There's a scene in the film The Expendables 2 in which main character Barney Ross - portrayed by perennial badass Sylvester Stallone - revs up a motorcycle to send it careening unmanned up a ramp and through the windshield of a helicopter. This is the vibe that Gunslugs wants to convey. As far as 8-bit run-and-gun shooters go, this one does a pretty good job of it.
Beginning its life as a mobile title, Gunslugs is well on its way to becoming a standout and established franchise. Its sequel, the appropriately titled Gunslugs 2, already saw release on the 3DS eShop earlier this year, and we thought highly of it. Orangepixel and Engine Software decided to bring the first game to the digital platform thanks to fan demand, and we're glad the decision was made.
From its gameplay down to its name, it's obvious that Gunslugs draws influence from a number of different arcade classics. The most obvious influence is the side-scrolling run-and-gunner Metal Slug. While the gameplay is very similar, mostly involving charging forward through stages while picking up weapon upgrades and health boosts, Gunslugs does enough to differentiate itself from the originals. A key feature that sets Gunslugs apart is that it draws influence from rogue-like gameplay, including procedurally generated stages and single lives with permanent death. Each time you boot this game up you'll never know exactly what's going to be thrown your way, but you do know that it'll be deadly.
Outside of the arcade games of old, the other major influencers of Gunslugs are films and TV shows, specifically those starring over-the-top action icons such as John Rambo and B. A. Baracus. Rather than focusing on plot to drive the action along, Gunslugs instead relies on the action itself, informing its players that the dastardly Black Duck Army is trying to take over the world, and it's up to you to destroy their many bases of operations. The point here isn't to draw players in with an engaging story or complicated characters, the point is to let players feel the power of mowing down an army all on their own.
Whereas its sequel focuses more on progression, Gunslugs instead revels in its arcade roots. Gunslugs 2 features a hub world, allowing players to revisit past stages and quickly pick up where they left off during their last play sessions. On the contrary, Gunslugs instead punishes its players for their weakness, forcing you to restart from the beginning each time you die. There are no save states, no check points, and no second chances.
For a game that focuses on outlandish amounts of enemies, bullets and bombs polluting the screen, there's a bit more strategy than expected if you plan to survive. Beyond the basic mechanics of run, jump, and shoot, you also have the ability to take cover behind crates and blast away at your enemies from this protected vantage point. Health and ammunition pickups are common, but don't expect to freely charge through stages, guns blazing, without running low on ammo. The mechanics are incredibly easy to learn, but if you really expect to survive, a little caution and conservation are necessary on the battlefield.
Whether out of necessity or design, Gunslugs employees a pixelated graphical style and a soundtrack to match. There's no doubt that the experience could be enhanced by updated visuals, as is exemplified in the sequel, but the style present here helps to promote this title's emphasis on function over form. That's not to say that this game looks or sounds bad by any means, but it certainly seems as though the greater degree of care went into crafting an entertaining experience over a visually stunning one. Despite the stripped-down aesthetic, what truly matters is that the gameplay is both engaging and fun.
The story of Gunslugs's release on the 3DS eShop is a strange one, considering that it was released on the platform after its sequel, but it's fitting nonetheless. Where Gunslugs 2 attempted to improve on the original's weaknesses, those shortcomings are exactly what make the original stand out as an equally entertaining game. While similar in theme and gameplay, there are enough slight alterations to make both of these titles feel unique rather than rehashed. If you enjoyed Gunslugs 2, rest assured that its predecessor offers just as many explosive thrills.