find a number of other action heroes in need of rescue. Each one is hilariously named with reference to an 80’s action movie icon. Names such as Willis Kiyay, Bad Ass Baracuda, and Scarlett Sonya are a not so subtle reference to Bruce Willis from Die Hard, B.A. Baracus from the A-Team, and Red Sonja from, well, Red Sonja. Once unlocked, they become playable characters and act as the game’s only check-point system. Each new playable character has the advantage of beginning a new game starting in the level they were first rescued. This makes the fight to the end an achievable feat, but still not an easy one.
While this game may have originally been created for smartphones, it really finds its home on the PS Vita with the addition of one important feature: buttons. Running and gunning isn’t much fun if the controls don’t work, and fortunately for Gunslugs, they work flawlessly. They are also very simple: you shoot and jump. By using the face or shoulder buttons, you gun down helpless enemies before jumping over the large pools of their pixelated blood. It is probably the only easy thing in the game, and it allows for a level of accuracy in play that just is not possible on a touchscreen.
Everything about Gunslugs is as retro 80’s as they come. The controls are the same, simple, two-button layout that were found on countless arcade cabinets. The graphics are pure 8-bit pixel-art that are so well designed that despite only being a few pixels in size, Willis Kayay and Bad Ass Baracuda actually resemble Bruce Willis and Mr. T. And Gavin Harrison’s thumping chiptune soundtrack beats as fast as the action. From the story, the graphics, and the gameplay, Gunslugs is an old-school throwback that takes the best elements of 1980’s action movies and video games and combines them into one gloriously chaotic package.
My faults with the game are few and far between. The only real problem I have is that the level of difficulty can be very uneven at times. The randomly generated nature of each level means that sometimes you can luck out with an easier path to the end than other times. It all depends on the placement of explosive items, such as landmines and barrels, which will kill you more times than the enemy soldiers. An exploding barrel you didn’t notice is more likely to kill you than the level’s end-boss, which were much easier to defeat than I expected.
One feature I would like to see added to the game is a co-op mode, which is currently included in the Ouya/Android version of the game but absent for the PS Vita. Abstraction Games has stated that if the game is well received and there is a demand for it, they will certainly look into adding this feature in the future.
My experience with Gunslugs is much like an 80’s romantic comedy (let us stick with the retro theme). I started off ambivalent toward the game before things turned sour, and I hated it. The difficulty was frustrating, and I kept dying again and again. Then as we got to know each other, we developed a friendship which turned into love. Yes, it’s frustrating when you die, but when you make it to the next level or beat your own best score, the sense of accomplishment is that much greater.
Gunslugs is a fantastic game and a perfect fit for the PS Vita. I look forward to future releases from this team of talented developers.