GoNNER is a punishing, old-school 2D platformer-shooter. It’s described as a roguelike, which in modern terms means that if you die at any point in the adventure, you will be sent back all the way to the start of the game. As such, it is quite a short adventure, though one you’ll have to play over and over again if you intend to reach and defeat the final boss, or compete for your place at the top of the leaderboards. At a price point of $10, however, it won’t dig very deep into your wallet. But even if you are a fan of the genre, you would be wise to temper your expectations quite a bit for this game.
When I first heard that this game was a brutal 2D roguelike shooter, I was very excited. After all, I have loved games like Downwell, Binding of Isaac, and Rogue Legacy in the past, and expected a similar experience from this one. Upon playing it, though, I quickly realized that while a good game, GoNNER is not quite great like those others.
Let me get my frustrations with the game done and over with so I can get to the part where I tell you that you could still enjoy it. First, and this is the biggest issue for me, is that the gorgeous, explosive artstyle actually gets in the way of the gameplay quite often. Whether you are exploding enemies or you have been exploded yourself, the bombastic visual effects obscure a large enough part of the screen that you will struggle to avoid colliding with enemies or getting hit by their projectiles. This, combined with the two-touches-of-death mechanic and the mindlessly aggressive nature of many enemies, means that just getting hit once will often result in your death.
This is where the “continue” mechanic comes into play in GoNNER. By being aggressive and killing enemies in quick succession, you can earn “glyphs”. These are used to purchase weapons and gear from a merchant, as well as continue the game from the same level in the case of your death. This extra life, however, becomes more and more expensive as you progress through the game. Typically, you’ll only have access to a single extra life per run, and this is assuming that you don’t have to spend a lot of glyphs buying stuff from the merchant. Remember, each time you die and don’t have an extra life, you have to start the game right back from the start. This means that any chances to properly learn the game’s later areas, enemies, and bosses, are few and far between. Instead, you will be forced to play the tedious first world over and over again, long after you have mastered it, and long after you have ceased to get any enjoyment out of it.
So while I’m making it sound like it’s a terrible experience, I want you to understand that I don’t really think this is true. It’s just not a great experience. The game does manage to keep each world interesting by making them quite different from each other in terms of the platforming style, the enemy varieties, and even the bosses that you fight in them. Furthermore, each time that you replay the game you encounter a slightly different experience, as each level is randomly selected from many for each specific world, and the enemies are procedurally generated. This means that mastering this game is not just a matter of rote memorization, but rather of properly learning the behavior of each enemy type, being able to make a plan for how to deal with a group of various enemies on the fly to keep your combo going, and having the manual dexterity to perform all the platforming and shooting that you need.
There is also an element of strategy before you even start your run, as you can choose from several unlockable “heads” (armor that gives you different amounts of health and passive abilities), “backpacks” (items with various active abilities), and weapons (which shoot bullets in different patterns and have differing ranges, rate of fire, and ammo count). As you play with various combinations, you may find a set of gear that you are most comfortable with. As I mentioned earlier, you can buy gear from a merchant at different points in the game, which you can take advantage of by switching to another gear that works better in later worlds or bosses. For example, you may start the game with a shotgun and the ammo pouch, but later on switch to the electric gun and the high jump pack to deal with the wider gaps and the ceiling enemies of the second world and its boss.
Now it sounds like the game is pretty good, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s a matter of kinesthetics. Everything that I just said makes me wish that I could have loved the way the game feels, so that I would have kept playing it despite the frustrating extra life mechanic or how easy it is to die from getting rushed by an enemy and their projectiles. I did go back and play Downwell again for comparison, and, well, I’ll just say that, while the controls aren’t bad, I think GoNNER would benefit a lot from faster player movement speed, a more responsive double jump, and walls that didn’t seem to hold you in place for enemies to ram you, at the very least.
Ultimately, you have to keep in mind that the game is priced at a modest $10. If you’re an experienced player, you will likely take just about 10 hours of gameplay from starting the game to finishing it for the first time, though most of it will be spent replaying the first two worlds. It could very well be that the game truly begins once you master the game and start playing it for the high score, but I personally didn’t have the patience to get to that point, nor did the decent controls pull me forward the way that other challenging games have in the past. Whether this is a worthwhile purchase for you comes down to how much tolerance you have for highly punishing mechanics so that you can push through to the enjoyable sense of mastery it eventually offers.