The first time I came upon GoNNER, the new action-roguelike by Mattias "Dittomat" Dittrich, it was upon the recommendation of Vlambeer's Rami Ismail. It makes sense that the co-creator of Nuclear Throne, Luftrausers, and Super Crate Box would be drawn to Dittrich's whimsical procedurally-generated platforming shooter. It contains the familiar furious scramble of cartoon violence that's become a staple of Vlambeer's work. The screen-shaking, the throngs of enemies being eviscerated in a matter of seconds, the comically abrupt game over status. GoNNER isn't a Vlambeer game, but the dutch developer's mark is all over it.
When I played GoNNER at PAX East earlier this year, I was instantly smitten by it. The refined controls, peculiar art style, and unique systems were instantly alluring, leaving me rather excited for the main course. Now that it's actually here, I'm finding it an enjoyable diversion, but one lacking in depth and variety.
The core concept of GoNNER is that you play as a boy who befriends Death to save their whale friend by... I don't know, reaping lost souls? Doesn't matter. From a design level, the player character must choose three items before embarking on their journey: A head, a gun, and an accessory.
The heads change movement, power, and your hit point count. One allows you to triple jump in a cartwheel formation while another drastically lessons your HP but grants an additional bullet per shot, for example. Be weary though, as every time take damage, your head, gun, and accessory get knocked away. Get hit in this vulnerable state and it's game over. And if your noggin or gear fall into a pit, you're out of luck until you find a suitable replacement (a rare occurrence). There is one skull that prevents this from happening, however. Unlocked early on, it's such an overpowered boon that it's hard to imagine selecting any of the other heads, lest you want to make things even more challenging on yourself.
The guns seem similarly imbalanced, though perhaps I've just not discovered the best way to play with some of them. The shotgun, grenade launcher and pistol all have their advantages, but the laser that holds quite a bit of ammo and eviscerates anything along a horizontal plane seemed the best choice.
It's only the accessories that seem to offer a more balanced choice. Do you want a pouch that lets you reload on a cooldown timer (rather than rely on ammo drops), an explosive vest that destroys everything around you, or a jetpack that makes you invulnerable for a few seconds when activated?
So there is some worthwhile experimentation (and I look forward to being proven wrong about how imbalanced the heads are), but there isn't a ton of variety. I reached the end credits after only a few hours of GoNNER and only unlocked a handful of heads, guns and accessories in the process. Furthermore, the bosses never change up ala The Binding of Isaac or Enter the Gungeon. Though the procedurally-generated levels make the combat intense and enjoyable throughout, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen the bulk of what GoNNER has to offer in its first hour or two.
And yet, GoNNER is still absolutely delightful in short bursts and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy nearly every moment of it. Even if its content seems slim and its gear imbalanced, the moment to moment jumping and shooting is exhilarating. The minimalist presentation and kooky art instills a flurry of frantic catharsis and there's a well balanced combo system that rewards consecutive kills with purple runes that can be used to buy continues or swap out your gear from a merchant. Make a beeline for the exit and you may make it through unscathed, but with a low score and scanty pockets. This adds a real element of strategy to GoNNER as you decide whether to engage in a clusters of foes or try to sprint past them.
GoNNER may not have the depth of Nuclear Throne or The Binding of Isaac, nor does it have the delicate balance of Downwell (or its £1.99 price tag, for that matter), but it's still a fine time in its own right. At the moment, in its official 1.0 launch form, GoNNER feels like an excellent beta of a game closing in on classic status. It's almost there, and with a little added content and some fine-tuning, GoNNER could be something very special indeed.