Game designers learn about this power early into their careers. The virtual gun remains the most useful tool in the designer’s box; nothing is better suited to giving players the ability to affect objects both near and far, or with such delicious kickback of cause and effect. Click. Bang. Thud. Virtual guns make us feel powerful, both instantaneously and in illicit ways.
Consider how many virtual weapons have passed through your hands since you first began playing games. For Dodge Roll, DC-based creators of Enter the Gungeon, that familiarity has merely been the agitator for the imagination. The dingy rooms inside this gunfight dungeon crawler are filled with wondrously exotic weapons.
There are guns that shoot rainbows. There are guns that fire pillows to smother their targets. There are guns that hurl spinning letters of the alphabet that, when they strike a target, form comic book-esque onomatopoeic words. There’s a mailbox you grasp by the post that fires unopened letters. There’s a semi-automatic ant that spits acidic projectiles. Another fires live fish. Gungeon’s smorgasbord of small arms makes Cotty’s spud gun seem rather plain.
Best described as a twin-stick Spelunky, Enter the Gungeon has you traversing the depths of an inverted fortress, one floor at a time, in search of the ultimate weapon, a gun that can shoot the past. Each floor is procedurally-generated, or, perhaps more precisely, procedurally arranged, to ensure that each schematic includes a shop, a boss room (behind which the elevator down to the next floor is situated), a couple of treasure chests and, as you plunge deeper, various new types secret.
There are four characters to choose between, known as ‘Gungeoneers’, each of whom starts the game with nothing more than a pea-shooter pistol, and a secondary weapon or item. There’s the Marine, whose army training gives him a buff to aim and power, and who carries a walkie-talkie with which he can call in an ammo drop in a pinch. The Hunter carries a powerful crossbow while her dog faithfully trails along behind. The Convict can throw a Molotov cocktail that burns the ground around enemies while the Pilot carries a lock-pick, useful for unlocking chests when you’re fresh out of keys.
While the emphasis is on offensive play, there are various techniques available for working your way out of a catastrophic situation when, for example, you’re pinned in a corner with a hail of bullets headed your way. Blanks, of which you carry just one or two at any time, cause every bullet in the air to fall to the ground, giving you a moment’s respite while your attackers reload. Many of the gungeon’s rooms contain tables, which can be flipped to provide impromptu cover. You can even shunt these tables around-at least till it falls apart under sustained fire. Finally, a roll manoeuvre, which must be mastered early on, grants you a few frames of invulnerability, time which can be used to tumble under an incoming projectile.
Not every chest you find contains new weaponry. There’s a huge range of items that provide passive enhancements, such as the ability to knock enemy bullets back at their firer when rolled into. The game’s cartoonish celebration of weaponry extends to many of the enemy designs themselves, which appear as anthropomorphic bullets and shotgun shells, skittering about on pokey legs, or fluttering on bat wings.
22 bosses, who appear in a randomised order at the conclusion of each floor, continue the theme. Gatling Gull is a muscle man with the head of a hawk that wields a back-mounted machine gun. Bullet King is a lead-tipped shotgun shell that wears a crimson robe and a crown fires complicated bullet patterns worthy of one of Cave’s prickly arcade shoot ’em ups. Despite appearances, ammo is scarce, here in the unforgiving gungeon. Enemies randomly drop currency which can be spent in the shop (as in Spelunky, you better keep your weapons holstered when browsing the shopkeeper’s shelves) and here you can buy ammunition crates – at least, if you don’t need to replenish your heart container, or pick-up a new weapon.
Enter the Gungeon’s genius is found in the combination of its moment-to-moment play and its structural ingenuity. As a twin-stick shooter, it matches the abstract greats such as Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm Reloaded. Each room must be cleared before the doors unlock, and the variety of enemies you find in each combined with your chosen weapon mix up the rhythm and texture of the game. Some line up sniper shots on you using red dot laser sights. Others fire off beautiful patterns of bullets that must be dodged through with balletic grace. As you tumble through piles of books in the library, kicking up a confetti of torn pages, every encounter has the kinetic wonder of a scripted John Woo scene.
As a dungeon-crawler, Enter the Gungeon provides a sense of unfurling mystery. You soon begin to find friends down there, in the murk, they who provide benefits and shortcuts across playthroughs, even as your preciously harvested loot is discarded each time you die and restart. Enter the Gungeon could be seen as the crown jewel in Devolver Digital’s expanding collection of impeccably curated games, which include twitchy wonders such as Downwell, Hotline Miami and Broforce. There is nothing here that is strictly original, save for the unique arrangement of its exceptional ingredients. This is a game shaped by current fashions – the procedural generation, the M83-style soundtrack, the streamer-friendly novelty of each playthrough. Yet it evades derivation through its vibrancy of character and imagination. Even within the hoariest clich of the video game gun, Enter the Gungeon shows that there are fresh wonders to be found.