To be born in a cloud of dust, to die in an explosion of blood - this is the way of the Samurai. Oh, and to do all of that very quickly, too. Samurai Gunn is a game about little else, really: you spawn, you fight, you fall, and then you spawn again - and fall again.
This is hectic and hilarious and exhausting, in other words, and it's also very clever with its focus. Each of four potential players in Teknopants' long-awaited 2D arena fighter gets thrown into battle with a sword and a gun. The sword takes care of close-up combat and you can swing it around as much as you like - strike back, forwards, up and down while you seek to thread steel through your enemy's flesh. The gun, though, comes with just three bullets. Fire them all and then it's click-click-click - a gorgeously animated puff of smoke accompanying the fall of a hammer on an empty chamber and the inevitable death that follows. Inevitable because you screwed up - because you forgot to keep count.
Throw in a jump and a wall-jump and a cluster of compact, platform-ridden stages complete with wraparound drops and you've got the basics of Samurai Gunn: kill everyone, or kill everyone who isn't on your team, and try to avoid getting killed in return. You can play local versus or local co-op against AI. You can even tackle the AI by yourself if you want single-player, but while it's quite good AI - skittery and convincingly human in its dithering, its lucky strikes - this is a multiplayer game at heart. It's a game about cleaving your friends in two, forcing them to waste their bullets, and popping from the woodwork when they least expect it - striking from the roof, from beneath the floor, lunging out of the bamboo and finishing everyone off without a movement wasted. It's a button masher on occasion, and a little of the frantic, haphazard brilliance of the mashing has entwined with the elegance of movement and death-dealing.
In amidst all the action, you're free to enjoy the fine detailing. There are the chaotic, over-sized sprites with the jagged eruptions of blood and fabulously judged hit-pauses. There's a handful of map-specific gimmicks, too - shrubbery you can cling to in the cemetery, say, or icicles you can set falling in the mountains. There's a wonderful knockback if you clash blades with your foes in this one-hit-death world, and you can even send bullets returning the way they came if you get the timing just right. Meanwhile, if you team up in a versus game, there's an infinity of gleeful anger to be found with friendly fire.
There are little nuances to learn, too. Drop yourself in water and your gun won't work any more, while each sword swing moves your character forward and each bullet pushes them back - a tiny element of the design that can cost you your life if you don't notice it. Mostly, though, it's the basic things that drive Samurai Gunn onwards and onwards - the almost otherworldly precision to the hit detection, the endless tactical play of encouraging enemies to waste those bullets, and the claustrophobic arenas, weirdly evocative of the wobbly sets and lurid colours of a really great Kung Fu movie - and which are perfectly arranged to keep you in the middle of an endless churn of violence, entering whenever you exit, dropping from the ceiling when you slip through a crack in the floor.
There's no online multiplayer, though - and it won't be coming, by the looks of it. Teknopants doesn't want to sacrifice the precision that local multiplayer allows for. It's a shame, but I admire the position being taken, I think - even though it's already costing sales. Even if you're mashing, Samurai Gunn feels like a game without chance, without second-guessing or lag, and the designer wants it to stay that way. Getting griefed over anonymous long distances in a battle as knackering as this would be hard enough to bear in its own right, after all, and that's before you start to question whether a dodgy connection robbed you of a kill or granted you a victory you didn't really earn. On top of that - and this bit, I think, is really lovely - if you check out the game's forums, you'll see strangers are already arranging meet-ups to play the game in person. Y'know, IRL. Anyone in Brooklyn - it's always Brooklyn - fancy a game tonight?
To be born in a cloud of dust, to die in an explosion of blood amongst new friends - this is the way of the Samurai.
9 / 10