In the ever-growing pantheon of roguelike games flooding Steam and GOG, Enter The Gungeon has ruled above them all since I first laid my eyes on it during a quick sizzle reel at PlayStation’s 2014 E3 presser. Enter The Gungeon is a gunfight dungeon crawler that takes the idea of gun culture to an absurdly hilarious level, turning it into legend and even myth, with characters and enemies that are bullets or weapons themselves. The fights in this game can get pretty frantic, forcing you to hone your peripheral vision to survive in a literal bullet hell, but admittedly this wasn’t the first thing that caught my eye.
It was the guns, bro. The guns in this game are really good and superior to pretty much any other game of this type I’ve played, mainly because of their variety. I mean, it says so right on the box: you’re entering the gungeon and you’ll find all types of weaponry, from a boring rocket launcher to the Rad Gun, a gun that comes with it’s own 80’s Cool Kid™ set (skateboard and all) and uses a mechanic similar to the active reload in Gears of War, whereby every successfully timed reload increases the gun’s damage to crazy levels.
Explaining what every gun in this game does often takes way too long if I can’t actually sit down and show it to you, but that’s a great thing because, for a game whose only real verb is “shooting”, you want to keep the conversation centered on what makes that verb great and how it stands out from the same action in other games. When you get a gun in this game you won’t see a little tutorial pop up about what the gun does or how to use it—hell, even the gun descriptions are vague—so the only way to truly find out what your shiny new weapon can do is to, well, pop a cap on some ass. In that sense, Enter The Gungeon is very good at what it does by virtue of showing not telling, but its gameplay sounds interesting even when you’re not playing it.
That being said, the game’s real strength lies in it’s adept use of discovery as a concept fueling its mechanics. You roam around through these big levels, so much so that the game has implemented a teleportation system which can be used as a quick way to get around between cleared rooms—a godsend for treasure hunting after killing everything that moved.
When I mention discovery I mean it in pretty much every aspect of gameplay. Finding a new gun or item feels rewarding and exciting to test out; reaching a new level presents tougher rooms and enemies to overcome; standing in front of the door to a new boss encounter still harbors that uneasy feeling of not knowing what exactly awaits at the other side (every level can have any of 3 bosses assigned at random because yay, roguelikes.) The game is even peppered with small hints of a storyline and characters that present challenges and rewards as you progress through it’s world.
I was going to shoot my way through this first level and get through no matter what. It never happened.
Even if I didn’t make it too far in a run, I was always happy to find new items or to see which enemy killed me. Even when I knew a particular run wasn’t going well, I would still push as hard as I could to in time become more knowledgeable of the dangers lurking around the next corner. Enter The Gungeon keeps me on my toes, making decisions at all times even when I’m not in the middle of a gunfight, and that’s great.
Before Enter The Gungeon, I’d never heard of Dodge Roll, but I was familiar with the type of game they’ve built nevertheless. Nuclear Throne in particular had a few months’ head start on their debut title, which prompted some to hilariously call it a “nuclear clone” when it was first announced. That didn’t faze me, tho. In all honesty both games complemented each other and I like to think one helped me detach from the other and vice versa when I got tired of looking at the same enemies over and over, but still wanted to sharpen my skills. In that respect, they are very similar games, but with entirely different pacing and play styles.
When I found these games I was waiting for a callback from the many studios and agencies I sent job applications to. It was the tail-end of 2016 and I was starting my second postgraduate degree here in Barcelona so I could extend my student visa for another year. I enrolled in e-book publishing. I had almost no money left, but I enjoyed a lot of free time, which is what you need to really get good at any game. Nuclear Throne helped me understand the basics of twin-stick shooter games, but Enter The Gungeon‘s revved up speed was more like jumping in the deep end of the pool to find sharks shooting lasers out of their eyes.
The first time I entered the gungeon I was killed in a matter of minutes right after completing the tutorial. I always play with a USB controller and I felt like it wasn’t fast enough, but the reality is that I wasn’t fast enough. I got my ass handed to me over and over again by bullet kin and globulons, early game pushovers that aren’t even that difficult to beat, simply because I wasn’t using all the tools the game put at my disposal. My plan was to power through the game by way of brute force, with the aplomb of an animal whose head is a drill and is diving straight into a sea made of cement, dynamite be damned. I was going to shoot my way through this first level and get through no matter what. It never happened.
