While I’d dabbled before, Nuclear Throne is the game that sold me on twin-stick shooters. I’ve sunk over 100 hours into Vlambeer’s arcade perfection, and I still go back to it when I feel my trigger finger get that itch. So when the next big thing in twin-sticks, Dodge Roll’s Enter the Gungeon, dropped the next year, I was eager to get my hands on it. And Enter the Gungeon is indeed a stylish and polished twin-stick that excels at everything it sets out to do. Despite that, I didn’t like it very much. Which honestly surprised me. Why didn’t I? It has that same fundamental twin-stick goodness I loved in Nuclear Throne. But below that surface level, the two games aren’t similar at all. In fact, they’re almost diametrically opposed at every turn.
A Few Seconds of Panic
Nuclear Throne is aptly described as a series of escalating bursts of chaotic violence. The post-apocalyptic desert is a dangerous place for a mutated sack of eyeballs, and only the strong survive. Enemies go down fast, but so do you, and meeting your end in a burst of radscorpion acid within a minute of starting is far from a rare occurrence. Nor does Nuclear Throne keep the goods locked away. You’re liable to pick up a shotgun or grenade launcher in the first level, and you’re all set to start blasting a path of destruction through your foes (and the landscape), if you don’t mind getting up close and personal. Oh, and try not to blow yourself up.
The havoc only grows from there. Enemies and projectiles fill the screen as you mow them down with an increasingly absurd arsenal of armaments. Like automatic weapons? How about triple machinegun? How about a quadruple machinegun? That’s weak stuff you say? Can I interest you in a gatling bazooka? If you’re not afraid to dive into the fray, you can even melt bosses in a few seconds. Of course they can do the same to you. Really almost anyone can.
Diving headfirst into the chaos is exhilarating, and Nuclear Throne is all about doing just that. Each encounter could be your last, and if you don’t meet your foes with a hail of fire and lead, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed. You’ll have to take the risk at some point, and it’s all about being ready for it. Have you charted a path through the terrain? Can you afford the ammo to go all out? Sure, that super plasma cannon will turn everything on screen to ash with a single pull of the trigger, but you might only be able to fire it once. Better make it count. Nuclear Throne will let you catch your breath before you need to start blasting, but at some point, shit is going to go down.
The Skill to Outlast
Enter the Gungeon is a more measured experience. There are fewer enemies, but you’ll have to pump quite a few bullets into them, especially with your starting weapon, which you’ll be using quite a bit. It might take you a while to find something else, and even once you do, ammo is rare. (Your starting weapon has infinite ammo). Enemies, especially bosses, can put out a lot of projectiles themselves, but they often move slowly and can be rolled through. In fact, rolling through enemy bullets is how the game wants you to play. Enter the Gungeon has a huge selection of over 200 guns that dwarfs that of Nuclear Throne. Most of them are more amusing than awesome though. You can shoot people with peas, or letters, or even with a gun that shoots guns. But beyond the general class of gun–rifle, automatic, explosive–they didn’t feel that distinct to me, and no matter what you’re packing, bosses are meaty, marathon affairs.
This means Enter the Gungeon requires a more patient approach. In Nuclear Throne the best defense is killing everything as fast as possible. In Enter the Gungeon, that’s not feasible. You’ll need to flip tables for cover and learn to roll at the right moment as you wear down your foes. And while Nuclear Throne only lets you advance once you’ve annihilated all traces of life, Enter the Gungeon has you explore a map in search of the exit. Once you find it, you have to decide if you want to leave, or keep looking around for chests or shops at the risk of further wars of attrition.
The Cost of Casualty
The two games’ different styles of play tie in with how they punish you for failure. If an encounter goes badly in Nuclear Throne, you die and it’s back to the beginning to try again. Since everything is so fast paced, this isn’t as frustrating as it might sound. Though if you survive, Nuclear Throne doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Medkits and ammo are common, so even if you took a few nicks or got a bit trigger happy, you’ll be back in fighting shape soon enough.
A bad encounter in Enter the Gungeon means you took 1 damage. But Enter the Gungeon punishes you for taking that 1 damage for the rest of the game. It all comes down to opportunity cost. Every time you find a shop you have to decide: should I buy health or a gun or item that makes me more powerful? It’s death by a thousand cuts. One mistake won’t kill your run, but as you delve deeper and your resources dwindle, you’ll feel your inevitable demise slowly closing in.
I think the way the two games create stakes and punish you for failure is a big reason I prefer Nuclear Throne. I like things to be fast and decisive. The extreme lethality makes every shootout thrilling and doesn’t waste my time. If someone really isn’t a threat (and they always are), I can blast them to bits in a second anyway. Enter the Gungeon rewards you for consistency, and I’m not a detail oriented person. Nor have I ever enjoyed trying to “perfect” games. Plus, consistency rewards more careful play, and I want to become a rampaging bullet storm, not potshot from behind a table. Which style you prefer is subjective of course, but they are surprisingly different for two games from the same genre that appear so similar at first glance.
Because each run of Enter the Gungeon feels like a marathon affair that slowly grinds you out, the game needs some way to reward you for your hard work. This comes in the form of metaprogression. You’re constantly unlocking new guns and items to be added to the pool of loot you might find on your journey. While you acquire guns and items to use on each run, the pools are so vast that you can go a while before seeing the same thing twice, and the power increase from each individual gun or item is measured. But even if it takes you a while to make it back to where you last died and you ultimately don’t get much further, seeing your new toys pop up makes you feel like you’re chipping away at the impregnable Gungeon.
While Nuclear Throne does have a few permanent unlockables, for instance new characters, progression is mostly contained within the run. Guns ramp up in power very quickly to the point where you can fill the screen with lasers and explosions, and you gain mutations that can give you massive boosts to health or damage or even completely change the way you play. When you die, you lose it all, but because runs are fast paced and Nuclear Throne doles out power generously, you never feel like it will take long to get back to being an engine of destruction. And the real permanent upgrade is you. You get better at the game: faster, more accurate, deadlier.
Again, Enter the Gungeon is a slow, steady drip, while Nuclear Throne immediately sends you soaring and quickly crashing back down when you inevitably fly too close to the sun. However, both games make the right choice for their overall philosophy. Enter the Gungeon without metaprogression would feel like an exercise in tedium and futility. Nuclear Throne with a plethora of small unlockables would become bloated and unfocused, adding content for the sake of more rather than any real purpose.
While I have a strong preference for Nuclear Throne, there’s no denying that both it and Enter the Gungeon excel at everything they set out to do and are among the finest twin-sticks available. They simply try to do very different things, and their contrasting philosophies permeate every aspect of the design and gameplay. The end result is two games that look quite similar when set side by side but couldn’t feel more different. It’s a neat lesson that, although we gamers love our genre tags, they don’t tell the whole story, and you can pack a surprising amount of diversity into the same set of basic mechanics.