It’s all fun and games until you give everyone swords and guns. Some games like GoldenEye 007 and Bomberman 64 and Windjammers have a tendency to infuse an occasion with great momentum. It fills each and every moment with joy and terror and immense amounts of yelling.
And then it slowly drains until you are grinding metal on metal, bone cracking against bone. It’s silent and painful. The joy is gone. But the hunger is still there. You hit the bottom and you keep going because you want to.
You can safely add Samurai Gunn to that list. I played this little gem back during Fantastic Arcade of this year and it’s finally out as a full blown release. And it’s still as good as I remember, though perhaps some of the intervening days have softened the rougher edges. It’s a local multiplayer game from Teknopants that features four samurai fighting against each other, each one armed with a sword and a gun. Each one trying to be the last man standing. Each one a single hit away from death.
It’s a game perhaps most notable for its lessons, of which there are many, and all of them come at your fast and hard like a god damn rhino with a textbook. At first glance, it’s a simple game: slash or shoot your way to victory. But layers reveal themselves over the course of mere moments, and they’re all taught to you through pain of death.
Swords can actually clash and reflect bullets, so mashing away at the attack button is basically throwing away your single most valuable resource. The moment’s pause between swings is just great enough to make you regret a decision or smile at another’s mistake.
Water can temporarily jam your gun; it’s best to and nearly impossible to track everyone’s three shots granted to them per life; swords can redirect bullets; and so much more. There are no instructions, but these are all implicitly taught to you as you play the game, and those are the ones that stick the best. They don’t become words you have to recall but instinct you act upon.
There are so many little touches to the game that will likely go unappreciated. When you begin and select your character, you can just mess about in your little player box until the round starts. It lets you discover how you handle as a singular entity in the game. And then it shows you that it becomes much more when you use those interactions with another player.
And the fact that matches default to kills instead of deaths as the determining factor is key. You cannot win this game by hiding or sitting in a corner. For one thing, it seems like spikes appear wherever players tend to linger. (Or die a lot; I’m not sure yet. Either way, they kind of ruin the feel of the game for me.) For another, you have to work for your win. Instead of someone else’s kill being one taken from you, it’s more like a race against a clock. Speed and precision is crucial.
Something hard to miss, though, is the slow down accompanying each death. Intensely brutal games like Hotline Miami and Dark Souls have an ability to make you realize a mistake as you make it, not after like so many others. Samurai Gunn is like that. When you jump into an open area and feel too safe, that’s two bullets are coming your way. You pull the trigger and even before you see the puff of smoke, you remember you ran out of shots long ago. And that slow down not only makes your mistakes and victories all the more obvious to you but to everyone else as well.
But along with all the good, you do have to deal with some bad. Samurai Gunn is a shoddily hewn game, riddled with bugs and indeterminate inconsistencies. Some games dump you back to character select and some put you back to the title screen. Team select is basically broken. Bullet deflections and sword clashes feel backed by slight randomization, a killing blow to competitive games. One-on-one showdowns sometimes don’t end with a victor but a hard reset.
And the options are anemic to say the least, not even allowing you to set kill or death limits. And some levels seem like they were designed with a completely different game in mind. It all does, however, look and sound great, providing a delicious mix of digital hip hop over slick Japanese themes as the battlegrounds become littered with 8-bit blood and bodies.
Samurai Gunn is very obviously the work of a single man, but it is a great work and he is a man with a good vision. It’s a little lumpy at parts, but so much of it works like a stellar piece of mean-spirited sword-slashing that it’s easy to forgive much of it. Bugs that force you to keep a keyboard on hand to hit Esc are a bit grating, but Samurai Gunn is something you should probably most definitely play.