Seconds into my first boss fight, I was appalled and discouraged at just how bad I was at the game. The only other time I had seen so many red dots flooding a screen was while playing Ikaruga. Back then I was certain there was no way on Earth that anyone could survive an onslaught from Gatling Gull, the chesty bird-headed Vulcan Raven imitator, unscathed. Three solid days of gungeoneering later, my focus had shifted from trying to reach the level’s exit to actually exploring my surroundings to see what I could find. I didn’t care about the bosses as much as getting keys to unlock the chests scattered throughout just to see what I would get from them.
My quest in the game shifted from trying to kill everything to trying to find and understand everything. And through this mantra I discovered secret levels like The Oubliette, a catacomb which I initially thought was more like a safe passage to skip the first boss fight, but then realized it was actually an even tougher level with enemies that shouldn’t show up until much later in the game. It also had a boss fight that was much harder than the Gatling Gull, but that I wouldn’t get to see until many months later.
Eventually I did what I imagine most people playing roguelikes do and I looked at the official wiki for clues. I had done the same while playing The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky, games that boast a mind-melting amount of weapons, items and secrets for their players to find. Even the most veteran of players in roguelikes can agree on the fact that even if you know what every item and weapon does, that still won’t guarantee that you’ll make the best use of them. Sometimes these games throw at you the most awesome items in situations where they are nearly useless, and that’s why getting creative in these games makes the experience so much fun every time.
A few months into the game, I’d finally landed a few interviews and I felt like something could come up—”any day now” is what I tell myself while I poured hours of my day into Enter The Gungeon while blasting Guns n Roses in my room. My flatmates were at work.
The greatest reward for me so far has been to witness my own skill growth over time.
The furthest I’ve gotten to is The Hollow, the fourth and penultimate level in the game, if you take the vanilla route that is. I’ve been bested by nearly every boss this game has spit out at me from it’s leaded jowls on at least one occasion, but the allure is still there. The game consistently renews my interest by throwing bits of narrative here and there, like the story of Ser Manuel and his betrayer, Blockner; or the evil Cursula who wants to help you, but also fuck you over with some busted ass items.
The hub in the game, where you pick one of the four initial characters, becomes crowded and acquires a lived-in feel as you progress through the game, unlocking new items, rooms and rescuing NPCs from the deep recesses of the lower levels. It’s a very neat way to show progression without having to resort to percentages or achievements (although it has both of those).
I main The Hunter simply because I like the corgi that’s always protecting her and signaling danger in some rooms. Also, she happens to have one of the best starter loadouts at the beginning of the game. Every character in the game has a different play style, which makes me excited to try them when I finally beat the game with my current main. Yeah, as of this writing I still haven’t beat the game even in a normal run, where all you have to do is plow through the game levels until you reach the final boss and kill it. You won’t get the good ending, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you killed everything the game threw at you.
The real goal however, is to gather the hidden parts and special ammo scattered throughout the levels to make a gun that can kill your particular character’s nemesis. Each character has to defeat a boss from his or her past in order to leave the gungeon for good, and it is in these brutal encounters that your meddle will be tested to the fullest, granting you a welcoming shower of exposition about your laconic character which the game seldom bothers to talk about.
Other sidequests in the game involve recovering a certain lost robotic arm, making an alien traverse the dungeon by kicking her helmet down a hole, unlocking every fast travel access on the elevator (a la Spelunky) and helping a lost traveler map his way through the dungeon.
The greatest reward for me so far has been to witness my own skill growth over time. My eye-hand coordination has improved greatly and my reflexes and preemptive decision making has also made me see glimpses of potential futures in an instant, whenever I’ve been at my best. At the expense of getting all clichey on you, it feels like zoning inside a tunnel where your thinking takes second place to your intuition and you ride it mostly by making micro guesses as to where it’ll lead you next, so you can keep riding the tunnel without falling off. It’s great.
I realize Enter The Gungeon is not for everyone, if only because it takes patience and a relative measure of frustration to build the required skill to make it enjoyable. Also it can be rage-inducing at times, but I do encourage everyone to once in their life take up a game, any game, and try to master it. The skills I’ve learned through perseverance and the joys hidden within failure have brought some of the most enjoyable memories I’ve had over the last 27ish years of playing games. It’s nice knowing that difficult games can still surprise me like that, if I take the time to let them do it.